Pluralistic: Podcasting "Enshitternet" (22 August 2023)

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A trio of public toilet stalls, each fitted with a pay toilet coin-op lock. The middle lock's mechanism has been replaced with the menacing, staring red eye of HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey.' The space around and beneath the stalls is filled with a 'Code Rain' effect from the credit sequences of the Wachowksis' 'The Matrix.'

Podcasting "Enshitternet" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read "Enshitternet: The old, good internet deserves a new, good internet," my recent Medium column about building a better internet:

As John Hodgman is fond of reminding us, "nostalgia is a toxic impulse." It is easy for an old net.hand like me to fall into the trap of shaking his fist at the cloud. Having been on the other side of that dynamic, I can tell you it's no fun.

When I got on BBSes in the early 1980s, there was an omnipresent chorus of grumps insisting that the move from honest acoustic couplers to decadent modems was the end of the Golden Age of telecommunications:

When I got on Usenet shortly thereafter, the Unix Greybeard set never passed up an opportunity to tell us newcomers that the Fidonet-Usenet bridge allowed the barbarian hordes to overwhelm their Athenian marketplace of ideas:

When I joined The WELL in the late 1980s, I was repeatedly assured that the good times were over, and that we would never see their like again:

Now that I'm 52, I've learned to recognize this dynamic, from the Eternal September:

to the moral panic over menuing systems replacing CLIs:

to the culture wars over what would happen when the net got a normie-friendly GUI:

And yeah, I've done it too, explaining "Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either)":

But there's a key difference between my own warnings about the enshittification that new "user friendly" technologies would engender and all those other AARP members' complaints: they were wrong, and I was right.

As Tom Eastman reminded us, the internet really was better, back before it became "five giant websites filled with screenshots of text of the other four":

The underlying pathology of that enshittification wasn't the UI, or whether it involved an app store. As the Luddites knew, the important thing about a technology isn't what it does, but who it does it for and who it does it to:

The problem wasn't which technology we used. There is nothing inherent about touchscreens that makes them into prisons that trap users, rather than walled gardens that protect them.

Likewise, the problem wasn't who made that technology. We didn't swap wise UUCP Monks for venal tech bros. The early tech world was full of public-spirited sysops, but it was also full of would-be monopolists who tried – and failed – to get us to "stop talking to each other and start buying things":

If it wasn't the technology that killed the old, good internet, and if it wasn't the people who killed the old, good internet, where did the enshitternet come from?

It wasn't the wrong tech, it wasn't the wrong people: it was the wrong rules. After all, the Apple ][+ went on sale the year Ronald Reagan hit the campaign trail. Consumer tech was the first industry born after antitrust was dismantled, and it created the modern monopoly playbook: buying and merging with competitors. The resulting unity of purpose and anticompetitive profit margins allowed tech to capture its regulators and secure favorable court and legislative outcomes.

The simultaneous drawdown of antitrust enforcement and growth of tech meant that tech's long-standing cycle of renewal was ended. Tech companies that owed their existence to their ability to reverse-engineer incumbent companies' products and make interoperable replacements and add-ons were able to ban anyone else from doing unto them as they did unto the giants that came before them:

The pirates became admirals, and set about creating a "felony contempt of business model":

They changed the rules to ensure that they could "disrupt" anyone they chose, but could themselves mobilize the full might of the US government to prevent anyone from disrupting them:

The old, good internet was the internet we we were able to make while tech was still realizing the new anticompetitive powers it had at its disposal, and it disappeared because every administration, R and D, from Reagan to Trump, yanked more and more Jenga blocks out of the antitrust tower.

In other words: the old, good internet was always doomed, because it was being frantically built in an ever-contracting zone of freedom to tinker, where technologies could be operated by and for the people who used them.

Today, the Biden administration has ushered in a new era of antitrust renewal, planting the seeds of a disenshittification movement that will tame corporate power rather than nurturing it:

In other words, we are living in the first days of a better nation.

In other words, rather than restoring the old, good internet, we should build a new, good internet.

What is a new, good internet? It's an internet where it's legal to:

  • reverse-engineer the products and services you use, to add interoperability to them so you can leave a social network without leaving your friends:

  • jailbreak devices to remove antifeatures, like surveillance, ink-locking, or repair-blocking:

  • move your media files and apps from any platform to any device or service, even if the company that sold them to you objects:

A new, good internet gives powers to users, and takes power away from corporations:

On a new, good internet, companies can't practice algorithmic wage discrimination:

They can't turn search into an auction between companies that match your query and companies that want to sell you fakes and knockoffs:

They can't charge rent to the people whose feeds you asked to read for the privilege of reaching you:

In fact, a new, good internet is one where we euthanize rentiers:

On the new good internet, your boss can't use bossware to turn "work from home" into "live at work":

And on top of that, you have the right to hack that bossware to undetectably disable it (and hackers have the right to sell or give you that hack):

On the new, good internet, we stop pretending that tech is stealing content from news companies, and focus on how tech steals money from the news, with app taxes, rigged ad markets, surveillance ads, and payola:

The new, good internet is an internet where we seize the means of computation. It's an internet operated by and for the people who use it.

Hodgman is right. Nostalgia is a toxic impulse. The point of making a new, good internet isn't to revive the old, good internet. There were plenty of problems with the old, good internet. The point is to make a new, good internet that is the worthy successor to the old, good internet – and to consign the enshitternet to the scrapheap of history, an unfortunate transitional stage between one good internet and another.

Here's a link to the podcast episode:

and here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive; they'll host your stuff for free, forever):

and here's a link to my podcast's RSS feed:

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0, modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

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Colophon (permalink)

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