Pluralistic: Podcasting "Microincentives and Enshittification" (24 Oct 2023)

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A clip from a Jenga ad showing a dad knocking over the Jenga tower.

Podcasting "Microincentives and Enshittification" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read my recent Medium column, "Microincentives and Enshittification," about the way that monopoly drives mediocrity, with Google's declining quality as Exhibit A:

It's not your imagination: Google used to be better – in every way. Search used to be better, sure, but Google used to be better as a company. It treated its workers better (for example, not laying off 12,000 workers months after a stock buyback that would have paid their salaries for the next 27 years). It had its users' backs in policy fights – standing up for Net Neutrality and the right to use encryption to keep your private data private. Even when the company made ghastly mistakes, it repented of them and reversed them, like the time it pulled out of China after it learned that Chinese state hackers had broken into Gmail in order to discover which dissidents to round up and imprison.

None of this is to say that Google used to be perfect, or even, most of the time, good. Just that things got worse. To understand why, we have to think about how decisions get made in large organizations, or, more to the point, how arguments get resolved in these organizations.

We give Google a lot of shit for its "Don't Be Evil" motto, but it's worth thinking through what that meant for the organization's outcomes over the years. Through most of Google's history, the tech labor market was incredibly tight, and skilled engineers and other technical people had a lot of choice as to where they worked. "Don't Be Evil" motivated some – many – of those workers to take a job at Google, rather than one of its rivals.

Within Google, that meant that decisions that could colorably be accused of being "evil" would face some internal pushback. Imagine a product design meeting where one faction proposes something that is bad for users, but good for the company's bottom line. Think of another faction that says, "But if we do that, we'll be 'evil.'"

I think it's safe to assume that in any high-stakes version of this argument, the profit side will prevail over the don't be evil side. Money talks and bullshit walks. But what if there were also monetary costs to being evil? Like, what if Google has to worry about users or business customers defecting to a rival? Or what if there's a credible reason to worry that a regulator will fine Google, or Congress will slap around some executives at a televised hearing?

That lets the no-evil side field a more robust counterargument: "Doing that would be evil, and we'll lose money, or face a whopping fine, or suffer reputational harms." Even if these downsides are potentially smaller than the upsides, they still help the no-evil side win the argument. That's doubly true if the downsides could depress the company's share-price, because Googlers themselves are disproportionately likely to hold Google stock, since tech companies are able to get a discount on their wage-bills by paying employees in abundant stock they print for free, rather than the scarce dollars that only come through hard graft.

When the share-price is on the line, the counterargument goes, "That would be evil, we will lose money, and you will personally be much poorer as a result." Again, this isn't dispositive – it won't win every argument – but it is influential. A counterargument that braids together ideology, institutional imperatives, and personal material consequences is pretty robust.

Which is where monopoly comes in. When companies grow to dominate their industries, they are less subject to all forms of discipline. Monopolists don't have to worry about losing disgusted employees, because they exert so much gravity on the labor market that they find it easy to replace them.

They don't have to worry about losing customers, because they have eliminated credible alternatives. They don't have to worry about losing users, because rivals steer clear of their core business out of fear of being bigfooted through exclusive distribution deals, predatory pricing, etc. Investors have a name for the parts of the industry dominated by Big Tech: they call it "the kill zone" and they won't back companies seeking to enter it.

When companies dominate their industries, they find it easier to capture their regulators and outspend public prosecutors who hope to hold them to account. When they lose regulatory fights, they can fund endless appeals. If they lose those appeals, they can still afford the fines, especially if they can use an army of lawyers to make sure that the fine is less than the profit realized through the bad conduct. A fine is a price.

In other words, the more dominant a company is, the harder it is for the good people within the company to win arguments about unethical and harmful proposals, and the worse the company gets. The internal culture of the company changes, and its products and services decline, but meaningful alternatives remain scarce or nonexistent.

Back to Google. Google owns more than 90% of the search market. Google can't grow by adding more Search users. The 10% of non-Google searchers are extremely familiar with Google's actions. To switch to a rival search engine, they have had to take many affirmative, technically complex steps to override the defaults in their devices and tools. It's not like an ad extolling the virtues of Google Search will bring in new customers.

Having saturated the search market, Google can only increase its Search revenues by shifting value from searchers or web publishers to itself – that is, the only path to Search growth is enshittification. They have to make things worse for end users or business customers in order to make things better for themselves:

This means that each executive in the Search division is forever seeking out ways to shift value to Google and away from searchers and/or publishers. When they propose a enshittificatory tactic, Google's market dominance makes it easy for them to win arguments with their teammates: "this may make you feel ashamed for making our product worse, but it will not make me poorer, it will not make the company poorer, and it won't chase off business customers or end users, therefore, we're gonna do it. Fuck your feelings."

After all, each microenshittification represents only a single Jenga block removed from the gigantic tower that is Google Search. No big deal. Some Google exec made the call to make it easier for merchants to buy space above searches for their rivals. That's not necessarily a bad thing: "Thinking of taking a vacation in Florida? Why not try Puerto Rico – it's a US-based Caribbean vacation without the transphobia and racism!"

But this kind of advertising also opens up lots of avenues for fraud. Scammers clone local restaurants' websites, jack up their prices by 15%, take your order, and transmit it to the real restaurant, pocketing the 15%. They get clicks by using some of that rake to buy an ad based on searches for the restaurant's name, so they show up overtop of it and rip off inattentive users:

This is something Google could head off; they already verify local merchants by mailing them postcards with unique passwords that they key into a web-form. They could ban ads for websites that clone known merchants, but that would incur costs (engineer time) and reduce profits, both from scammers and from legit websites that trip a false positive.

The decision to sell this kind of ad, configured this way, is a direct shift of value from business customers (restaurants) and end-users (searchers) to Google. Not only that, but it's negative sum. The money Google gets from this tradeoff is less than the cost to both the restaurant (loss of goodwill from regulars who are affronted because of a sudden price rise) and searchers (who lose 15% on their dinner orders). This trade-off makes everyone except Google worse off, and it's only possible when Google is the only game in town.

It's also small potatoes. Last summer, scammers figured out how to switch out the toll-free numbers that Google displayed for every airline, redirecting people to boiler-rooms where con-artists collected their credit-card numbers and sensitive personal information (passports, etc):

Here again, we see a series of small compromises that lead to a massive harm. Google decided to show users 800 numbers rather than links to the airlines' websites, but failed to fortify the process for assigning phone numbers to prevent this absolutely foreseeable type of fraud. It's not that Google wanted to enable fraud – it's that they created the conditions for the fraud to occur and failed to devote the resources necessary to defend against it.

Each of these compromises indicates a belief among Google decision-makers that the consequences for making their product worse will be outweighed by the value the company will generate by exposing us to harm. One reason for this belief is on display in the DOJ's antitrust case against Google:

The case accuses Google of spending tens of billions of dollars to buy out the default search position on every platform where an internet user might conceivably perform a search. The company is lighting multiple Twitters worth of dollars on fire to keep you from ever trying another search engine.

Spraying all those dollars around doesn't just keep you from discovering a better search engine – it also prevents investors from funding that search engine in the first place. Why fund a startup in the kill-zone if no one will ever discover that it exists?

Of course, Google doesn't have to grow Search to grow its revenue. Hypothetically, Google could pursue new lines of business and grow that way. This is a tried-and-true strategy for tech giants: Apple figured out how to outsource its manufacturing to the Pacific Rim; Amazon created a cloud service, Microsoft figured out how to transform itself into a cloud business.

Look hard at these success stories and you discover another reason that Google – and other large companies – struggle to grow by moving into adjacent lines of business. In each case – Apple, Microsoft, Amazon – the exec who led the charge into the new line of business became the company's next CEO.

In other words: if you are an exec at a large firm and one of your rivals successfully expands the business into a new line, they become the CEO – and you don't. That ripples out within the whole org-chart: every VP who becomes an SVP, every SVP who becomes an EVP, and every EVP who becomes a president occupies a scarce spot that is worth millions of dollars to the people who lost it.

The one thing that execs reliably collaborate on is knifing their ambitious rivals in the back. They may not agree on much, but they all agree that that guy shouldn't be in charge of this lucrative new line of business.

This "curse of bigness" is why major shifts in big companies are often attended by the return of the founder – think of Gates going back to Microsoft or Brin returning to Google to oversee their AI projects. They are the only execs that other execs can't knife in the back.

This is the real "innovator's dilemma." The internal politics of large companies make Machiavelli look like an optimist.

When your company attains a certain scale, any exec's most important rival isn't the company's competitor – it's other execs at the same company. Their success is your failure, and vice versa.

This makes the business of removing Jenga blocks from products like Search even more fraught. These quality-degrading, profit-goosing tactics aren't coordinated among the business's princelings. When you're eating your seed-corn, you do so in private. This secrecy means that it's hard for different product-degradation strategists to realize that they are removing safeguards that someone else is relying on, or that they're adding stress to a safety measure that someone else just doubled the load on.

It's not just Google, either. All of tech is undergoing a Great Enshittening, and that's due to how intertwined all these tech companies are. Think of how Google shifts value from app makers to itself, with a 30% rake on every dollar spent in an app. Google is half of the mobile duopoly, with the other half owned by Apple. But they're not competitors – they're co-managers of a cartel. The single largest deal that Google or Apple does every year is the bribe Google pays Apple to be the default search for iOS and Safari – $15-20b, every year.

If Apple and Google were mobile competitors, you'd expect them to differentiate their products, but instead, they've converged – both Apple and Google charge sky-high 30% payment processing fees to app makers.

Same goes for Google/Facebook, the adtech duopoly: not only do both companies charge advertisers and publishers sky-high commissions, clawing 51 cents out of every ad dollar, but they also illegally colluded to rig the market and pay themselves more, at advertisers' and publishers' expense:

It's not just tech, either – every sector from athletic shoes to international sea-freight is concentrated into anti-competitive, value-annihilating cartels and monopolies:

As our friends on the right are forever reminding us: "incentives matter." When a company runs out of lands to conquer, the incentives all run one direction: downhill, into a pit of enshittification. Google got worse, not because the people in it are worse (or better) than they were before – but because the constraints that discipline the company and contain its worst impulses got weaker as the company got bigger.

Here's 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 my podcast's RSS feed:

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

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Colophon (permalink)

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