Pluralistic: Meatspace twiddling (26 Mar 2024)

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A comic-book panel illustrating the final stage of the shell game, in which the con artist lifts the shell to reveal nothing beneath it. I have inserted a banana, making it appear as though that was what was hidden under the shell. The background of the panel has been altered to insert the 'code waterfall' effect from the Wachowskis' Matrix movies. The code waterfall fades out halfway down the image.

Meatspace twiddling (permalink)

"Enshittification" isn't just a way of describing the symptoms of platform decay: it's also a theory of the mechanism of decay – the means by which platforms get shittier and shittier until they are a giant pile of shit.

I call that mechanism "twiddling": this is the ability of digital services to alter their business-logic – the prices they charge, the payouts they offer, the particulars of the deal – from instant to instant, for each user, continuously:

Contrary to Big Tech's own boasting about its operations, the tricks that tech firms play to siphon value away from business customers and end-users aren't very sophisticated. They're crude gimmicks, like offering a higher per-hour wage to Uber drivers whom the algorithm judges to be picky about which rides they'll clock in for, and then lowering the wage by small increments as a way of lulling the driver into gradually accepting a permanent lower rate:

This is a simple trick. The difference is that tech platforms like Uber can play it over and over, and very quickly. There's plenty of wage-stealing scumbag bosses who'd have loved to have shaved pennies off their workers' paychecks, then added a few cents back in if a worker cried foul, then started shaving the pennies again. The thing that stopped those bosses was the bottleneck of payroll clerks, who couldn't make the changes fast enough.

Uber plays crude tricks – like claiming that a driver isn't an employee because the control is mediated through an app – and then piles more crude tricks on top – this is the algorithmic wage discrimination gambit.

Have you ever watched a shell-game performed very slowly?

It's a series of very simple gimmicks, performed very quickly and smoothly. Computers are very quick and very smooth. The quickness of the hand deceives the eye: do crude tricks with superhuman speed and they'll seem sophisticated.

The one bright spot in the Great Enshittening that we're living through is that many firms are not sufficiently digitized to do these crude tricks very quickly. Take grocery stores: they can get up to a lot of the same tricks as Amazon – for example, they can charge suppliers for placement on the most prominent, easiest-to-reach shelves, reorganizing your shopping based on which companies pay the biggest bribes, rather than offering the best products and prices.

But Amazon takes this to a whole different level – beyond simply organizing their product pages based on payola, they do this for search. You ask Amazon, "What's your cheapest batteries?" and it lies to you. If you click the first link in a search-results page, you'll pay 29% more than you would if you got the best product – a product that is, on average, 17 places down on the results page. Amazon makes $38b/year taking bribes to lie to you:

Amazon can do more than that. Thanks to its digital nature, it can continuously reprice its offerings – indeed, it can simply make up each price displayed on every product at the instant you look at it – based on its surveillance data about you, estimating your willingness to pay. For sellers, Amazon can continuously re-weight the likelihood that a given product will be shown to a customer based on the seller's willingness to discount their products, even to the point where they go out of business:

Twiddling, in other words, lets digital services honeycomb their servers with sneaky wormholes that let them siphon value away from one kind of platform user and give it to another (as when Apple silently began spying on Iphone owners to create profiles for advertisers), or to themselves.

But hard-goods businesses struggle to do this kind of twiddling. Not for lack of desire – but for lack of capacity. Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon Fresh – an online grocery store – can change prices and layout millions of times per day, at effectively zero cost. Jeff Bezos, owner of Whole Foods – a brick-and-mortar grocer – needs an army of teenagers on rollerskates with pricing guns to achieve a fraction of this agility.

So hard-goods businesses are somewhat enshittification-resistant. It's not that their owners are more interested in the welfare of their customers, workers and suppliers – they merely lack the capacity to continuously rejigger the way their business runs.

Well, about that.

Grocers have been experimenting with "electronic shelf labels" (ESLs) in order to do "dynamic pricing" – that means that prices change quickly, in response to circumstances:

This doesn't have to be bad! As Planet Money points out, it's a little weird that grocers don't discount milk whose sell-by date is drawing near. That milk is worth less to shoppers, because they have to use it more quickly lest it expire. Instead of marking down the price of perishable goods – day-old lettuce, yesterday's bread, etc – grocers put them on the shelves next to fresher, more valuable products, leading to billions of dollars' worth of food-waste and and unimaginable quantities of methane-producing, planet-cooking landfill.

In Norway, ESLs are pretty well established and – at least, according to Planet Money's reporting – they are used exclusively to offer discounts in order to reduce waste. They make everyone better off.

But towards the end of the story, they note that Norway's grocery sector – which alters prices up to 2,000 times per day – has been accused of using ESLs to rig prices, hiking them and blaming them on pandemic supply-chain problems and loose monetary policy. Greedflation, in other words.

Greedflation is rampant in the grocery sector, all around the world. Remember when the price of eggs doubled and they blamed in on bird-flu, even as the CEO of the one company that owns every egg brand you've ever heard of boasted about how he could hike prices and suckers would just pay it?

In Canada, grocers rigged the price of bread, the most Les-Mis-ass form of corporate crime you can imagine (do you want guillotines, Galen Weston? Because this is how you get guillotines):

EU grocers – another highly concentrated industry – also collude to rig prices:

Which is all to say that while these companies don't have to use the twiddling capabilities that come with ESLs to enshittify their stores, we'd be pretty fucking naive to imagine that they won't.

And here's the bad news: US grocers like Whole Foods (owned by Amazon, the company that wrote the enshittification playbook) are already experimenting with ESLs. So is Alberstons/Safeway, the massive, inbred conglomerate that has already demonstrated its passion for using twiddling to fuck over their workers:

Economists love "price discrimination" – where prices change based on circumstance, trying to match the perfect price with the perfect customer. On paper, that sounds plausible: if I need a quart of milk for a recipe I'm making tonight and I get a 50% discount on some about-to-expire 2%, then everyone's better off. I get a discount and the grocer gets some money for milk they'd have to throw away at the end of the day.

But these elegant, self-licking ice-cream cones only emerge if the corporation offering the deal is constrained. Perhaps they're constrained by competition – the fear that you'll go elsewhere. Or perhaps they're constrained by regulation – the fear that they'll be punished if they use twiddling-tech to cheat you.

The grocery sector, dominated by a cartel of massive companies that routinely collude to rip us off, is not constrained by competition. And for years, regulators let them get away with ripping us off (though finally that might be changing):

For neoclassical economists, the answer to all this is "caveat emptor" – let the buyer beware. If you want to make sure that ESLs are only used to offer you discounts and not to gouge prices, all you need to do is note the price of everything you buy, every time you buy it, and triple-check it every time you go back to the grocery store. Just be eternally vigilant!

Thing is, the one thing computers are much better at than humans is vigilance. With ESLs and other twiddling mechanisms, you're a fish on a hook, and the seller is tireless in giving you a little more slack, then a little less, until you finally drop your guard.

Economists desperately want these elegant models to work, but "efficient market hypothesis" is a brain-worm that always turns into apologetics for fraud. Dynamic markets sound like a good idea, but they are catnip for cheaters. "Just be eternally vigilant" is miserable advice, and no way to live your life:

In his brilliant novel Spook Country, William Gibson describes augmented reality as "cyberspace everting" – that is, turning inside-out:

The extrusion of twiddling technology from digital platforms into the physical world isn't cyberspace everting so much as it is cyberspace prolapsing.

Hey look at this (permalink)

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This day in history (permalink)

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#5yrsago The Vessel: a perfect symbol for the grifter capitalism of New York City’s privatized Hudson Yards “neighborhood”

#1yrago The Golden Rule (them what has the gold makes the rules)

Upcoming appearances (permalink)

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Latest books (permalink)

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Upcoming books (permalink)

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

  • Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

Colophon (permalink)

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  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

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