Pluralistic: No, "convenience" isn't the problem (12 Apr 2024)

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A Rube Goldberg drawing of a man using an elaborate automatic napkin, a contraption that integrates a wall-clock, a parrot, a pop-up toaster and other contrivances. The background has been replaced with the 'code waterfall' effect seen in the credits of the Wachowskis' 'Matrix' movie. The fact of the wall-clock has been replaced with the staring eye of HAL 9000 from Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey.'

No, "convenience" isn't the problem (permalink)

Using Amazon, or Twitter, or Facebook, or Google, or Doordash, or Uber doesn't make you lazy. Platform capitalism isn't enshittifying because you made the wrong shopping choices.

Remember, the reason these corporations were able to capture such substantial market-share is that the capital markets saw them as a bet that they could lose money for years, drive out competition, capture their markets, and then raise prices and abuse their workers and suppliers without fear of reprisal. Investors were chasing monopoly power, that is, companies that are too big to fail, too big to jail, and too big to care:

The tactics that let a few startups into Big Tech are illegal under existing antitrust laws. It's illegal for large corporations to buy up smaller ones before they can grow to challenge their dominance. It's illegal for dominant companies to merge with each other. "Predatory pricing" (selling goods or services below cost to prevent competitors from entering the market, or to drive out existing competitors) is also illegal. It's illegal for a big business to use its power to bargain for preferential discounts from its suppliers. Large companies aren't allowed to collude to fix prices or payments.

But under successive administrations, from Jimmy Carter through to Donald Trump, corporations routinely broke these laws. They explicitly and implicitly colluded to keep those laws from being enforced, driving smaller businesses into the ground. Now, sociopaths are just as capable of starting small companies as they are of running monopolies, but that one store that's run by a colossal asshole isn't the threat to your wellbeing that, say, Walmart or Amazon is.

All of this took place against a backdrop of stagnating wages and skyrocketing housing, health, and education costs. In other words, even as the cost of operating a small business was going up (when Amazon gets a preferential discount from a key supplier, that supplier needs to make up the difference by gouging smaller, weaker retailers), Americans' disposable income was falling.

So long as the capital markets were willing to continue funding loss-making future monopolists, your neighbors were going to make the choice to shop "the wrong way." As small, local businesses lost those customers, the costs they had to charge to make up the difference would go up, making it harder and harder for you to afford to shop "the right way."

In other words: by allowing corporations to flout antimonopoly laws, we set the stage for monopolies. The fault lay with regulators and the corporate leaders and finance barons who captured them – not with "consumers" who made the wrong choices. What's more, as the biggest businesses' monopoly power grew, your ability to choose grew ever narrower: once every mom-and-pop restaurant in your area fires their delivery drivers and switches to Doordash, your choice to order delivery from a place that payrolls its drivers goes away.

Monopolists don't just have the advantage of nearly unlimited access to the capital markets – they also enjoy the easy coordination that comes from participating in a cartel. It's easy for five giant corporations to form conspiracies because five CEOs can fit around a single table, which means that some day, they will:

By contrast, "consumers" are atomized – there are millions of us, we don't know each other, and we struggle to agree on a course of action and stick to it. For "consumers" to make a difference, we have to form institutions, like co-ops or buying clubs, or embark on coordinated campaigns, like boycotts. Both of these tactics have their place, but they are weak when compared to monopoly power.

Luckily, we're not just "consumers." We're also citizens who can exercise political power. That's hard work – but so is organizing a co-op or a boycott. The difference is, when we dog enforcers who wield the power of the state, and line up behind them when they start to do their jobs, we can make deep structural differences that go far beyond anything we can make happen as consumers:

We're not just "consumers" or "citizens" – we're also workers, and when workers come together in unions, they, too, can concentrate the diffuse, atomized power of the individual into a single, powerful entity that can hold the forces of capital in check:

And all of these things work together; when regulators do their jobs, they protect workers who are unionizing:

And strong labor power can force cartels to abandon their plans to rig the market so that every consumer choice makes them more powerful:

And when consumers can choose better, local, more ethical businesses at competitive rates, those choices can make a difference:

Antimonopoly policy is the foundation for all forms of people-power. The very instant corporations become too big to fail, jail or care is the instant that "voting with your wallet" becomes a waste of time.

Sure, choose that small local grocery, but everything on their shelves is going to come from the consumer packaged-goods duopoly of Procter and Gamble and Unilever. Sure, hunt down that local brand of potato chips that you love instead of P&G or Unilever's brand, but if they become successful, either P&G or Unilever will buy them out, and issue a press release trumpeting the purchase, saying "We bought out this beloved independent brand and added it to our portfolio because we know that consumers value choice."

If you're going to devote yourself to solving the collective action problem to make people-power work against corporations, spend your precious time wisely. As Zephyr Teachout writes in Break 'Em Up, don't miss the protest march outside the Amazon warehouse because you spent two hours driving around looking for an independent stationery so you could buy the markers and cardboard to make your anti-Amazon sign without shopping on Amazon:

When blame corporate power on "laziness," we buy into the corporations' own story about how they came to dominate our lives: we just prefer them. This is how Google explains away its 90% market-share in search: we just chose Google. But we didn't, not really – Google spends tens of billions of dollars every single year buying up the search-box on every website, phone, and operating system:

Blaming "laziness" for corporate dominance also buys into the monopolists' claim that the only way to have convenient, easy-to-use services is to cede power to them. Facebook claims it's literally impossible for you to carry on social relations with the people that matter to you without also letting them spy on you. When we criticize people for wanting to hang out online with the people they love, we send the message that they need to choose loneliness and isolation, or they will be complicit in monopoly.

The problem with Google isn't that it lets you find things. The problem with Facebook isn't that it lets you talk to your friends. The problem with Uber isn't that it gets you from one place to another without having to stand on a corner waving your arm in the air. The problem with Amazon isn't that it makes it easy to locate a wide variety of products. We should stop telling people that they're wrong to want these things, because a) these things are good; and b) these things can be separated from the monopoly power of these corporate bullies:

Remember the Napster Wars? The music labels had screwed over musicians and fans. 80 percent of all recorded music wasn't offered for sale, and the labels cooked the books to make it effectively impossible for musicians to earn out their advances. Napster didn't solve all of that (though they did offer $15/user/month to the labels for a license to their catalogs), but there were many ways in which it was vastly superior to the system it replaced.

The record labels responded by suing tens of thousands of people, mostly kids, but also dead people and babies and lots of other people. They demanded an end to online anonymity and a system of universal surveillance. They wanted every online space to algorithmically monitor everything a user posted and delete anything that might be a copyright infringement.

These were the problems with the music cartel: they suppressed the availability of music, screwed over musicians, carried on a campaign of indiscriminate legal terror, and lobbied effectively for a system of ubiquitous, far-reaching digital surveillance and control:

You know what wasn't a problem with the record labels? The music. The music was fine. Great, even.

But some of the people who were outraged with the labels' outrageous actions decided the problem was the music. Their answer wasn't to merely demand better copyright laws or fairer treatment for musicians, but to demand that music fans stop listening to music from the labels. Somehow, they thought they could build a popular movement that you could only join by swearing off popular music.

That didn't work. It can't work. A popular movement that you can only join by boycotting popular music will always be unpopular. It's bad tactics.

When we blame "laziness" for tech monopolies, we send the message that our friends have to choose between life's joys and comforts, and a fair economic system that doesn't corrupt our politics, screw over workers, and destroy small, local businesses. This isn't true. It's a lie that monopolists tell to justify their abuse. When we repeat it, we do monopolists' work for them – and we chase away the people we need to recruit for the meaningful struggles to build worker power and political power.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0, modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

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This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Implicit ideology in video games

#20yrsago BBC tries DRM-free distribution

#20yrsago Remembering gopher

#20yrsago MSFT pays $440MM to settle DRM patent dispute

#15yrsago Billboards versus the attention economy: critical essay from 1960

#15yrsago Statebook: how UK gov’t spooks see the Internet

#15yrsago Manchester’s streets to be patrolled by CCTV cars that film you picking your nose at the wheel and then send you a fine

#10yrsago Copy Me: a new critical animation series about copying, culture and copyright

#10yrsago Everything is a Remix vs Patent Trolls

#5yrsago Foxconn’s inconsistent, chaotic behavior in Wisconsin looks awfully grifty

#5yrsago Victory! House of Reps passes legislation to restore Net Neutrality

#5yrsago Chicago is demanding that children on bail wear private-sector ankle-cuffs with mics that can record them without their consent

#5yrsago Security keys are “transformative” and “revolutionary” for information security

#10yrsago RIP, Sue Townsend

#5yrsago Text-mining journalists find that lawmakers introduced 10,000 bills that were copypasted from lobbyists’ “model legislation”

#5yrsago Someone is targeting “critical infrastructure” safety systems in networked attacks

#5yrsago Courts and cops don’t know what to do with “sovereign citizens,” the delusional far-rightists who claim the law doesn’t apply to them

#5yrsago Amazon stores recordings of Alexa interactions and turns them over to internal staff and outside contractors for review

#5yrsago Teen Vogue explains capitalism

#5yrsago French officials call Project Gutenberg archive, 15 million ebooks, Grateful Dead recordings and Prelinger Archive “terrorism,” demands removal from Internet Archive

#5yrsago Brexit is cratering London house prices

#1yrago Alissa Quart's 'Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream'

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