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Why Big Tech giants are enshittifying our lives

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I’ve just finished a very long and fascinating read by Cory Doctorow in The Financial Times, talking about how the Big Tech giants have turned our world to shit. He calls it the enshittification process. The process runs in four stages:

  1. they claim platforms are good to their users: don't be evil; making the world connect;
  2. they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers;
  3. they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves; and then ...
  4. they die.

Summary: these platforms start with the best intentions - connecting people - then get adverts and investors, and end with screwing everyone.

He uses Facebook as a good example, and how it grew from a Harvard campus website to connect those you fancied into a global behemoth. It begins with connectivity, then moves into lock-in and ends with abuse of all those connected from users to advertisers to publishers.

Cory then talks about the things that stop enshittification, namely: competition, regulation, self-help and workers. Before everything turned to shit, these constraints stopped the bosses running wild. As Cory puts it: their worst impulses were checked by competition, regulation, self-help and worker power. So what happened?

What happened is that these four constraints became eroded and weakened. Governments allowed monopolies to flower in the 1980s, as the best firms would win. Governments believed that allowing monopolies to grow was good for consumer welfare and based on consumer choice. A good example? Amazon. Cory cites the example of When refused Amazon’s acquisition offer, Amazon spent $100 million selling diapers for almost nothing, and bought in a fire sale.

Once competition is eliminated then the next constraint – regulation and governance – can also be ignored. This is because companies become too big to fail and too big to jail. This is how they can create structures that avoid regulation and governance.

For example, according to Cory, Big Tech firms pretend that they are headquartered in Ireland, one of the EU’s most notorious corporate crime havens, whilst Ireland competes with the other havens like Malta, Luxembourg and Cyprus, to see which country can offer the most hospitable environment for tax avoidance. It’s not just tax avoidance however, but also avoidance of other regulations such as the invasion and abuse of data. Customer data, in particular.

His next argument is that self-help, such as the ability to block web ads or privacy invasion, has also been destroyed. This is because the regulations of the 1990s gave the Big Tech firms the ability to lock you in and stop you getting out. An example? The Digital Millennium Copyright Act that Bill Clinton signed into law in 1998, and the EU imported it as Article 6 of the EUCD in 2001. The law means that if you create something that is published on Amazon, for example, and then want to take it off Amazon, for example, then you, as the creator of the work, can be fined $500,000 and possibly jailed for five years because you assigned them the copyright. WTF?

Finally, workers.

Workers in Big Tech firms were pampered and cuddled. They had gyms, playrooms, creches for their kids and lots of indulgence from free beer to weekend barbecues. But now they realise that their value is zero.

Workers are no longer a check on their bosses’ worst impulses as the company now turns around and can just say: “turn in your badge and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out”.

Jeez, this is depressing … but then Cory moves on to say that the same four things that have made everything turn to shit can get us out of it.

We need to restore competition, and we are; we need to reinforce regulatory oversight of these Big Tech firms, and we are(ish); self-help is a great idea, except that it is difficult to enforce if people want to use these services; and the increasing unionisation of technology workers is starting to fight back against their labour abuses.

Nevertheless, the core essence of Cory’s message is that “software doesn’t eat the world, it just enshittifies it”.

Cory Doctorow is a special adviser to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a visiting professor of computer science at the Open University. 

This is the short version of his thesis which is a long read but, if you have the time, it could be worth it.

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Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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