Cory Doctorow and ‘Enshittification’: Stuck in Stage Three

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2024-02-09 19:30:08

But in case you want to be more precise, let’s examine how enshittification works. It’s a three-stage process: first, platforms are good to their users. Then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers. Finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, there is a fourth stage: they die.”

Cory Doctorow conceived of the concept of ‘enshittification’, which describes the multi-stage process in which large tech platforms erode the trust of their users, eventually causing the users to defect and the platform to die. The fourth stage, that being the defection of users and the death of the platform, sounds like wishful thinking and is unsupported by the evidence. It does not make sense from a business perspective for companies to self-destruct when there is so much money at stake. These platforms collectively generate tens of billions of dollars annually in profits, and are not going to die, or at least not if they can prevent it.

Instead, it’s evident these platforms have reached some sort of equilibrium in which they can incrementally and indefinitely extract ever-increasing profits but without pushing users to defect, not that there are any good alternatives. Hence, why users stick around despite a worsening user experience, such as more restrictions (like Chat GPT self-censorship and inability to process certain requests, for example), metering (like timeouts and fake error messages), or unwanted features being added (one of the earliest progenitors of this being Microsoft’s Office Assistant, Clippy) and useful features being removed (such as Google disabling the ability to view cached websites). And of course, the sale of user data. Or a service that is initially useful and free, and then once a threshold of users is attained the functionality is degraded unless you pay, which is what happened with Wolfram Alpha and will likely be the fate of Chat GPT, too, if it has not happened already. It’s analogous to the boiled frog, except instead of the frog dying or jumping out of the pot, it develops an infinite tolerance to the heat.

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