Originally published at: Let the Platforms Burn – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow
The Opposite of Good Fires is Wildfires.
California needs to burn. For millennia, First Nations people oversaw controlled burns in the forests they lived, played and worked in. These burns cleared out underbrush, saw off sick trees, and created canopy openings that admitted sunlight to help quicken new growth. The importance of fire to healthy renewal is testified to by the regional trees that can only reproduce through fire, including the state’s iconic giant redwood.
Centuries ago, European settlers dispossessed the state’s First Nations of their ancestral lands and banned “cultural burning,” declaring war on both indigenous people and fire. This was the start of a long period of firelessness, during which time ever-more-heroic measures have been deployed to keep fire at bay.
This is a vicious cycle: massive fire suppression efforts creates the illusion that people can safely live at the wildland–urban interface. Taken in by this illusion, more people move to this combustible zone. The presence of these people in the danger zone militates for more extreme fire-suppression, which makes the illusion all the more tempting. Yielding to temptation, more people move to the fire zone.
But the opposite of controlled burns isn’t no burns, it’s out-of-control burns: wildfires.
Fires that erase whole towns. Fires that burn unchecked. Anything that can’t go on forever will eventually stop. Fire debt mounts. When the interest payments get too high to bear, we go into chaotic default.
California needs to burn. It needs an orderly bankruptcy. It needs to revive the controlled “good fire” that kept the land safe and healthy and allowed humans and forests to peacefully co-exist.
The alternative to letting California burn in an orderly, controlled fashion is for California to burn anyway. It’s wildfire. It’s tragedy and destruction.
Social media needs to burn.
From its first days, the consumer computing and networking sector was synonymous with explosive growth.
Companies would spring up out of nowhere and grow to impossible scale overnight. The source of this rapid corporate gigantism was no mystery: it came from network effects.
A business, product or service enjoys “network effects” when adding more customers increases in value. Every Apple ][+ sold increased the number of people you could exchange data on floppies with; it increased the number of dealers who’d sell you accessories for your new home computer; and it increased the number of software authors and hardware companies who’d fill those dealers’ showrooms with new applications and peripherals for you to use.
Network effects are how Amazon got so big. They’re why platforms with App Stores — from games to mobile OSes — are so exciting for investors. And, of course, they’re why social media platforms exploded onto the scene in the 2000s and took over the world.
That whoosh you feel as a tech seedling becomes a towering giant overnight is heady and exciting, but it’s not permanent.
Because tech’s explosive network-effects growth is only half the story. The other half is implosive contraction, driven by low switching costs.
“Switching costs” are all the pain-points associated with switching from one product to another — throwing away your charging cables and apps when you switch phone brands, or throwing away all your friends when you switch social media platforms.
Non-digital products have intrinsically high switching costs. If you throw away your KitchenAid mixer and buy a Miele, you can’t take your attachments with you — not without the assistance of a skilled machinist who can custom-craft little dinguses to adapt them, at a price that will exceed the cost of just throwing them away and buying new ones.
But digital is different. The only computer we know how to make is the “Turing-complete universal Von Neumann machine” — that is, a device that can run every valid program we can write. The only computer we know how to make is the computer that can run every program.
That means that it’s always possible to create interoperable programs that can lower switching costs.
Microsoft once rigged things so that all your spreadsheets, memos and presentations locked inside proprietary office formats that was tied to its operating system.
No problem: Apple just had its technologists reverse-engineer those formats and make Pages, Numbers and Keynote, which meant that you could change OSes without losing your documents.
Every successful technology company has a story like this in its background. Today’s top makers of mass storage and other key computer components got their starts reverse-engineering the protocols used by IBM to connect its printers, drives, and other accessories and making “compatible” devices that they sold for a fraction of the price IBM charged.
When IBM made PCs, this pattern repeated itself: tiny startups “cloned” the IBM PC. The network effects that put millions of PCs into the world were undone by low switching costs, as users found they could move their applications and files from expensive IBM hardware to cheaper “compatible” systems.
And then it happened again!
The first computer I ever interacted with was a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-11 system. It was 1977 and I was six years old. My dad — a computer scientist — brought home a teletype terminal (a keyboard and printer — no screen!) and an acoustic coupler (which let you use your standard Bell telephone to connect to a terminal to a distant computer), and let me talk to this $70,000 behemoth (about $400,000 in today’s dollars) from our kitchen table.
Twenty years later, the Digital Equipment Corporation became a division of Compaq, one of those PC clone companies. which had entered the market in 1982 with a “luggable” PC that sold for $2,995 (about $9,000 in today’s dollars).
DEC tried to remain relevant. It even founded Altavista, one of the first successful search-engines. But in the end, DEC burned, consumed by the regular fires of the fast-moving internet sector.
And so did Compaq. Five years after buying DEC, on the verge of bankruptcy, it was sold for parts to HP.
The fire comes for everyone.
But HP is still in business. Apple is still in business. Google is still in business. Microsoft is still in business. IBM is still in business. Facebook is still in business.
We don’t have those controlled burns anymore. Yesterday’s giants tower over all, forming a thick canopy. The internet is “five giant websites, each filled with screenshots of the other four.”
These tech companies have produced a lot of fire-debt. Over and over, they erupt in flames—in this short decade alone, every one of our tech giants has experienced a privacy scandal that should have permanently disqualified it from continuing to enjoy our patronage (and I do mean every one of them, including the one that spends millions telling you that it’s the pro-privacy alternative to the others).
We hate these companies. We hate their products. They are always on fire. They can’t help it. It’s the curse of bigness.
Companies cannot unilaterally mediate the lives of hundreds of millions — or even billions — of people, speaking thousands of languages, living in hundreds of countries.
The problem with, say, Meta, is only partially that Mark Zuckerberg is personally monumentally unsuited to serving as the unelected, unaccountable permanent social media czar for three billion people.
The real problem is that no one should have that job. That job shouldn’t exist. We don’t need to find a better Mark Zuckerberg.
We need to abolish Mark Zuckerberg.
What happened to the cycle of renewal? Where are the regular, controlled burns?
Like the California settlers who subjugated the First Nations people and declared war on good fire, the finance sector conquered the tech sector.
It started in the 1980s, the era of personal computers — and Reaganomics. A new economic and legal orthodoxy took hold, one that celebrated monopolies as “efficient,” and counseled governments to nurture and protect corporations as they grew both too big to fail, and too big to jail.
For 40 years, we’ve been steadily reducing antitrust enforcement. That means a company like Google can create a single great product (a search engine) and use investors’ cash to buy a mobile stack, a video stack, an ad stack, a server-management stack, a collaboration stack, a maps and navigation stack — all while repeatedly failing to succeed with any of its in-house products.
It’s hard to appreciate just how many companies tech giants buy. Apple buys other companies more often than you buy groceries.
These giants buy out their rivals specifically to make sure you can’t leave their walled gardens. As Mark Zuckerberg says, “It is better to buy than to compete,” (which is why Zuckerberg bought Instagram, telling his CFO that it was imperative that they do the deal because Facebook users preferred Insta to FB, and were defecting in droves).
As these companies “merge to monopoly,” they are able to capture their regulators, ensuring that the law doesn’t interfere with their plans for literal world domination.
When a sector consists of just a handful of companies, it becomes cozy enough to agree on — and win — its lobbying priorities. That’s why America doesn’t have a federal privacy law. It’s why employees can be misclassified as “gig worker” contractors and denied basic labor protections.
It’s why companies can literally lock you out of your home — and your digital life — by terminating your access to your phone, your cloud, your apps, your thermostat, your door-locks, your family photos, and your tax records, with no appeal — not even the right to sue.
But regulatory capture isn’t merely about ensuring that tech companies can do whatever they want to you. Tech companies are even more concerned with criminalizing the things you want to do to them.
Frank Wilhoit described conservativism as “exactly one proposition”:
There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.
This is likewise the project of corporatism. Tech platforms are urgently committed to ensuring that they can do anything they want on their platforms — and they’re even more dedicated to the proposition that you must not do anything they don’t want on their platforms.
They can lock you in. You can’t unlock yourself. Facebook attained network-effects growth by giving its users bots that logged into Myspace on their behalf, scraped the contents of their inboxes for the messages from the friends they left behind, and plunked them in their Facebook inboxes.
Facebook then sued a company that did the same thing to Facebook, who wanted to make it as easy for Facebook users to leave Facebook as it had been to get started there.
Apple reverse-engineered Microsoft’s crown jewels — the Office file-formats that kept users locked to its operating systems — so it could clone them and let users change OSes.
Try to do that today — say, to make a runtime so you can use your iOS apps and media on an Android device or a non-Apple desktop — and Apple will reduce you to radioactive rubble.
This is “felony contempt of business model.”
Governments hold back from passing and enforcing laws that limit the tech giants in the name of nurturing their “efficiency.”
But when states act to prevent new companies — or users, or co-ops, or nonprofits — from making it easier to leave the platforms, they do so in the name of protecting us.
Rather than passing a privacy law that would let them punish Meta, Apple, Google, Oracle, Microsoft and other spying companies, they ban scraping and reverse-engineering because someone might violate the privacy of the users of those platforms.
But a privacy law would control both scrapers and silos, banning tech giants from spying on their users, and banning startups and upstarts from spying on those users, too.
Rather than breaking up ad-tech, banning surveillance ads, and opening up app stores, which would make tech platforms stop stealing money from media companies through ad-fraud, price-gouging and deceptive practices, governments introduce laws requiring tech companies to share (some of) their ill-gotten profits with a few news companies.
This makes the news companies partners with the tech giants, rather than adversaries holding them to account, and makes the news into cheerleaders for massive tech profits, so long as they get their share. Rather than making it easier for the news to declare independence from Big Tech, we are fusing them forever.
We could make it easy for users to leave a tech platform where they are subject to abuse and harassment — but instead, governments pursue policies that require platforms to surveil and control their users in the name of protecting them from each other.
We could make it easy for users to leave a tech platform where their voices are algorithmically silenced, but instead we get laws requiring platforms to somehow “balance” different points of view.
The platforms aren’t merely combustible, they’re always on fire. Once you trap hundreds of millions — or billions — of people inside a walled fortress, where warlords who preside over have unlimited power over their captives, and those captives the are denied any right to liberate themselves, enshittification will surely and inevitably follow.
Laws that block us seizing the means of computation and moving away from Big Tech are like the heroic measures that governments undertake to keep people safe in the smouldering wildland-urban interface.
These measures prop up the lie that we can perfect the tech companies, so they will be suited to eternal rule.
Rather than building more fire debt, we should be making it easy for people to relocate away from the danger so we can have that long-overdue, “good fire” to burn away the rotten giants that have blotted out the sun.
What would that look like?
Well, this week’s news was all about Threads, Meta’s awful Twitter replacement devoted to “brand-safe vaporposting,” where the news and controversy are not welcome, and the experience is “like watching a Powerpoint from the Brand Research team where they tell you that Pop Tarts is crushing it on social.”
Threads may be a vacuous “Twitter alternative you would order from Brookstone,” but it commanded a lot of news, because it experienced massive growth in just hours. “Two million signups in the first two hours” and “30 million signups in the first morning.”
That growth was network-effects driven. Specifically, Meta made it possible for you to automatically carry over your list of followed Instagram accounts to Threads.
Meta was able to do this because it owns both Threads and Instagram. But Meta does not own the list of people you trust and enjoy enough to follow.
Your relationships belong to you. You should be able to bring them from one service to another.
Take Mastodon. One of the most common complaints about Mastodon is that it’s hard to know whom to follow there. But as a technical matter, it’s easy: you should just follow the people you used to follow on Twitter —either because they’re on Mastodon, too, or because there’s a way to use Mastodon to read their Twitter posts.
Indeed, this is already built into Mastodon. With one click, you can export the list of everyone you follow, and everyone who follows you. Then you can switch Mastodon servers, upload that file, and automatically re-establish all those relationships.
That means that if the person who runs your server decides to shut it down, or if the server ends up being run by a maniac who hates you and delights in your torment, you don’t have to petition a public prosecutor or an elected lawmaker or a regulator to make them behave better.
You can just leave.
Meta claims that Threads will someday join the “Fediverse” (the collection of apps built on top of ActivityPub, the standard that powers Mastodon).
Rather than passing laws requiring Threads to prioritize news content, or to limit the kinds of ads the platform accepts, we could order it to turn on this Fediverse gateway and operate it such that any Threads user can leave, join any other Fediverse server, and continue to see posts from the people they follow, and who will also continue to see their posts.
Rather than devoting all our energy to keep Meta’s empire of oily rags from burning, we could devote ourselves to evacuating the burn zone.
This is the thing the platforms fear the most. They know that network effects gave them explosive growth, and they know that tech’s low switching costs will enable implosive contraction.
The thing is, network effects are a double-edged sword. People join a service to be with the people they care about. But when the people they care about start to leave, everyone rushes for the exits. Here’s danah boyd, describing the last days of Myspace:
If a central node in a network disappeared and went somewhere else (like from MySpace to Facebook), that person could pull some portion of their connections with them to a new site. However, if the accounts on the site that drew emotional intensity stopped doing so, people stopped engaging as much. Watching Friendster come undone, I started to think that the fading of emotionally sticky nodes was even more problematic than the disappearance of segments of the graph.
With MySpace, I was trying to identify the point where I thought the site was going to unravel. When I started seeing the disappearance of emotionally sticky nodes, I reached out to members of the MySpace team to share my concerns and they told me that their numbers looked fine. Active uniques were high, the amount of time people spent on the site was continuing to grow, and new accounts were being created at a rate faster than accounts were being closed. I shook my head; I didn’t think that was enough. A few months later, the site started to unravel.
Tech bosses know the only thing protecting them from sudden platform collapse syndrome are the laws that have been passed to stave off the inevitable fire.
They know that platforms implode “slowly, then all at once.”
They know that if we weren’t holding each other hostage, we’d all leave in a heartbeat.
But anything that can’t go on forever will eventually stop. Suppressing good fire doesn’t mean “no fires,” it means wildfires. It’s time to declare fire debt bankruptcy. It’s time to admit we can’t make these combustible, tinder-heavy forests safe.
It’s time to start moving people out of the danger zone.
It’s time to let the platforms burn.