As a leading blogger in the pre-Substack era, novelist and public-interest technologist Cory Doctorow often warned that Big Tech was rendering of cyberspace a polluted, dystopian, crassly commercial and often hostile world of limited options.
Now it's happened. Facebook, Instagram and other walled fiefdoms of surveillance capitalism distract discourse with scrolls of targeted ads and trending video reels. More genteel competitors were long ago muscled out.
Hateful trolls, violent speech and addictive algorithms thrive. And when a user account is mistakenly or unjustly shuttered, platform automation means the aggrieved will encounter callous indifference. It’s gotten to where anti-Big Tech initiatives enjoy bipartisan backing in an otherwise teetering U.S. democracy.
“There is no fixing Big Tech,” Doctorow, who blogged for years on the website “Boing Boing,” writes in his new book “The Internet Con: How To Seize The Means of Computation.” The breezily written 173-page manifesto is for people who want to destroy it.
Doctorow is adamant that no one be allowed to wield as much power as Mark Zuckerberg, who he deems a “feudal warlord” of middling intellect. “We don’t need a better Zuck. We need to abolish Zuck.”
He singles out Google, Facebook (“which bizarrely insists that it is called ‘Meta’”) and Apple in particular for robbing us of choice — of the ability to pick up and relocate from the online spaces where we commune with friends, relatives and colleagues.
How did these megacorporations do it? With behavior that would have been deemed illegal in other times, and with lawyers and lobbyists who got them laws like the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It effectively criminalizes the invention of competing products.
Doctorow shows how such laws have let HP and Epson make us purchase overpriced printer ink. They’re what let auto dealerships and John Deere elbow independent mechanics out of the car and tractor repair business.
And they’re what discourage the kind of reverse-engineering that allows competitors to create products that can seamlessly converse with, say, Facebook Messenger or Apple’s iMessage.
Imagine if you could chat online with all your friends, nevermind which messenger service, operating system or device they use. Such a world actually existed — this grizzled tech journalist can attest — before Generation Z landed in maternity wards.
A few apps such as Pidgin still cling to that model of open-platform engineering. It’s enabled by what’s called “interoperability,” something the European Union is demanding Big Tech revert to next year under its Digital Markets Act.
Back in the day “if you had an account on Yahoo Messenger, AIM and Skype, Pidgin could let you manage them all from one app.” And it had its own super-secure encryption to protect your digital interactions from prying eyes.
A simple, well-crafted vision of a more civil, civic-minded online life — peppered with selected sad tales of the human cost of Big Tech greed – make for an illuminating read. Not least because Doctorow, an accomplished novelist and longtime former activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, lays out a plan of action.
Vanquishing Big Tech and restoring “adversarial interoperability” — what the EFF calls “competitive compatibility” — will take political will and, above all, technical competence.
There’s no taking back the internet without the kind of knowledge Doctorow imparts.