By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Betteridge’s Law, but hear me out. “Enshittification”[1] — I won’t use the asterisk in prose, since after all by now it’s a term of art — was declared 2023’s Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. Cory Doctorow defined enshittification in Wired, “The ‘Enshittification’ of TikTok“:

Here is how platforms die: First, they 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, they die.

I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a “two-sided market,” where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, hold each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.

And a worked example:

When a platform starts, it needs users, so it makes itself valuable to users. Think of Amazon: For many years, it operated at a loss, using its access to the capital markets to subsidize everything you bought. It sold goods below cost and shipped them below cost. It operated a clean and useful search….

This was a hell of a good deal for Amazon’s customers. Lots of us piled in, and lots of brick-and-mortar retailers withered and died, making it hard to go elsewhere…. And Amazon sold us Prime, getting us to pre-pay for a year’s worth of shipping. Prime customers start their shopping on Amazon, and 90 percent of the time, they don’t search anywhere else.

That tempted in lots of business customers—marketplace sellers who turned Amazon into the “everything store” it had promised from the beginning. As these sellers piled in, Amazon shifted to subsidizing suppliers. Kindle and Audible creators got generous packages. Marketplace sellers reached huge audiences and Amazon took low commissions from them.

This strategy meant that it became progressively harder for shoppers to find things anywhere except Amazon, which meant that they only searched on Amazon, which meant that sellers had to sell on Amazon. That’s when Amazon started to harvest the surplus from its business customers and send it to Amazon’s shareholders. Today, Marketplace sellers are handing more than 45 percent of the sale price to Amazon in junk fees. The company’s $31 billion “advertising” program is really a payola scheme that pits sellers against each other, forcing them to bid on the chance to be at the top of your search.

Searching Amazon doesn’t produce a list of the products that most closely match your search, it brings up a list of products whose sellers have paid the most to be at the top of that search.

(Here is a second worked example from Doctorow: Facebook, and how Facebook disposed of its surplus.) Enshittification, then, is a theory for the life-cycle of firms[2]. And Doctorow focuses, basically, on platforms, through the lens of user experience, whether consumers or businesses[3]. (Spoiler: That’s why I started thinking of Boeing; what’s more indicative of an enshittified aircraft firm than losing a cabin door in flight? I mean, other than flying into the ground at 450 — or, to be fair, 700 — miles per hour.) Doctorow expands on his thesis in the Financial Times, “‘Enshittification’ is coming for absolutely everything“:

There are four forces that discipline companies, serving as constraints on their enshittificatory impulses

“Companies,” not platforms:

Competition. Companies that fear you will take your business elsewhere are cautious about worsening quality or raising prices.

Regulation. Companies that fear a regulator will fine them more than they expect to make from cheating, will cheat less. These two forces affect all industries, but the next two are far more tech-specific.

Self-help. Computers [back to platforms] are extremely flexible and so are the digital products and services we make from them. …. That means that users can always avail themselves of programs that undo the anti-features that shift value from them to a company’s shareholders.

And, finally, workers. Tech workers have very low union density, but that doesn’t mean that tech workers don’t have labour power[3]. The historical “talent shortage” of the tech sector meant that workers enjoyed a lot of leverage.

One by one, each of these constraints was eroded, leaving the enshittificatory impulse unchecked, ushering in the enshittocene.

“Absolutely everything”? Enshittocene? Much as I stan for Doctorow, I’m not so sure. Digging more deeply into Doctorow’s view on tech workers:

For decades, tech workers’ bargaining power and vocational awe put a ceiling on enshittification… .

Remember when tech workers dreamt of working for a big company for a few years, before striking out on their own to start their own company that would knock that tech giant over? That dream shrank to: work for a giant for a few years, quit, do a fake start-up, get “acqui-hired” by your old employer, as a complicated way of getting a bonus and a promotion. Then the dream shrank further: work for a tech giant for your whole life, get free kombucha and massages on Wednesdays.

And now, the dream is over. All that’s left is: work for a tech giant until they fire you, like those 12,000 Googlers who got fired last year, eight months after a stock buyback that would have paid their salaries for the next 27 years.

Workers are no longer a check on their bosses’ worst impulses. Today, the response to “I refuse to make this product worse” is “turn in your badge and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out”.

I’d like a bit more evidence on “moral injury,” and when it kicks in and when it doesn’t. I don’t deny that tech workers — like most workers, I would argue — want to “do a good job” (given some level of basic humanity from management). But somebody writes all those dark patterns. Somebody wrote the software that allowed Uber to steal driver’s tips. Somebody (back to Boeing) wrote the MCAS system. Somebody wrote, well, Palantir. And so on.

And in terms of remedies (skipping over anti-trust, regulation, and self-help) Doctorow has this to say about labor:

Finally, there’s labour. Here in Europe, there’s much higher union density than in the US, which American tech barons are learning the hard way. There is nothing more satisfying in the daily news than the recent salvo by Nordic unions against that Tesla guy. But even in the US, there’s a massive surge in tech unions. Tech workers have realised they’re not founders-in-waiting. In Seattle, Amazon’s tech workers walked out in sympathy with Amazon’s warehouse workers, because they’re all workers.

Here again, I would like more evidence that “they’re all workers” (in their minds, as well as reality). Take examples from Seattle: Boeing, Starbucks, Amazon. Boeing’s machinists are demanding a seat on Boeing’s board[4]. There are at least fledgling union efforts at Starbucks and Amazon. Where are they on the demand by Boeing’s machinists? Could they be making similar demands of Starbucks and Amazon? And turn around is fair play: Where are the Boeing machinists on Starbucks and Amazon?

Now I want to pivot to Boeing (and soon, I promise, to Monarch Lathe). In both cases I will focus on the labor force, and how management destroyed the ability of that workforce to make a “maximally viable product” (as one might say). Maureen Tkacik’s “Suicide Mission“:

Like most neoliberal institutions, Boeing had come under the spell of a seductive new theory of “knowledge” that essentially reduced the whole concept to a combination of intellectual property, trade secrets, and data, discarding “thought” and “understanding” and “complex reasoning” possessed by a skilled and experienced workforce as essentially not worth the increased health care costs. CEO Jim McNerney, who joined Boeing in 2005, had last helmed 3M, where management as he saw it had “overvalued experience and undervalued leadership” before he purged the veterans into early retirement.

“Prince Jim”—as some long-timers used to call him—repeatedly invoked a slur for longtime engineers and skilled machinists in the obligatory vanity “leadership” book he co-wrote. Those who cared too much about the integrity of the planes and not enough about the stock price were “phenomenally talented assholes,” and he encouraged his deputies to ostracize them into leaving the company.

So Boeing builds a union-busting plant in Charleston, SC, with predictable and predicted results:

In 2023, [787] deliveries were halted in January, February, and again in August over problems with the shimming, the horizontal stabilizer, and God knows what else. [Totally-not-assassinated whistleblower John Barnett], and hundreds of others who had blown the whistle on Boeing’s managerial nihilism, had been thoroughly vindicated. But it was too late.

And Barnett’s reaction:

It made him sick to think that the value of his Boeing shares had tripled over the same period during which he’d watched the company get so comprehensively dismantled. But it was downright surreal to watch the stock price nearly triple once more during the two years after he left the company.

(Stockholders may well be made sick too, since Boeing is on the path to liquidation. But nobody’s gonna claw back those management bonuses!)

And now [drumroll] here is the moment Monarch stans have been waiting for. First, what a machine!

Here is what happened to the workforce at Monarch. From John Legge, “Time Line History of The Monarch Machine Tool Company” (PDF):

It is the people that distinguish one company from another. Technology is free to everyone. Inventions are there for anyone to invent them. At any period in time, every company has the same tools at their disposal. It is then up to the employees of the company to have the intuition to grasp and used these tools, to create new manufacturing techniques, new process, new inventions and features to improve the design of their product. It is then up to the management of a company to foster an atmosphere of inventiveness, pushing for better, more efficient ways of doing things, and providing the resources to accomplishing the goals set forth. Thus, it is this chain of people that weave the history of a company. It is this same group of individuals that sets one company apart from another. Monarch evolved from making low-end lathes, to being considered the première lathe builder in the world, and to its decline in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

The failure of Monarch came at its own hand. Monarch was built on a foundation of quality and timely innovation in both product design and manufacturing. It maintained this foundation through a long chain of dedicated employees who spent their careers learning and then practicing their art. It was quite common to see three generations of a family working together. Machinist kept detail[ed] notes on how to machine critical parts; these notes were then passed on to their successor. With the breaking of this chain, Monarch started to slip.

The “chain” was not broken for putatively ideological reasons (“shareholder value”) but for reasons internal to the firm that left it unable to react to changing market conditions; reading between the lines, our elites selling off manufacturing to China. However, the point is the same as for Boeing, and Legge puts it more concisely than Tkacik: “It is the people that distinguish one company from another.”

* * *

So here we have two companies — Boeing and Monarch — whose products were, in a word, crapified, but which, I would argue, as companies, were not enshittified.

Why? First, neither Boeing nor Monarch were platforms; the use value of their products did not reach customers through a rent-collection middleman. Hence, their life-cycles were unaffected by surplus collection and distribution as Doctorow describes it. Second, of the four forces disciplining enshittification, self-help applies to neither, and regulation applies only to Boeing (though I grant the government — for example, Oak Ridge (!) — was an important Monarch customer).

So not “absolutely everything.”

Third, the last of the four constraints on enshittification (those members of the working class stationed at a particular firm) should, IMNSHO, be at least heuristically first in the order of analysis. Amazon, Boeing, and Monarch had very different workforces, so step one is to understand them. (For example, at least in my experience, tech workers who are not themselves documentation specialists hate documentation; quite the reverse of workers at Monarch who “passed [their notes] on to their successors,” and from Boeing’s far more sophisticated, formal (and regulated) documentation process that John Barnett’s supervisors sought to bypass and destroy). I don’t know if I could prove this — too many confounders — but I would argue that the more power the workforce has over production — and Boeing, Monarch, and the early Google show this — the less crapified the product. Regulation, self-help — and [genuflects] even competition? — are in some ways kludges to make up for disfavored characteristics in the workforce. “If you have too many special cases, you are doing it wrong” (Jon Benteley). If “It is the people that distinguish one company from another,” then everything that is not the people is a special case.

Finally, a note to distinguish enshittifcation and crapification. Interestingly, “crapification” was first used by writer Hugh in a comment in May 2013, and in a post in July 2013. In each case, the context was labor. From the comment: “I should add that that the jobs crisis goes beyond unemployment. It also includes the crapification of the American work place: crap jobs paying craps wages with few or no benefits and no job security” (anticipating Graeber). From there, the usage broadens out to the declining quality of products and services (of which there are many, many examples in the following years; but none — at least in my recollection — framing crapification as part of a life cycle). However, as we see from Boeing and Monarch, if you want to crapify the product, crapify the job. Where job crapification comes in the life-cycle of enshittification is an open question; Doctorow seems to think it comes at the end (the Google firings) but I’m not so sure.


[1] From Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed:

Wallowing? The word he used was not wallowing, there being no animals on Anarres to make wallows; it was a compound, meaning literally coating continually and thickly with excrement. The flexibility and precision of Pravic lent itself to the creation of vivid metaphors quite unforeseen by its inventors.

(Dry, very dry.) Pravic is the constructed language used by the anarchist inhabitants of the planet Annares; one might speculate that there is a word for transforming non-excrement into excrement. But that word does not appear in the novel, oddly, considering its theme.

[2] I looked briefly at the literature on the life-cycle of firms; the article that came up most often was Victoria Dickinson’s “Cash Flow Patterns as a Proxy for Firm Life Cycle” (PDF):

Gort and Klepper (1982) define five life cycle stages: (1) an introductory stage, where an innovation is first produced; (2) a growth stage, where the number of producers increases dramatically; (3) a maturity stage, where the number of producers reaches a maximum; (4) a shake-out stage, where the number of producers begins to decline; and (5) a decline stage, where there is essentially zero net entry. I propose that cash flows capture the outcome of these distinct life cycle stages.

It would be interesting to see if Doctorow’s notion of “surplus” and cash flow patterns connect. That said, this master’s thesis has a table of life cycle theories, some with three stages, others with four or five, some with ten, which leads me to question whether the field supplies anything more than heuristics. Back to the rough ground of actual firms, then.

[3] All workers have labor power. That is what they sell to survive.

[4] No reason to wait for Elizabeth Warren.

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