How to Take Back the Internet

How to Take Back the Internet 1

ON THIS WEEK’S episode of Have a Nice Future, Gideon Lichfield and Lauren Goode talk to Cory Doctorow, a writer, internet activist, and author of The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation. As the US government takes Google to court in an antitrust case this week, Doctorow explains why he believes monopoly power has made the internet a miserable place and what we can do to get our digital lives back.

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Show Notes

You can read more from Cory Doctorow on WIRED here, including an excerpt from The Internet Con: How To Seize the Means of Computation.

Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Gideon Lichfield is @glichfield. Bling the main hotline at @WIRED.

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Note: This is an automated transcript, which may contain errors.

Lauren: I lost you there for some reason. I’m so sorry. I think it was the internet.

Gideon: Oh, OK. Oh, the bloody internet again.


Gideon: Hi, I’m Gideon Lichfield.

Lauren: And I’m Lauren Goode, and this is Have a Nice Future, a podcast about how terrifyingly fast everything is changing.

Gideon: Each week, we talk to someone with big, audacious, and sometimes unnerving ideas about the future, and we ask them how we can all prepare to live in it.

Lauren: Our guest this week is Cory Doctorow. He’s a writer, an internet activist, a senior adviser to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and he’s the author of a new book called The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation.

Cory (audio clip): The internet isn’t just like a video-on-demand service or a surveillance system or a way to, like, radicalize white nationalists. It’s like the one wire that delivers free speech, free press, freedom of association, civics, politics, education, nutrition, romance, family life. And if we let it become a toxic waste dump that is irredeemable, then all of those things are at risk.

Lauren: So, Gideon, this is one of these episodes where we were both really keen to talk to Cory for various reasons. I mean, not only do we admire him as a writer, but for me it was the lure of a big, sexy, nerdy talk about interoperability.

Gideon: Interoperability. Sexy. All right. All right. You have to convince me of this one.

Lauren: Well, I mean, if someone says to me, you know, let’s rant about how Apple’s iMessage doesn’t work well with Android messaging and talk about how we might change it all and change the internet for the better, I’m in. Sign me up. How much time do we have?

Gideon: All right. So why is messaging such a primary example of interoperability, and why is it important?

Lauren: That’s a good question. I mean, I think for me it’s because messaging feels like it was so foundational to the early consumer internet, but it used to be totally decentralized and you could access it from anywhere, any PC, any terminal. It was volunteer-led. It was community based. And then the internet started to get built up. We had more centralized experiences. There are corporate interests. We now use all kinds of apps and social media websites, and they don’t always play nice with each other. You kind of get locked into one system, one ecosystem, or one cloud service provider, and it’s hard to extract yourself, even if you wanted to. And I think that this is really the crux of Cory’s argument here.

Gideon: Right. So interoperability is another word for having freedom of choice—being able to use what platform you want and not having some high cost of leaving.

Lauren: Yes, very much so. Not having that switching cost.

Gideon: I was a little jealous that you got to speak to Cory while I was off traveling, because he is extraordinarily prolific as a writer. He’s written a bunch of nonfiction as well as science fiction books, but that, just, ability to churn stuff out is kind of the complete opposite of me, and it’s one of the things I admire about him.

Lauren: Very much so. Yeah, he’s written a bunch of stuff for WIRED too. Earlier this year, we ran a piece of his that was all about the “enshittification” of TikTok. Not just TikTok, but internet platforms broadly. Which is a word that has really taken off since then as a shorthand, I think, for the general degradation of internet platforms. He presented some really great ideas, and he’s pretty fiery about these topics.

Gideon: Yeah, we reprinted that piece from his blog, and it went viral for WIRED because I think it put words to this feeling people have but can’t quite articulate, that Big Tech platforms have just become a crappier experience altogether. And it’s not just a feeling that things are out of whack. For example, this huge trial starts this week against Google for abusing its dominance in search ads, which is the biggest trial of its kind since the US sued Microsoft more than 20 years ago. Cory’s piece just laid these trends out in really simple terms.

Lauren: And I get the sense that these things are deeply personal to him. Like, he wants the internet to be a good place. And when it’s not working a certain way, it makes him very anxious, and he channels that into all of this writing.

Gideon: Right. And he gets very passionate about it. But I think also what’s great—and this is why I was interested by his book—is that he doesn’t just rant about how terrible things are. He talks about solutions, and so a book that promises that it’s going to be about how to seize the means of computation. It’s a pretty big promise. I’ll be curious to see whether you thought he delivered on it.

Lauren: Yes, I’m looking forward to you listening to this interview. But before we start nerding out with Cory, we do have a small ask. We want to hear from our listeners. We read the reviews. We love hearing from you. We have an email address. You can email us at [email protected] or just leave us some notes on your favorite podcast app. Tell us what you want to hear more of. Tell us what you don’t like. We can take it, we’re grown-ups here, but drop us a line, because we love hearing from you.

Gideon: And now for that conversation with Cory coming up right after the break.


Lauren: Cory Doctorow, thank you so much for joining me on Have a Nice Future.

Cory: Thanks for having me on.

Lauren: Are you having a nice future?

Cory: You know, I’m having a difficult future, as I think many of us are. There’s some stuff I’m hopeful about, but I write when I’m anxious, and to give you an idea of how anxious it’s been, I’ve got eight books in production.

Lauren: Do you have help? Do you work with ghostwriters?

Cory: No, I just work with my own anxiety. Me and my anxiety sit in the hammock in my backyard and write book after book after book and pretend the outside world doesn’t exist.

Lauren: Well, in your new book, you really come out swinging, which is not uncharacteristic of you. I want to read a line from the very first part where you unpack why you believe the leaders of all these big tech companies are not geniuses. You write, “I’m going to discount the possibility that in the 1970s and 1980s, aliens came to earth and knocked up the future mothers of a new subrace of elite CEOs whose extraterrestrial DNA conferred upon them the power to steer companies to total industrial dominance.” I laughed. I mean, I think the point is that you wanted to make people laugh, but also you’re quite serious. I have to say Elon Musk would probably like this idea and get on board with it.


Lauren: But tell us a little bit about the argument you’re making.

Cory: Sure. Well, this is an argument about more than tech. This is an argument about all industries. And, if we say, OK, well, there’s something about the leadership of these companies that allowed them to do what their predecessors hadn’t done. Then you have to account for how it is that we found this cohort of senior executives across every industry, from professional wrestling to cheerleading to running shoes, who all had this special zhuzh that allowed them to do what no one has ever been able to do since Rockefeller. And if you don’t believe that hypothesis, which I think is a stretch to believe, you’re left looking to things that happen in the environment.

Lauren: Outside forces.

Cory: Yeah, exogenous forces. And the big one is we used to enforce laws that prevented monopolization.

Lauren: Before we get into an even more specific discussion about this topic, what is wrong with the internet right now? If you could just summarize it—the past 20 years or so.

Cory: Well, you know, Tom Eastman says, I’m old enough to remember a time when the internet wasn’t five giant websites filled with screenshots of text from the other four. And I think we all have this sense that, like, the internet kind of sucks, right? The content moderation is terrible, everybody hates it, there’s nowhere else you can go because everyone is on the same platform, so if the moderation doesn’t suit you, you gotta just gut it out. We’re getting spied on. Nothing works. Everything good that we have, they keep shipping updates for that we’re not allowed to stop. That causes us to pay for features that we thought we’d already bought. We are just at the pointy end of the most extractive, surveillant, creepy, careless system of electronic connection that we could have imagined.

Lauren: I don’t necessarily agree that everyone hates the internet right now, but the sense that I’m getting, and maybe I’m personalizing this a little bit, is that everyone hates feeling so addicted to it. That there are these forces that are actually keeping us in a place we don’t necessarily want to be for as long as we are there.

Cory: Well, look, nobody worries about being addicted to coffee, right? People are just like, oh yeah, I get coffee, it tastes good.

Lauren: Speak for yourself. [Laughter]

Cory: Oh, well, fair. OK, but there isn’t, like, a widespread sense. It’s not like fentanyl, right? There aren’t a lot of people going, oh, I drink coffee every day, but I wish I couldn’t. You know, if you have a reliable supply of high-quality product priced competitively that is good to drink, then you don’t worry about it. I think the reason we feel addicted to the internet is because we don’t enjoy it, but we still have to use it. And I think that this is a mistake that some people make—is they think that Big Tech made mind-control rays. And I think that instead, Big Tech just took all the people you love and put them on the other side of a reg wall that you have to go through and create an account for in order to talk to them. And so it’s your friends and your job and your education and your prospects of finding a romantic partner that are on the other side of Big Tech. And the reason it feels like we’re addicted to it is because opting out of all of that stuff is a lot to ask. And so we keep using services we don’t like.

Lauren: And this leads to your greater argument about interoperability, uh, which is really the crux of the book, right? I mean, yes, it’s about monopolies, but it’s about interoperability. So first, I think it would be helpful to explain to folks, a lot of folks listening to a WIRED podcast are going to know this, some are not: What is the network effect? What is a switching cost? How do you define interoperability?

Cory: Yep. One of the underlying premises of this book is that you can’t solve the tech problem without having one foot in policy and one foot in technology. You have to understand both of them in order to make them work. From the econ world, we have network effects. Network effects describe services that get more valuable the more people use them. So you can think of Amazon becoming more valuable the more buyers there are because that attracts more sellers, which then attracts more buyers. Or Facebook gets more valuable the more users there are. You join Facebook to talk with the people who are there. Other people join Facebook to talk to you. Apple gets more valuable every time someone makes an app. And then every time someone makes an app, that’s a reason to buy a phone. And then every time someone buys a phone, that’s a reason to make an app.

Lauren: And every time someone shames you for having a green bubble.

Cory: That’s right. Yes, indeed. Right? So that’s network effects, and network effects make tech get big fast. But switching costs are the corollary of them or the inverse of them, which is that the switching cost is everything you have to give up to leave a platform. And so say you’ve got, as I do, an 11-year-old Prius that isn’t starting reliably, right? But you bought a roof rack for it. You’ve got, like, seat covers for it. You’ve got a stereo you installed in it. All that stuff won’t carry over if I go and buy another car, right? And so that’s stuff I have to give up. If you’re on Facebook and your family is there and your kids’ Little League games are playing there, and your customers are there …

Lauren: And your photos from 2010 are there.

Cory: Your photos are there. All of that stuff. Then if you leave Facebook, even if you can extract the data, which Facebook sometimes will let you do in a kind of difficult-to-parse out way, you lose the connections. You lose the people, right? And that’s a very high cost to pay. But technology, digital technology—and this is where we start to get into interoperability, from econ into tech—digital technology has an irreducible feature, which is that it is universal in a technical sense. The Turing complete Von Neumann machine, it’s the only computer we know how to make, and it can run every program that is valid. And what that means is that—unlike my Prius or a blender that you’ve got a bunch of attachments for, or, you know, a printer you bought a bunch of specific-shaped ink cartridges for that only fit in its reservoirs—digital technology is really different, because you can always write a program that sits between the thing you used to use and the thing you do use now. Like, when Facebook started, they had this problem, which is that everybody who wanted social media, who wasn’t an American college kid, because Facebook was limited to American college kids at first, had an account on MySpace. And the pitch to the MySpace users wasn’t just like, hey, we’ve got a better user interface, why don’t you come over and sit here alone and admire the user interface while you wait for your friends.


Cory: It, it was like, here’s a bot. Give the bot your login and your password, come to Facebook, it will login to MySpace as you, it will grab the messages waiting for you, it will put them in your Facebook inbox, you can reply to them, and it will put them back to MySpace, so you don’t have to leave MySpace to leave MySpace. You don’t have to leave behind the people. So the switching cost goes to zero. So built into tech is this intrinsic property of interoperability that anything can work with anything else. It requires some intermediate software, but you can always plug one thing into the other thing.

Lauren: I’m wondering if there’s a specific moment or an entity or an app that you look at and you say, that was the moment. That was the moment the walled garden was starting to be built and things were no longer going to be interoperable after this.

Cory: Yeah, it was a gradual process that maybe we can locate like patient zero here with Yahoo, which was a company that took a bunch of money from SoftBank and then used its access to the capital markets to buy and destroy every promising startup in Web 2.0, and that model of acquisition-based growth where firms really just grew so fast. I mean, Apple now buys 90 companies a year.

Lauren: And they’re acqui-hiring, too. They’re basically buying the talent, they’re buying some IP, but the company is no longer really meant to exist.

Cory: That’s right. But they’re not just acqui-hiring, because look at Google, right? One good search engine. A string of internal failures, right? Whether we’re talking about like an RSS reader or like 11 different social media products or, you know, whatever. And then a video platform. All of those failed. They just bought video, mobile, ad tech, server management, document sharing, collaboration, maps, satellite. All of that stuff came from other people. Right? They call themselves Willy Wonka’s Idea Factory. They’re just rich Uncle Pennybags. They buy other people’s companies and take credit for their innovation, when really all they’re doing is like operationalizing them, which is great. You know, it’s not the same thing as making stuff. They’re, they’re not a making-things company. They’re a buying-things company. And so Yahoo really kicks this off, right? This acquisition-driven growth. And the thing about acquisition-driven growth is it reduces the number of players in the industry. And as it reduces the number of players in the industry, they all start to realize that they’re on each other’s side more than they’re on their user side. And that concentration allows this consensus to emerge that when these tech companies did interoperability, adversarial interoperability, to progress, to grow, to establish a marketplace, that they were doing something legitimate. But that when other people do it to them, that’s theft. And they start to sing with one voice.

Lauren: It’s so interesting to me that I’m asking you what stopped interoperability, and I was expecting you to say some platform. I mean, you did Yahoo or some app or some policy, but like what you’re describing is actually human resources.

Cory: Well, look, firms are disciplined by two forces, right? Competition and regulation. And if there is no competition, then you also don’t get regulation. Because once there’s no competition, they all get together and they collude to capture the regulators. And so you need, like—one is the necessary but insufficient precondition for the other. We need competition, and we need regulation, and ideally like the most important regulation is ensuring competition. So this is why when we step back from enforcing antitrust law 40 years ago, we set in motion this moment of total regulatory capture where until a few really good enforcers in the Biden administration stepped in, for the most part. It’s been foxes guarding henhouses for decades.

Lauren: What I’m hearing you say is that the onus should not really be on the internet consumer to figure all of this out themselves.

Cory: Sure.

Lauren: There needs to be seat belts.

Cory: Yeah. Well look, if you hid under the doormat of your convenience store a 1,000-page 9-point-type letter that ended with “by being dumb enough to come into my store, you agree I’m allowed to punch you in the mouth,” and then I walked into the store and you punched me in the mouth and you said, “You agreed!” we would all understand that that was unfair, right? Like, there’s just no—that’s just not valid. It’s not—it’s not what we think of when we think of contracts. And yet, the way that the network works, the way that our digital technology works, it’s not merely that they’re like inadvertent flaws, but there are deliberate harmful conducts that the firms engage in, that they are not prohibited from engaging in legally, and that their competitors also engage in, so there’s no point in leaving one and going to the other. I mean you probably saw, as we’re recording this, Mozilla just released its report on car privacy, and it’s the first category they’ve ever evaluated where every single manufacturer flunked. And they were like, our recommendation for which car you should buy is don’t buy a car. That was their—that was like the conclusion. Right, so when the whole category consists of firms that engage in harmful conduct, they’re obviously not gonna be disciplined by competition. If a regulator were to say, hey, let’s make some rules that rebalance your ability to take surpluses from your customers and give them to your shareholders, the entire sector shows up and sings with one voice and says, if you do that, we will go out of business and everyone will die.

Lauren: Do you like any element of the internet right now?

Cory: Oh, yeah.

Lauren: Do you have happy places on there? And like, if so, what are they?

Cory: So this is the zap that tech bros put on our mind as they say, oh, you like that thing, right? You like having an efficient search engine or you like talking to people on Twitter or Facebook. Well, you’re just going to have to take the bad stuff with it. It’s, it’s Matt Bors, Mr. Gotcha, right? You know, we should improve society somewhat. Oh, I notice you’re typing that on an iPhone. Hmm, very interesting. I’m very clever. So I love the good stuff on Twitter. I love the good stuff on TikTok. I use Tumblr with every hour that God sends. I am a giant Mastodon fan. I read tons of articles on Medium. I actually love getting emails. I’m the last one, right?

Lauren: [Laughter] You’re the one.

Cory: I’m the one. I do the New York Times crossword on my phone every morning and then I take a screenshot of it and I send it to my mom in Toronto, because if I beat her to it then I get points, right? And, and so there’s so much I love on the internet. And I think that what interoperability is best understood as is a way to take these prix fixe menus and make them à la carte.

Lauren: So there’s been some movement on the regulation front over the past couple of years, which you write about. There’s the Access Act here in the United States that would mandate data portability. In Europe, they have the Digital Markets Act, which determines that if a company is acting as a quote-unquote gatekeeper, then it has to allow third parties to interoperate in certain ways with that company’s services. We should also note that the EFF, which you work for, has supported the Access Act but also has said that it’s concerned about the fact that poorly-thought-out mandates could end up harming people’s lives. It’s privacy. So what do you think happens next in terms of regulation?

Cory: So I, as a science fiction writer, do not believe in prediction. I think that the point of science fiction and of activism is to talk about what could happen or what we should try to make happen more than what I think is gonna happen. What I worry about the DMA in particular happening is that they’ve decided the first interoperability mandate should be an end-to-end encrypted messaging services. So things like Apple iMessage and those are extraordinarily hard to get right. And when you get them wrong, uh, there are some really big consequences, like Jamal Khashoggi was lured to his death because the NSO group found a bug in WhatsApp and used it to break into his friend’s messages, right? If it wasn’t for that, he might still be alive. So I’m really worried, not just that this is going to put a lot of users in harm’s way, and it really will, and not just in Europe, because those defects can be exploited against users anywhere, but also that it’ll discredit the idea of interoperability. What I hope they’ll do is focus on social media. I think social media is something that is much easier to do interop for. I think that there are some specific areas where they could do it. Like, they could have a rule that just says, like, the end-to-end principle in, in networking more broadly, if you tell someone you’re going to deliver a message to the people who follow them, or if you tell someone if you follow someone, you’ll deliver their messages, then you have to. So, if I have a product whose SKU is exactly matched by a search, then that product should be at the top of the search results. If I have followers as a press outlet, and I publish something, those followers should see what I ask them to. To do otherwise is an unfair and deceptive business practice. It’s just, it’s, it’s just, um, it’s lying to people, it’s cheating. I think we can safeguard the right to exit, so we can say, hey, if you run a service like Twitter or Facebook, you have to support interoperable protocols that let people leave and continue to send messages to the people they left behind. So that the reason they stay is because you’re a better service than the other ones and not because they love they friends more than they hate your service.

Lauren: Yeah. I won’t ask you then to predict the future since you don’t want to predict the future. But what could the future of the internet look like if we are never able to achieve that level of interoperability?

Cory: Well, what I worry is that this stuff metastasizes into the Internet of Things. So back to Mozilla saying: No car is a car you should drive. I think we end up with: No thermostat is a thermostat you should use. No learnware is learnware your kids should study with. No phone is a phone you should carry. No oven is an oven you should use. I think we end up in this situation where it’s like we will rebuild civilization out of asbestos and plutonium. And your choice will be like, do nothing or poison yourself and put yourself in harm’s way, and that every day and every moment we will be rocked by new crises. It’s gonna be terrible. The internet isn’t just like a video-on-demand service or a surveillance system or a way to, like, radicalize white nationalists. It’s like the one wire that delivers free speech, free press, freedom of association, civics, politics, education, nutrition, romance, family life. And if we let it become a toxic waste dump that is irredeemable, then all of those things are at risk.

Lauren: What are you most hopeful about these days?

Cory: I am hopeful—actually, right now I am hopeful about the rise and rise of organized labor. And I think that we’re gonna see a more muscular left emerge and that the organized labor is gonna be a big part of it.

Lauren: Cory Doctorow, thank you so much for joining me on Have a Nice Future. I sincerely hope you have a nice future.

Cory: You too.


Gideon: So Lauren, it sounds like you haven’t quite soured on the internet as much as Cory has. But, I mean, were you convinced by his argument that it’s getting worse and that we need to do something radical to make it less monopolistic?

Lauren: I think that Cory is a very smart and clever writer, and he makes extremely convincing arguments, and he knows how to punctuate his arguments with humor and absurdity. I love the absurdity, but he can also be a bit hyperbolic, and I think that this kind of book isn’t necessarily going to convince the average internet user, you know, the person who maybe casually browses Facebook and sometimes gets caught in a TikTok rabbit hole or something, that there needs to be a movement towards drastic change in how we use the internet. Like, I think this book is meant to spark conversation amongst journalists like ourselves and policymakers. But those conversations are already happening, right? So this is just adding tinder to the fire. You know, that said, I’m generally a fan of Cory Doctorow, like we said earlier on in the show, and I would say his book galvanized me a bit, for sure. Were you convinced?

Gideon: You know, I think I was. I feel like he’s making a very clear, compelling argument that over the last 30 years the major trend on the internet has been that we have lost choice. We’ve become more locked into these platforms. By giving up our data to them and letting them use that data to hold us hostage, effectively. And I think this is why that enshittification post that he wrote went viral, as I said, because I think people have this sense that things are getting worse, they have trouble describing or articulating what it is that’s getting worse. But they also don’t really know what to do with it. And I feel like maybe the problem is that consumers still haven’t quite made the switch from thinking of their data as something basically valueless to them that they can give up to companies in return for getting cool stuff like email and social media for free and instead thinking of data as something that is actually valuable and that giving it up has a cost. And that cost is being locked into a platform, being addicted to the feeds and to all, just all the content that’s online, and not having any way to prevent scary things that might be done to you in future with all of that data. And so the question for me then is, what would be that thing? What would be the bad thing that would cause people to wake up and realize, actually, there is a real cost to giving up your data?

Lauren: I often think of, uh, do you remember the off-Broadway musical I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change?

Gideon: I haven’t seen that one.

Lauren: It was a really long-running musical, and I often think of that phrase—just that phrase—in my head when I think about our relationship to the internet over the past 30 years.

Gideon: Huh, that’s a good—good description, yes.

Lauren: And it feels like that’s where we’re at, but I also think that maybe we need better phrases? Like, maybe we have a marketing problem. Maybe phrases like “interoperability” or even the phrase “walled garden” is something that’s not resonating in a certain way. Like when I think of “walled garden,” I most often think of Apple, which is ironic because there’s an Apple event this week that we’re going to be covering on Apple has really lured us into this walled garden.

Gideon: Even the phrase “walled garden” makes it sound like, you know, kind of nice, pleasant to calm place. It’s a—it’s a word. The word you want is “prison.”

Lauren: Yeah. [Laughter] I think there will always be this subset of consumers, even tech-savvy ones, who look at something like Apple’s lock in and say, oh, sure, yeah, but it works. Like I like that. I can get my messages across all of my Apple devices and that Apple aggressively nudges me to store my passwords and my Safari keychain so I don’t have to think about it and it all just works. There’s a convenience factor, you know. But this level of continuity, if you wanna call it that, that’s like a somewhat new phenomenon. On the internet, we used to have more freedom of choice, and so I think like not using the word, maybe, “interoperability” so much but framing it as you pointed out, like that this is a lack of choice, and you are giving up your data and your personal information in exchange, you’re getting a lack of choice seems like maybe a better way to, like, to think about this.

Gideon: But I also don’t think it’s a subset of consumers who like the convenience of getting iMessages across their devices and all of these other conveniences. I would say it’s probably true for most of us, and I think the problem here is that we’re starting to be conditioned to think that it’s either/or. Either you have the convenience, and your iMessages work across all your devices, and the apps in the App Store are safe, and they don’t contain viruses, you know, all, all of that good stuff happens, or you’re out there in the wild, wild frontier where nothing works and nothing is safe, and I think that is a false trade-off. I think the argument Cory would make is that there are ways to have the good things about large companies managing your data and building apps and devices for you whilst also having the freedom to move between them much more easily.

Lauren: Do you think that regulation, more regulation, would actually make this better?

Gideon: I think a problem here is that public debate on tech regulation is very impoverished, and in part that’s because we think of tech regulation as something really complicated, and it’s true that it can be, but at the same time, the basic concepts are really pretty simple. I think of interoperability, which, like I said, should really be reframed as freedom of choice, as being like democracy. It can be a complicated system, but it’s a very simple concept. And somehow antitrust doctrine got sidetracked into being about prices, which isn’t that relevant in the digital world where so many products and services are free. And instead it lost track of this idea of freedom of choice as being the core reason for antitrust is to give consumers that freedom. And I also think that in the discussions that we’ve had about antitrust relating to Big Tech, there’s been a lot of talk about breaking up Big Tech, and Cory talks in the book about the need to do that, but he also says it will take ages. He said it took 69 years from the time that authorities first tried to go after AT&T to when it was finally broken up. And so he says the first step towards breaking up Big Tech is actually in some way joining up Big Tech—forcing it to be interoperable so that it gives people more freedom to move between one platform and another.

Lauren: So what about the internet makes you optimistic for its future?

Gideon: I think there’s a small ray of hope in that big lawsuit against Google that I mentioned at the top of the show, because it suggests maybe the tide is starting to shift, but I think honestly the best I can say right now is that I’m optimistic that things will get worse.

Lauren: Sounds great. Looking forward.

Gideon: And thereby force a reckoning. I mean, Cory pointed to the resurgence of the labor movement in recent years as kind of a backlash against the growing power of big companies, and I do think that’s hopeful. I think, as I said, the fact that his enshittification piece went viral was another little flag, a sense that people feel something is amiss, and they’ve been looking for language to describe it. But otherwise, right now, if we look at the way that things are going, tech companies are using our data in more and more egregious ways, and we need some sort of moment to happen where the consequences of this mass data collection come home to roost, and I’m not quite sure what that moment will be. Do you, uh, do you see any bright silver linings?

Lauren: I think some of the stuff I’m optimistic about is—I’ll call them newer tools like Mastodon or this protocol Activitypub that even Meta has said it might integrate into its Threads app. This is like really jargony, but these were actually introduced around 2017 and 2018. But the idea that these are now gaining traction I think is an opportunity for reeducation or an education of a new era of internet users, because current 25-year-olds weren’t on BBS or Usenet or these really early distributed-communication systems that eventually became centralized around the time of America Online. And, of course, there was bad stuff on the internet, too. But this was like a very early volunteer-based, community-led, decentralized internet. And I think that if you’re someone who spends all of your time on TikTok and Instagram right now, and then you suddenly understand that there is an internet that can exist that isn’t based on these servers that are run by these giant tech companies with all of your data being processed and stored in the cloud, but that there are different ways to do it, like if you fundamentally understand, oh, it doesn’t all have to be run by Facebook. I think that that’s the start of understanding that we can build a better internet.

Gideon: So it sounds like you’re saying our hope for the future is 15-year-olds.

Lauren: [Laughter] Our hope for the future is 15-year-olds getting off of TikTok. Yes. And getting onto the, and getting onto the Fediverse, if only we fully understood what that meant.

Gideon: Great.


Gideon: That’s our show for today. Thank you for listening. Have a Nice Future is hosted by me, Gideon Lichfield.

Lauren: And me, Lauren Goode. If you like the show, tell us. Leave us a rating and a review wherever you get your podcasts, and don’t forget to subscribe so you can get a new episode each week.

Gideon: Have a Nice Future is a production of Condé Nast Entertainment. Danielle Hewitt from Prologue Projects produces the show. Our assistant producer is Arlene Arevalo.

Lauren: See you back here next Wednesday, and until then, have a nice future.