Back in my day, the internet used to be better. I feel old saying that—I only just turned thirty-four—but it is true. When I first started using the internet in the early 2000s, the web had become functional enough to be fun, the walled gardens of nineties CompuServe and AOL had come down, and anyone (including fourteen-year-old Kara) could make a website for free on a place like Geocities.
And then it all got terrible.
Or, as fellow Canadian writer Cory Doctorow puts it, “enshittified.” But unlike yours truly, Doctorow doesn’t just want to complain about this problem: he also has a plan to fix it! Enter The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a book-length distillation of thoughts he has been putting out for, well, about as long as I have been alive at this point. Doctorow writes and speaks about enshittification and interoperability (the two main motifs of this book) quite a bit—I recommend this essay in particular if you want a sense of his writing style and ideas before diving into this book. Note: I received a copy of this book in exchange for a review.
Let’s break this down in to the two parts of the book’s title. “The Internet Con” refers to that first concept I mentioned, enshittification. Basically, it means that in the current regulatory climate, Big Tech corporations have a financial incentive—indeed, one might argue they have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders—to make their services worse in a way that locks users into them. (As an aside, credit to the CBC radio program Spark for pointing out to me that only tech companies and drug dealers refer to their customers as users….) There’s more to unpack here—which is what Doctorow spends the first part of the book doing—but there are plenty of simple examples. Social networks like Instagram don’t offer strictly chronological feeds anymore (though that might be changing, at least for some, thanks to new EU regulations) because those feeds don’t keep people engaged very long, which means they serve us up fewer ads. Apple has total control over what runs on an iPhone because that locks you in to their ecosystem. And so on. Doctorow attributes much enshittification to weak laws (in the United States, but exported to or emulated by other countries) around monopoly and monopsony.
Doctorow’s solution? Legislate interoperability, i.e., force companies to allow others to play on their playground, to make systems that interface with their own, etc. This ensures users’ data can be portable and also gives companies incentives to make their apps, etc., you know, actually good—because there will be competition. Big Tech is, understandably, opposed to interoperability. Doctorow spends most of the second half of the book explaining how a couple of types of interoperability work, and he gives examples of successes in history—a notable one being how the VHS tape won out over Betamax.
There’s a lot to love about The Internet Con. Doctorow effortlessly moves among the domains of history, law, economics, and more. He provides important context, stirs up resentment, and then proffers up platefuls of hope. That’s my main takeaway from this book, and it feels so necessary in our current climate of ever-increasing prices for worse and worse streaming services, not to mention the walled gardens of social networks. I really appreciate that Doctorow adamantly insists something can be done.
His utter rejection of Big Tech as it currently exists at the apotheosis of late-stage capitalism is also so refreshing. I’ve been spending too much time on LinkedIn lately (one of the hazards of starting a freelance copyediting business, lol). Too many people on that platform talk about “creating change” in tech, usually through a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. But then they turn around and embrace super problematic trends, like crypto or generative AI. It feels so rare these days to see a cis white man selling a book that says “down with Big Tech!”
The book ends kind of abruptly. There isn’t really a conclusion; the last chapter is called “What about Blockchain?” and focuses on debunking that as a potential solution (following a series of chapters where Doctorow addresses a single objection or alternative to mandating interoperability). Then there’s a further reading list and an index, and that’s it. I found that peculiar—it must be deliberate, perhaps to send the message that this fight is far from over. Or maybe Doctorow just thought he had made his point clear and didn’t want to overstay his welcome—the book is under 200 pages, and I respect that.
Though some of Doctorow’s digressions into history or economics might require people to reread them a couple of times to fully grasp what he’s saying, his writing overall is super accessible. This is actually the first nonfiction book by Doctorow that I’m reviewing here—but I’m starting to get the impression that I enjoy his nonfiction writing far more than I do his fiction projects. His voice and style in his novels just doesn’t do it for me—it’s far too polemical, too bare, which I don’t want in my stories but love in my nonfiction.
The Internet Con is a book about what is wrong with the internet and Big Tech and, more importantly, provides a roadmap to fix it. Doctorow has been around long enough to understand these problems and advocate for workable solutions. Now he’s explaining it in a way that all us laypeople can understand, so that we can do the work of organizing and, as he puts it, seizing the means of computation. It’s time to get interoperable, baby.