Changelog Interviews – Episode #535
Examining capitalism's chokepoints
with Cory Doctorow
This week we’re talking with Cory Doctorow (this episode contains explicit language) about his newest book Chokepoint Capitalism, which he co-autored with Rebecca Giblin. Chokepoint Capitalism is about how big tech and big content have captured creative labor markets and the ways we can win them back. We talk about chokepoints creating chickenized reverse-centaurs, paying for your robot boss (think Uber, Doordash, Amazon Drivers), the chickenization that’s climbing the priviledge gradient from the most blue collar workers to the middle-class. There are chokepoints in open source, AI generative art, interoperability, music, film, and media. To quote Cory, “We’re all fighting the same fight.”
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Notes & Links
- Buy Cory’s books
- Gig Work Is the Opposite of Steampunk
- TikTok’s Enshittification
- Rural towns and poor urban neighborhoods are being devoured by dollar stores
- What is Chokepoint Capitalism?
- Revenge of the Chickenized Reverse-Centaurs
- Cory on Twitter explaining “chickenization “
- Red Team Blues: Another audiobook that Amazon won’t sell
- The Memex Method
- Changelog Interviews #221: How we got here with Cory Doctorow
|1||00:00||This week on The Changelog|
|3||04:11||Start the show!|
|4||05:42||How Cory is able to write so much|
|5||13:58||Blogging is researching a future book|
|6||16:44||Constantly spitting out words|
|8||20:22||Google made ONE successful product (search)|
|9||20:59||Three poultry packers control Chicken farmers in America|
|10||23:03||Chickenization of gig work|
|11||23:56||Chickenization is climbing the priviledge gradient|
|12||24:19||What's a Centaur?|
|13||25:21||Paying for your robot boss|
|15||31:24||Let's talk "Chokepoint Capitalism"|
|16||37:43||Chokepoints in Open Source|
|17||39:15||Chokepoint in AI generative art|
|18||51:07||It's bleak but we can change stuff (together)|
|19||53:13||Systems are intrinsically interoperable|
|21||1:00:50||Federated media circumvents the chokepoint|
|22||1:03:47||High switching costs|
|23||1:06:35||Is there a perfect world?|
|24||1:11:04||Always have a backup|
|25||1:11:51||Regulation and competition|
|26||1:15:14||Why did we stop enforcing anti-trust law?|
|27||1:17:45||We're all fighting the same fight|
|28||1:19:33||There's only one fight|
|29||1:21:09||Chokepoint status on Podcasting|
|30||1:25:44||Up next on The Changelog|
Click here to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧
Alright, we’re here with Cory Doctorow. Cory, it’s been so long since you’ve been on the Changelog that I’ve never even seen your face digitally. I’ve seen it on pictures, and avatars, but last time we were talking - I mean, we’re talking ancient days, audio-only. The internet couldn’t even handle video feeds. Good to have you back.
And now I’m present as a deepfake. I look nothing like this. All my fell out during the pandemic, and I lost my teeth… I just use this video puppet.
Well, you look spectacular, so congratulations on your deepfake.
Yeah, it’s the miracle of video deepfaking, yeah.
For sure. 2016, Jerod…
Right? Recorded September 23rd, 2016.
I mean, nothing’s happened since, so it feels pretty much the same…
Yeah, well… That was basically just like yesterday. There were no political upheavals, no epidemiological upheavals, no near-nuclear wars… It’s been like totally chill. I think they’re gonna call it The Seven Boring Years in future history.
You haven’t written any books in the meantime… Or maybe like 100 of them. I mean, geez, man, you’re prolific in your bookwriting.
How do you get it done? Adam wants to write a book, but we haven’t cracked the – we have a plot basis, but he’s not cranking out chapters. How are you so efficient, effective? How do you get it done?
Well, there’s a couple of ways of answering that. So one is that I write when I’m anxious. So lots of people are paralyzed when they’re anxious; what I do is I outrun all of my problems by disappearing into work. I have seven books in production right now, which tells you what the last couple of years have been like…
Oh, my goodness.
Four in the next 12 months. In fact, if your listeners are interested, the next book is Silicon Valley Anti-Finance Finance thriller called “Red Team Blues.” It comes out at the end of April. It’s not the book we’re here to talk about today, but because none of my books are sold with DRM, you can’t get the audiobooks on Audible. Audible won’t carry them. So although the books come from Macmillan, I kickstart the audio, and I just came out of the studio with Wil Wheaton. He recorded an incredible narration. And if you go to redteamblues.com you can pre-order that audiobook. It comes as a DRM-free mp3 folder.
I was about to ask you why you don’t read your own books, but if you’ve got Wil Wheaton doing it - I mean, that’s an answer.
Yeah… Although the next one – so the book after this (I think we’ll probably get into some of its themes) is a book from Verso called “The Internet Con”, and it’s about interoperability and the role that it plays in competition and in technological self-determination. And I am probably going to read it. I’m talking with the directors that I use right now about whether – you know, I’m a pretty good reader. Will is like a much better reader, and watching the director direct him in the studio last week - you know, I get a sense of what a director can bring, and I’m kind of thinking of it as like almost a professional development opportunity. I would like to be a better reader, and working with top-notch directors that – I should mention the director and the studio. It’s Skyboat Media. Fantastic studio. If you listen to audiobooks, you’ve heard a ton of Skyboat titles. And they’ve got Gabrielle de Cuir, who’s the co-owner of the studio, who’s an incredible director - she was directing Will, and will probably direct me, I assume. And that would be very exciting, because she’s – just listening to her do it, it’s wild.
If you go to the Kickstarter, there’s some video from the studio and audio from the studio. you can hear her directing him, which is really wild. It’s a real behind-the-scenes look at how this stuff works. Very cool.
[08:03] Yeah, so part of it is like channel your anxiety, right? Some of it is a certain mental approach. I think a lot of us start writing because it just feels good, and we do it for a while… I think that what we call talent is practicing without noticing. I don’t think there’s like a gene for writing that like our bonobo ancestors developed some kind of recessive gene for making shit up… I just think that it’s just – you know, you practice it, right? And that’s how you get better at anything, you practice it.
So you do it when it feels good, and it does feel good, and then you do it, and you do it, and it feels good, and so on. And then there comes this point where it’s your job, and you’ve gotta do it when it doesn’t feel good. And that is really hard. Because there are days when you will sit down to write and it just doesn’t feel good. There are days when you sit down to write and it feels like every word you can think of is terrible. And I feel that, too. And I had this period after my first novel came out – my first novel came out when I was doing a startup in the dotcom bubble. And then I went to work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and became their European director.
My next two books came out when I was traveling 27 days a month, 31 countries, and I had to write everywhere. I had to write when it didn’t feel good. And what I realized was that there were days looking back on the work where I didn’t do good work, and there were days looking back on the work where the work was great. And there were days writing where it felt bad, and there were days writing when it felt good, but they were not in any way overlapping. How I felt about the work was a function of my blood sugar, my stress level, how much sleep I got. Whether I was jet-lagged. Whether my girlfriend and I were fighting. And so what I had to do was just like feel the feels, right? Like, know that I felt this way. And the analogy I have to it - I came to it at one of my rare VR experiments. I have bad astigmatism, and can’t really do VR for very long. I get a headache. But I tried the plank, plank-walking with VR, and the VR headset is telling you that you are up 200 feet, and you know for an absolute fact that you’re standing on level ground. And yet, you really feel it. And you will feel when you’re writing, on some days, like you are writing terrible work. And you will not be able to escape that feeling any more than you are able to escape the feeling that you’re standing on a plank. But in the same way that there’s like a part of you that knows that you are not standing on a plank over a 200-foot drop, there is a part of you that you can teach, that the feeling, as real as the feeling is, it is not a feeling about a real thing. You really feel the feeling, but the feeling does not correspond to the real thing. So you’ve just gotta work when you’re doing it.
And then finally, I’d say that the other piece of it is blogging, partly because blogging is a way of practicing. I co-own Boing Boing. I wrote it for 19 years. I struck out on my own about three years ago, I have a thing called Pluralistic.net now. So if you take everything that crosses your transom, everything that seems interesting, and rather than pasting it into a group chat, or keeping the tab open and then like eventually closing it, if you try to express what it is about that thing that seems significant to you, even if you don’t know for sure, right? If you try to express it for a notional stranger, even if no one ever reads your blog, you will create a note about it with a rigor that your notes for yourself are unlikely to ever attain. We all cheat when we write a note to ourselves; we’ve all picked up a note to ourselves that we’ve been like “What is this cryptic nonsense I left for myself? Dear me in the past, you’re an idiot. You should have been more considerate of me here in the future.”
[11:59] And so when you write for an audience, you have to bring a kind of completion to bear on it. And that itself is powerfully mnemonic; it helps you remember things. It also gives you a database, because blogs are searchable, right? You’ve got a CMS. It gives you annotations; if you’re lucky enough to have readers, they’ll come along and leave comments and say, “Hey, blockhead, you forgot this”, and “Hey, here’s this other cool thing”, and “Wow, I never thought about it. Did you ever think about it this way?” So you’ll get some foment, you’ll get some like fermentation of this culture you’re putting together…
And then finally, it turns your subconscious into a kind of super-saturated solution of fragments, of bigger, more synthetic ideas, and eventually, a couple of them will stick together and they’ll nucleate… And what will crystallize out of it is a story, a novel, a speech, a nonfiction book, and essay, even just another blog post…
You know, the Pluralistic posts, I used to write 5 to 10 blog posts a day, and they were really short. Now I write six blog posts a week, and they’re 3000 words each, but they’re big, synthetic, well-developed arguments that I draw very heavily on those old blog posts for.
If you search for the Memex method… I wrote this up for Medium. I write a column there once a week, and you can find a kind of full expression of how that works, and how having those personal memory expanders, as Vannevar Bush said of the Memex, is a powerful way to be a better writer.
It takes some discipline there, for sure.
Yeah, but it pays a dividend.
Yeah, I mean, even reading through like a recent – I went to Pluralistic just to check it out what you’re talking there. March 27th, 2023. Recently. “Rural towns in poor urban neighborhoods are being devoured by dollar stores.” Like, this is deep writing. I mean, it’s very thick, in a good way. Positively.
Yeah, it builds on – so that’s the thing, is it synthesizes stuff that I’ve already written. I think of blogging as researching a book that I don’t know I’m writing. The way I find out which book I’m writing is by which blog posts I write. And that turns into big, synthetic, complete pieces. And I think that it’s how everybody works.
Look, if you’re a software developer, you write a certain kind of routine, or build a certain kind of backend over and over again, and if you do it long enough, on the one hand, it becomes a little automatic. But on the other hand, it becomes part of a repertoire. And once it is automatic, you can then integrate it into other components, right? You can be like –oh yeah, I have this – the German word is Fingerspitzengefühl, fingertip feeling; like you’ve got a ball balanced on your fingertips, and you can tell which way it’s going to tip. So I’ve got this kind of sense; like, I just know it. The same way that if you practice scales long enough, you can just sort of improvise, right? I know it; now I can improvise.
And so when you’ve got all this stuff in the in the hopper, you’ve got this improvisational repertoire that you can pull apart and put back together very readily as you go… And it becomes a habit of thought as well. So now, in addition to thinking as I read a new story about what I would say to a stranger about it, I’m also always thinking in a very automatic way, “How does this connect to the things that I’ve already thought about? Where does this fit into this body of knowledge I’m building?”
It’s a powerful discipline to undertake, and I think it’s never too late to start. I think keeping your notes in public is just such like a radical act. It’s a bit coding on a live stream, right? People want to hide their works in progress. They want the world to think that everything that emerges from them emerges like a fully polished fait accompli, and not see the way that it is glommed together from imperfect things.
[16:09] There’s a TikTok stream that I watch, like all Gen-Xers, on Twitter, from someone ganking it and posting it there, of a guy who was kicking a rock every day until it turned into a sphere. He was just walking down the street kicking a rock about like the size of a golf ball, and it starts off as this kind of really irregular thing, and it’s very slowly becoming a sphere. And everyone wants to think that you start with a sphere; or they want other people to think that they start with a sphere. They’re living their own blooper reel, and everyone else’s highlight reel. Showing other people your blooper reel is pretty cool. It’s very liberating.
Yeah. Lots of places we can go with that… I was reading a Medium post by you recently, “Gig work is the opposite of steampunk.” And I think this will tie in nicely, or lead us into our chokepoint conversation… But you wrote this phrase in there - you’re talking about blue collar workers. And I was just thinking about the wordsmithing that you probably do. If you’re writing seven books concurrently, you’re just constantly spitting out words, and I wonder if you ever bore yourself, or like trying to think of a different way of saying something… Or do you ever stop and like get an actual source out anymore, or are you just beyond that point? But what you said here –
Well, I mean, at 51 and sleep deprived, I sometimes just can’t think of words anymore the way it used to be able to. So I sometimes know that there’s a word, and I can’t think of it, and I will use the source. My Oxford Historical Thesaurus of the English Dictionary, which is the two-volume slipcase thing - it’s actually holding my monitor up, which tells you how often I consult it. But that’s also because my vision is so bad now that I can’t read it anymore, even with a magnifying glass. As soon as I finish touring, I’m getting double cataract surgery, and they’re going to correct my vision to 20/20, which is going to be awesome.
Well, I was reading some of your words here, and a phrase stopped me in my tracks. I thought maybe you could explain it to us in the context of this post of yours… And I’ve now scrolled on accident. So here I am. You’re talking about blue collar workers. This is the idea of bossware; we have this recurring theme here on the Changelog which we learned from our friend Swyx, about your relationship to the API, and how that affects gig work… Like, who’s above the API and who’s below the API, and this is very much what you’re talking about here. But you said “Blue collar workers have it the worst.” You said “They are chickenized reverse centaurs.” And that just stopped me in my tracks. I had to stop and think like “Okay, chickenized reverse centaurs…” Can you just launch off from there and explain what that means?
So yeah, that’s actually one of those nice, accretive terms, where - you know, I encountered chickenization in Zephyr Teachout’s work. She’s a labor theorist. If you’re like an old-school, weird nerd, you may know her from the Netroots days, back when Howard Dean was campaigning, and there were progressive technologists trying to figure out what we use the internet for when we do politics. She was part of that crew. She ran for governor of New York with Tim Wu, the guy who came up with the term net neutrality as her running mate. She just ran for Attorney General of New York. She’s a law professor in New York City. And Zephyr is an – and this is her real name, Zephyr Teachout. It’s an old Quaker name, which is super cool. And she wrote this book, “Break him up”, about antitrust, and about why we historically did not want companies to get above a certain size; why we were suspicious of bigness itself. What Brandeis - he called it the curse of bigness. And Tim Wu, her running mate, actually wrote a little pamphlet for Columbia University Press called “The curse of bigness” about this.
[19:39] So why we’re trying to avoid bigness… And it’s a bunch of case studies. And one of the case studies is about the poultry industry in America, which is so corrupt that it actually has a name in labor economics. We describe a certain kind of ghastly labor practice, a constellation of labor practices - we call them chickenization. So in America there are three meat packers, poultry packers left. They bought all their competitors. And I should note that until the 1980s, that would have been illegal. We stopped enforcing the laws that prohibit companies from buying their competitors around 1980. Around the time the Apple 2+ came out, right? So this is why if you’re in tech, you think of it as normal that Apple buys companies more often than you buy groceries. And yeah, Google is a company that made one successful in-house product, they made a search engine 25 years ago. They cloned another company’s product with Hotmail and Gmail, and then everything else they built in-house didn’t work, and everything that they’ve done that’s successful they bought from someone else. So smart city bullshit - that just didn’t happen. Reader is gone.
Google Wave… Let’s not discount Google Wave.
Yeah, Google Wave, right? Google Video… All of those. Meanwhile, their ad tech stack, their server management stack, their mobile stack, their video - all of that stuff, docs, all of it, bought from someone else. Even the satellite stuff, bought from someone else.
So the poultry packers, they gobble each other up, and now there’s three of them, and they have divided America into three territories. They don’t compete with each other. If you have like a cable modem, you know how this works. There’s only one company offering your cable modem. Except if you’re a poultry farmer, there’s only one company that will buy your birds. And they determine everything about how you grow those birds. So you have to buy the chicks from them. They tell you what your coop has to look like; they give you the floor plan for it, the blueprints. They tell you when the lights go on, when they go off, what spectrum light your light bulbs can emit. What food you can give them, what schedule they’re fed on, which vets you can use, what meds those vets can give them… Everything except how much you’re gonna get paid. That you find out when you bring the chickens to market. And because they have regionwide insight into the poultry production of you and all your competitors, they give you money that is calculated to the penny to be just enough to roll your loans and do it again next year.
They do things like A/B splits, where they’ll be like “What happens if we give chickens less food? Will they still get as big?” And they don’t tell you that you’re in the experimental arm. And you go to market with sickened chickens, right? “What happens if we don’t give them this medicine?” and your chickens all die, and they’re like “I guess you’re on the hook for that.”
When people speak out about it, they are struck off. So if a poultry packer refuses to do business with you, and you grow chickens, and you’ve got a million dollars worth of debt for your physical plant, you’re dead, right? There’s nothing you can do.
And so farmers who speak at like state congressional hearings, state legislative hearings get struck off. And there was one guy who spoke out on a state regulatory proceeding, who after he got struck off, he was like “Well, I guess the one thing I can do is I’m really good at fixing these standard coops that the poultry processor requires.” So he went into business doing that. And they told every farmer that if you hire this guy, we will not buy your chickens either. They just destroyed him.
So that’s chickenization. And if chickenization sounds familiar, it’s what Uber drivers have, right? It’s what DoorDash has. It’s what – there’s a company called Arise. They hire primarily black women to do work from home call center stuff, and each of these people are misclassified as contractors. They have to start an LLC. And then because they’re a company, they have to bid on the job. They work for like Carnival cruises, and Disney, and whatever - they have to pay to be trained to be the phone operator. And then they’re listened in on constantly, and if their kids cry in the background, they are struck off; they lose the job, but they still owe the money for the training. And there’s a penalty for cancellation on their side, where if they quit their jobs, they have to pay their boss to quit their jobs. So that’s a form of chickenization as well.
Chickenization is kind of working its way up the privilege gradient from the most blue collar workers now to a more middle-class group of workers. It’s your boss’s ideal, right? All the risk is pushed on to you, all the rewards go to them. Every business owner would love to have that as their arrangement, right?
[24:18] So what’s a centaur? Well, a centaur in AI research is someone who’s machine-assisted, right? I’m a chess grandmaster, you’ve got a chess playing software program. Neither of us are as good on our own as we are together. We can beat opponents together that we couldn’t beat on our own. So that’s a centaur. But a reverse center is when the machine is in charge, and you’re at support. So say you’re an Amazon warehouse worker who’s wearing haptic gloves that go “Bzz! You need to pick that up. Bzz! You need to turn your body. Bzz! You need to drop this thing in the box. Bzz! Bzz! Bzz!”
Or say you’re an Amazon driver, right? You’ve got a facial recognition camera that’s watching your eye movements and penalizing you if you look away from the road, you’ve got a clock that’s timing your drives, that’s telling you you have to turn left, even if turning left would result in your death, and then it docks you for doing it. Machine says no - that’s a reverse centaur, right? It’s when you are the disposable meat sack for the all-important algorithm.
Oh my gosh…
And so a chickenized reverse centaur is the worst, because you have to buy the machine that’s in charge of you. And so that is like – increasingly, it’s anyone who’s working for an app on a phone is paying for their robot boss. They have to buy the robot boss and then submit to its will. So that is the worst labor condition you can have, chickenized reverse centaur.
So much things packed into those three words. I’m pleasantly surprised at how deep that is.
Congratulations for doing that. [laughter] The ultimate compression.
Yeah, really. There’s more to it than I thought. I just thought “Okay, I can get it with the reverse centaur thing”, because I’m thinking like “Okay, a centaur is like a human on top, animal on bottom.” So I’m thinking machine, or computer on the bottom. Well, reverse centaur is like, okay, you’ve got human legs, which means you’re basically just like carrying around this software, this robot, and doing its will. That one I got to. But the chickenized, even though I live in the Midwest, I’m well aware of the chicken factories, and all this; it’s very disgusting. I was just completely lost on me, so…
Well, yeah… It’s accretive, right? So it builds on work that I’ve done already. Lots of hyperlinking, and so on. And one of the things about a phrase like chickenized reverse centaur is that it’s got a kind of fun flavor that I think makes people want to go and read about it. I think if you just said “You’re an exploited worker that has to pay for your own exploitation”, everybody would just be like “It just sounds like hyperbole.” Whereas chickenized reverse centaur might send you off to the article that I wrote called “Revenge of the chickenized reverse centaurs”, that explains all of what I’ve just explained to you, with references to my review of Zephyr’s book, and references to AI theorists, and so on. That’s what hypertext is, right? It’s a book that doesn’t have a beginning or an end. Everything is the middle. There’s no linear path through it.
Right. Well, you’re making good use of the Medium, I would say, because the all those connection points you wouldn’t even know until you get into them and you follow a link and it takes you somewhere else. And that’s kind of the fun of the web. It’s just like finding and following a breadcrumb trail to different things.
On this gig work post, this Medium post, it very much ties in to the book that you’ve recently written, “Chokepoint Capitalism” book, because as you are chickenized and as you are reverse-centaurised, you are nothing but at the will of that which is in control of you, and that’s really kind of the chokepoint idea. Can you at least tie those two together and talk about chokepoints and why they’re so…?
Yeah, sure. Well, so Chokepoint Capitalism - I co-wrote this book with my colleague, Rebecca Giblin. She’s a great copyright scholar at the University of Melbourne. We wrote it during lockdown on Zoom calls with shared G docs. And we had spoken together at an event in Melbourne while I was out on a book tour in like 2017, and both of us had been involved in kind of copyright liberalisation for a couple of decades each. You know, the Napster wars and their sequels, right? And those debates are terrible. Every one of those debates comes down to “Why are you doing the business of big tech?” or “Why are you doing the business of evil record executives and publishing companies?” And there’s no room in that debate to be an advocate for artists directly or audiences directly. You can only advocate for these companies, which are said to be the proxies for audiences and artists, right? So tech companies proxies for audiences, entertainment companies proxies for artists. Neither of them are very good proxies for either, right? Both of them are really bad at being proxies for either. And what we wanted to do was write a book that tried to explain how you could be suspicious of ever-expanding copyright, and still be on the side of both artists and audiences. And it starts from this observation that we have made copyright bigger and bigger for 40 years. It lasts longer, it covers more kinds of works, the penalties are harsher than they’ve ever been, and it’s easier to prove infringement and secure those penalties than it ever has been.
The industries - music, movies, TV games, publishing - they’re bigger and more profitable than they’ve ever been, proportionally and in real terms. And the share of income going to creators whose work they sell is smaller proportionally, and in real terms, than it’s been in 40 years, and it keeps declining. So the question is, how could you give creators this bargainable right, this copyright that they take to market, and try to get a better deal with from these intermediaries, publishers, labels, studios, tech platforms? How is it that we keep giving them more of those rights, and they keep getting less money for them? And the answer is that we live in a world where there are five giant publishers, four giant studios, three giant labels, two giant ad tech companies, also two giant app companies. One of those is the same company. And one company that does all the eBooks and audiobooks.
[34:30] And in that world, giving the creator extra copyright is like giving a bullied kid extra lunch money. There’s just not an amount of lunch money you give that kid that will buy them lunch. All it’s going to do is a kind of roundabout transfer to these firms that control the chokepoints, that have the audiences corralled with DRM, lock-in, network effects, all the things that they use to control the market, and whatever we give artists, they just take as a condition of reaching that market.
So to solve it, you need structural interventions. So first you need to understand how that market has become so degraded, what are the historic forces, how does the market work… A lot of the first half of the book is just untangling these very baroque accounting scams. The finance sector, they use the acronym MEGO, which stands for “my eyes glaze over.” It’s when you make a prospectus so thick that the person you give it to assumes that it must have some substance to it, but doesn’t try to find it. The same way that you assume that a pile of shit big enough must have a pony under it, right? [laughter]
And so we just spent a lot of time in the first half of the book just going like “Here’s how Spotify works. Here’s how Audible works. Here’s how YouTube works. Here’s how ad tech works”, right? The second half of the book is systemic interventions. They are things not that you can do individually, because you’re not going to shop your way out of monopoly capitalism in the same way that you’re not going to recycle your way out of the climate emergency. There are things that as we lurch from crisis to crisis, because anything that can’t go on forever eventually stops, right? When it stops, we’re like “Something must be done”, right? The next time we say “Something must be done”, instead of saying, “Well, we’ve been making copyright bigger for the last 40 years. Maybe we can make it bigger again and it’ll go differently this time”, instead we can have these complex technical shovel-ready proposals that are well-understood by lots of different stakeholders in the industry - audiences, creators, workers within the creative industries… You know, like if it’s bad for me as a writer with only five publishers, imagine how bad it is for an editor with only five employers, right? What happens if you get canned from that job, right?
So ways that all of these people who are in fact class allies can come together and say, “Here’s a thing that doesn’t just make the industry bigger, but which changes the distributional outcome of the industry”. For 40 years we’ve been told “Don’t ask which slice of the pie you’re getting. Just concentrate on making the pie bigger.” That is a thing that you can only love if you’re sure that you’re gonna get the biggest slice of the pie. It is entirely possible for the pie to get bigger, and for you to get more money from it for your slice to be in real terms and proportionally smaller every time the pie gets bigger.
So that’s the whole focus of the book. And maybe we can talk about this more, but one area where I think your audience might be interested is we devote a whole chapter to interoperability, and the role that interoperability plays in helping audiences and creators get a better deal out of platforms.
[37:42] Plenty of places to launch off there. I mean, I was thinking of a few examples… As developers, we’ve seen some of this, I guess in the world of open source to a certain degree, and corporations basically bellying up to the table, and having their take, but not put anything back in. And historically, I think in the last 10 years we’ve had leverage as individuals inside large orgs. We were in such demand - I’m using the past tense here, if you can’t notice; we were in such demand, and we had positions of our own chokepoints, where we could say “You know what, I’m gonna go to a place that supports open source (for example), and does this, that or the other thing.” And companies were listening, because they were wooing developers, and they needed talent, and we were the talent. So we’ve seen some motion in the open source world of actual real dollars coming back to maintainers; not in the sizes that we would like, but there’s been some action there.
And so on this show, we’ve said “Use your leverage, use your voice inside these companies to affect change if this is something that you care about.” That seems like it’s drying up to a certain degree. We’re losing that – our own personal chokepoints are disappearing. And so are there no individual moves? Do you have to go by group effort, or…?
Look, there are individual moves, but there’s a limit to the power of individual action, right? If you cannot think of yourself as being part of a group or a polity or class, then there will be a limit to what you can accomplish. Here’s an example that is pretty contemporary, because it deals with the question about AI art. And I’ll just say, as a blanket kind of disclaimer, it’s not artificial, it’s not intelligence, there is no learning. It is statistical inference, or whatever you want to call it. We have to kind of concede a lot of ground to call it AI. It’s like if they decided to call it magic miracle technology, and every time you talked about it you have to go like “Magic miracle technology…” But for the sake of like clarity, let’s just call an AI art, right? So Taylor Swift - very powerful recording artist. She’s arguably the most powerful recording and touring artist in the world. Spotify had colluded with the big three labels to do some extraordinarily dirty stuff.
So when Spotify was launching, they needed to license the catalog of the big three labels Universal, Warner and Sony control six 70% of all the sound recordings in the world, and 60% of all the all the compositions. So you can’t make a move without them. They didn’t invest in that music, they just bought the companies. Again, anti-competitive mergers allowed them to acquire this market dominance. And so when Spotify started, they needed to get the labels on board, and the label said, “Okay, you have to make us your business partners. We want large equity stakes, and we are going to tell you how Spotify works.” And so Spotify did that. And what the label said is “We want the lowest possible royalty rate for the music that you license from us, but we want a minimum guaranteed monthly payout.” So like if your Sony, say, 1/6 of a cent per stream, or whatever it is, and you’re guaranteed $10 million a month… Maybe all the Sony streams streamed this month only add up to $5 million, but Spotify owes you 10 million. The other 5 million are what are called unattributable royalties, and you can do whatever you want with them. You can do them for like new artist development, which might just be sending executives around the world to shows, or you can spend it on studio upgrades, or you can give it as dividends, or whatever. It’s your money.
But the other reason they wanted that rock bottom rate is that every dollar they took out of the company as licensors was a dollar that counted against its cost basis, and made the shares that they had as owners less valuable. Because Spotify gets less profitable the more it has to pay for streams. And so they not only negotiated this, they negotiated something called “most favored nation status”, which means that Spotify could not pay anyone more than they paid the big three, except the other labels, the 30% of labels and independent artists who aren’t the big three - they don’t get minimum monthly payouts, free inclusion on playlists, free advertising, and they don’t get shares. They just get six tenths of a cent per stream.
[42:12] So they then got these huge tranches of shares, which then were worth 10s of billions of dollars when Spotify IPOed. And Taylor Swift was changing labels. And Universal really wanted her to change to Universal. And she said, “I will do that provided that you share that money with the artists, and that you share it with them on a net basis.” So if you make an album, you get paid in advance, and you owe that money back to your label, and then you go into production, and all the money spent in the production is also owned to your label, right down to the taxi fare, to your launch party, and the champagne they serve at it, you owe every penny of that back to your label.
The labels pay you extraordinarily small royalties. The Beatles used to split one penny for ways per LP, but not the whole penny. They got 85% of a penny, because 15% was held back for promotional copies, right? So you will never pay off that debt. And so there are lots and lots of artists who saw their advance and never saw another penny. And if Universal will share the money with them when they could just go in and they say “Okay, well, you owe us $300,000 that you’re never gonna be able to pay back. We’ve just applied some of that Universal money to your account. Now you owe us $200,000 that you’re never gonna be able to pay back”, and they wouldn’t actually give them a penny. Taylor Swift said, “No, you’re gonna give everyone a check.”
So that is a thing one person can do with a lot of power. But let me tell you about the limits of Taylor Swift’s power. So Taylor Swift famously had her masters acquired by private equity goon who hated her and whom she hated, and who when he sold them on to the family office of the Disney family made sure that he got a continued royalty stream from them just so that she would know that every time anyone played her first six albums, he would get a little bit of money, just so that he could rub it in, just because he hated her so much.
So she could not buy her masters back. She made all kinds of offers, and couldn’t get them back. But there was a collective right that every musician, and in fact every person in the world shares, to every song ever recorded. You, me and Taylor Swift and everyone else can record any song that’s ever been recorded, and sell it, provided we pay a fixed royalty, what’s called the compulsory license for it.
Well, among the albums that Taylor Swift is legally entitled to cover are her own. So she went back into the studio and re-recorded those first six albums, note for note, and put them out. So she was able to do her own additions. So we’re nearly done here, but let me take you through the AI example, okay?
So AI - there’s a lot of analogies between AI and sampling. When sampling first started, a lot of musicians felt like sampling was not legitimate. They said “When you take a loop of me playing the drums, or something I sang, or a little guitar lick and you loop it around, that’s just stealing, it’s not art. And it can never be art because it’s stealing.” Now, the people who did sampling, they were like “This isn’t even a thing copyright has a look into.” In the same way that if you’re a horn player in New Orleans, and you’re in the middle of your solo, you drop a couple of bars of That’s Amore in it - it’s not copyright infringement, it’s not fair use, it’s just how music is made. And they were like “This is how we make music.” And so nobody ever got permission for sampling.
You got albums like “It takes a nation of millions to hold us back” and Paul’s Boutique by Public Enemy and Beastie Boys, that were the highest-grossing albums of their time, best-selling albums of their time, hip hop albums, used hundreds and hundreds of samples… If they’d had to clear those samples at today’s rate, they’d have had to sell each one of those CDs at $150 each to pay it off, right? So this is music that would literally be impossible under a regime where you had to pay for samples at today’s rates.
[46:09] But a lot of artists argued that the way to fix sampling was to create a new right to control sampling, so that yes, you can sample, but you have to buy the sample license from me, negotiating with me. Me and you were going to negotiate. And that’s more or less what happened. It wasn’t a new law, but it was like some court precedents, some changes in the way the big three labels did business, and so on, that created this world that we have today, where if you want a sample, you take a license.
When you sign up with a label, you have to sign away the right to be compensated for your samples. So all the money for your samples goes to your label. If you want to license a sample, they’ll only let you do it if you are signed to one of the big three labels. So to sample you have to sign away your sampling rights.
So today we have this world where you get paid in advance, and then you immediately turn around and hand a bunch of it back to your label for samples. And that money doesn’t go to an artist, it goes to the label’s executives. And there are albums from the era of sampling, when we sampled a lot… Nobody samples like the Beastie Boys or Public Enemy did, because there’s just no way to make those albums successful, and $150 a CD is not anything anyone’s gonna pay, even if the CD is a digital download… And so there are albums from that era that just can’t be played anymore. Very famously, De La Soul - their first three albums just haven’t been available for 15 years. They started coming back in March after a 15-year battle to clear those samples. Some of those tracks cannot be released, ever, because of the sampling regime. And the frontman for De La Soul died in February, two weeks before this started. So he had to live through a 15-year period where no one could play his music, and then he died before it was made public.
So this is the problem… And so giving people an individual bargainable right to control samples was just a roundabout way, in the same way that giving your kid extra lunch money is just a roundabout way of transferring it to the bullies, transferring it to the people around the choke point.
So in AI, we are in exactly the same spot. People are saying “AI is a copyright infringement. You’re storing copies of my works in the model.” That’s just as a practical matter not true. If you look at the size of the training corpus and the size of the model, it’s one byte per work, right? If you’re storing one byte of a JPEG, you are not storing the JPEG. It’s just not true.
So they say that the way to make this legitimate is to create an exclusive right to train, to create a new right to mathematically consider the composition of a work, and derive statistical relationships between its subcomponents, which I think is a very bad copyright. But even if you think it’s a good copyright, we know how it’s going to work, because it’s already working this way.
It didn’t work last time.
Right. Because right now if you’re a voice actor, most of your work is going to come from Game Studios. Game studio recording sessions now all begin with you having to say, “My name is Cory Doctorow, and I hereby grant irrevocable permission to train a model with my voice.” Right?
So the only companies in a position to fire workers are also the companies who are in a position to take any exclusive right we create overtraining, and immediately transfer it to themselves and fire their workers. So you might snuff out the kids who are the equivalent of the Beastie Boys circa Paul’s Boutique, who are making funny things on Twitter. Those kids were never going to pay you anything, right? Those kids are not a source of declining income to you as an artist. But if you do create that exclusive right and snuff those kids out, what will happen is the people who do want to fire your ass, because every penny they pay you is a dollar they don’t put in their own pocket, you will immediately create the conditions for them to transfer that right to themselves, and they will fire your ass, and you will get not one dime from it.
[50:06] So there are lots of approaches we can take, and in the second half of the book we go through these systemic approaches… But just creating another bargainable right and saying, “Hey, you’re an LLC. They’re an incorporated entity. You guys can bargain like two businesses” is just bananas. Because you as a voice actor, as a photographer selling to Getty, as an animator at Disney, you don’t get to negotiate. I’m in the animators guild; Disney’s around the corner for me. I know what our negotiations look like. They suck. If there were to be a new right to control our work, and its use in training, it would just become part of the standard deal, and we would not be able to get anything better out of it, unless we went on strike. And the animators guild is a weak union. The writers guild, on the other hand, struck and got everything it asked for, and is about to go on strike again, because strong unions get shit done. Weak unions and individuals are helpless in front of these very large firms.
Well, you paint a bleak picture, Cory. It’s a bleak picture…
I know. I’m like –
So it’s not a bleak picture. We can change stuff, just not as an individual.
Just not as an individual.
We don’t work together so well. I mean, just in general, it’s harder. It’s easier to control me than it is to start a movement, to be part of something.
I mean, one individual did not make all the traces on the semiconductor that is turning your voice into a bunch of zeros and ones, right? We clearly can work together. And if you’re into free software methodologies, then you have experienced ways to work together with less hierarchy, more individual freedom, better ways of resolving governance questions than at any time in history, right?
One of the problems with collecting societies, which often represent artists, is that they are kind of gross, and corrupt, and whatever. We go through a lot of details on that. And we throw in some systemic solutions, some of which look like open source governance, and some of them are just common sense, right? So a collecting society, if it can’t find an artist, gets to use those and attributable royalties for whatever it wants, including its salaries. And so you find collecting societies who are like “We’ve got all this money for artists that no one’s ever heard of, like Beyonce. So we’re just going to keep it.” So what if we said – because there are legitimately times when you can’t locate an artist; what if we said to collecting societies, “The only thing you are legally permitted to do with unattributable royalties is improve your attribution systems?”
It’s like, it’s not that hard, right? Making that into a systemic solution, like getting that law passed is hard…
Right, that’s what I’m referring to.
But you know what? Collecting societies keep going down for embezzlement and corruption. How about if the next time that comes along, and we say, “Alright, well, you’ve got some penalties that you’re going to have to face… Penalty number one, you can only use unattributed royalties to improve attribution.” Like, it’s just sitting there – rather than levying a fine, what if we make a structural change?
Alright, that’s one good one. I like that one. What are some other solutions you’ve got?
Oh, there’s a ton of them. So I’ll talk a little about interop – and as I say, I’ve got this other book coming out, “The internet con”, from Verso, in September, that’s just about interop. But audiences and artists get locked into platforms because platforms use the law and technology to block interoperability. Systems are intrinsically interoperable. Turing-completeness just seems to be like a thing we can’t get away from. I go to DevCon, Hope, or CCC, and there’s inevitably some presentation from someone who’s like “Hey, guess what? It turns out PostScript is Turing-complete, and I wrote a printer virus”, right? “It turns out that the scripting language for MySpace that lets you do animated GIFs is Turing-complete, and I wrote that MySpace virus”, right? You just can’t get away from it.
[54:03] You can always make interoperable things. The problem is that the normal interoperable things that we do - reverse-engineering bots, scraping, whatever - have become increasingly prohibited behind a wall of copyright, patent, trademark, trade secrecy, contract law, Terms of Service, and so on. We’ve created what Jay Freeman from the Cydia Project, he calls it “felony contempt of business model”, right? Like, when Apple wants to solve the fact that everyone who uses Windows uses Office, and Office for the Mac sucks, and so people are just throwing away their Macs because they can’t talk to Windows computers - they don’t like beg Bill Gates to make a better Mac Office, right? What they do is they reverse-engineer those Office file formats, and they make Pages, Numbers and Keynote. And they’re just like “Yeah, now it just works. You can switch from the Mac to the PC, PC to the Mac, you can send files back and forth…” And they even ran this ad campaign, this Switch campaign, about how you can just switch from one to the other.
So if you were to make a runtime, like an iOS runtime that let you leave your iPhone behind, or your iPad, and go to another platform, Apple would say that you’re a pirate, right? When they did it, it was progress. When you do it, it’s theft. They would nuke you until the rubble glowed. They would come after you with Computer Fraud and Abuse claim for violating their terms of service, they would say that you’re engaged in tortuous interference with contract, they would say that you violated Section 12.1 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act by reverse-engineering, whatever.
As a practical matter, engineers can figure out how to do this. Engineers can figure out how to add extra app stores to platforms. We’ve got legislation pending in the US now about to be reintroduced, that came up in the last session, to create what’s called the link tax, where we’re going to say “If you talk about the news on social media, the media company gets a piece of it”, which is crazy. Talking about the news is like not a copyright violation. If you’re not allowed to talk about the news, it’s not the news. It’s a secret. But there are a couple of ways that tech platforms seriously steal for media companies. For one thing, every app has a 30% commission on every sale, to process a transaction.
Do you want to increase the subscriber revenue of every media company in America? Write a law that lets people install alternative app stores. And then there will be a race to the bottom for payment commissions. It won’t go to zero. It might go to 2%. So 28% increase on revenue for every subscriber, with one law. That’s more than you would get from a link tax. And that’s an interoperability measure, right? Letting people choose other software.
If you want to go even further, follow through on this law that we’ve got pending that forces the platforms to disaggregate their ad tech stacks, right? Google, or Facebook, they both operate a marketplace, a demand side platform and a sell side platform. It’s like the NASDAQ also owning the companies and the brokerages. Right? It’s like the referee owning the team. And so it’s no surprise that their share of income from the platforms for ads went from like 7% to 50%.
You want to increase the amount that ad supported media gets? Break up and make interoperable and disaggregated these ad tech stacks, so that they have to compete, so that they can’t just command these ridiculous shares of every dollar brought in in advertising.
So those are remedies that actually are about distributional outcomes, right? They change the amount of money being made by different entities. Not only that, but where we’ve had link taxes, like in Australia, where we created a link tax, the Murdoch Press took the link tax, gave it to its shareholders, and fired its reporters. Meanwhile, the smaller papers didn’t get the share of the link tax that the Murdoch papers did.
[58:09] So if we get rid of the app tax and the ad tax, then people starting small, independent publications are going to be able to get 100% of the revenue that they’re entitled to. It wouldn’t just be a gift to large media companies that could bargain for these rights. It would be a gift to everyone who makes media, including small, local, crowdfund-supported media platforms that are doing the shoe leather work of going into school meetings, and the waterboard meetings, and whatever. It’s not just a way to transfer money to private equity companies that have bought and strip-mined newspapers up and down the country.
So these are ways that technologists building interoperable layers like abstraction layers on top of things, or shims that sit between two different platforms, can actually help entertainers and media brands make more money by building something that audiences like better, while taking money out of the pockets of the big tech platforms that once promised you “Hey, this is a place that you can come and work for three years until you do your own startup”, and then said, “Oh, you’re not really going to be able to do your own startup, but I’ll tell you what - come work for us and we’ll give you massages and kombucha”, and are now like “Hey, guess what?”
No more massages…
“We just laid off 12,000 of you here at Google. Yeah… And last quarter we did a stock buyback that would have paid all 12,000 of those salaries for the next 27 years. Go fuck yourself, don’t let the door hit you on the way out”, right? So like these are ways that we can actually recognize and build on the natural class alliances between toolsmiths, users and creators and media firms.
I’m curious what you think of like technological solutions… You know, there’s been some uptick with Mastodon, Fediverse… We’re talking about federated non-central entity-owned social networking that if it could get the distribution that big tech has, that’s competition to the marketplace as well. Is that something we should be doing alongside, like in parallel to these other efforts?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I think the most important and interesting thing about federated media is the low switching costs built into it. So Activity Pub has built into it a directive similar to the directive built into RSS, where it’s like a redirect. So if you’re subscribing to me, I can push a redirect to you, or actually I leave a file out that has a redirect in it, that says “I’m now over here. This is where my feed is”, which means that with two clicks, you can leave one federated server, download all of the people that follow you and all the people you follow, go to another Fediverse server, upload them, and then just automagically everyone carries over.
Ooh… Hang on now…
[01:02:08.21] Yeah, it’s really cool. So one of the problems with the Fediverse is you have mods who are weirdos, right? I mean, that’s also a problem with the non-Fediverse, is like 430 million Twitter…
It’s just the world. That’s how the world works, right? [laughs]
Yeah. I mean, 430 million Twitter users discovered that their mod is a weirdo, too… But there was a guy who ran a thing called Mastodon.lol, and he got angry because his users were having a giant flame war about the JK Rowling video game. And he said, “Alright, guys, I’ve been running this as a hobby; it was to give me pleasure. I’m shutting it down. Bye.” Except that all 12,000 of those users can just download their graph, and just hop over to any other server. In the same way that you might have like a mod who’s like “I’m sorry, when that person says they’re gonna come to your house and kill your children, I don’t call that harassment”, you can be like “Okay, guess what? I’m leaving. I’m just gonna go somewhere else.”
Like, yeah, we want mods to be good, we want them to, say, police genuine death threats, and doxxing, and get rid of CSAM, whatever… There are all these things that we want from mods. But a lot of what we ask of mods, we ask of them because we have this view that social media - it’s like Anatevka, where the people from Fiddler on the Roof live, where every three scenes a bunch of Cossacks ride through and just kick the shit out of them… And they’re like “Well, what are you gonna do? We can’t leave Anatevka.” Right? If you could just go, if you can just be like –
“I’m out of here.”
“I’m going somewhere else.” Yeah, you still don’t want Cossacks riding through and beating up the people who remain, but boy, oh boy, it would offer some relief to the people who go.
So we need to think about where the high switching costs come from, and we need to acknowledge that they are a mix of two things. One is countermeasures… So think about that weekend where Twitter said “If we find a Mastodon handle in your bio, or in your stream, we’ll suspend you from the service.” That’s like a technical countermeasure. But then there’s like the legal countermeasures. Because you could just write a bot to scrape Twitter and figure out links to Mastodon, just like make it happen. A bunch of people do that with the API right now, but the API keeps getting nerfed… And so you could do it without the API. You can just do it manually, with like a bit, with a scraper.
And in fact, if there was the potential for a bot to be built without a legal remedy, without being able to go in and say, “Hey, you’re violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. It’s a felony”, blah, blah, blah, when they contemplate nerfing the API, they would have to go “Ah, are we gonna have to pay like 100 engineers to fight bots now? Because they’re all just going to switch over from using the API to using bots. Are we going to have this unquantifiable risk that arises from having to just take scarce engineering resource and devote it to fighting on the blue team, where we have to be perfect and they just have to find one mistake we’ve made? Because we can’t sue them”, because we’ve withdrawn the legal protection that would allow Apple to stop you from doing Apple what Apple did to Microsoft.
So this is why in both Chokepoint Capitalism and “The Internet Con” I get into a lot of detail about what legal reforms would allow technologists to do good, and what new law, like privacy law would stop them from doing evil. Because it’s true, bots and scraping stuff - they can do bad privacy stuff. The answer to that isn’t to say to Facebook, “Hey, guess what? You have unlimited power to wield the state, to wield its courts to stop anyone from doing anything you dislike, because we’re going to use you as our deputies to figure out when someone’s privacy is being invaded.” I mean, just think for a moment of the irony of putting Facebook in charge of deciding when someone’s privacy is being violated. And instead, we would say, “Hey, we have this democratically accountable yardstick that says “This is a privacy-invasive behavior, and these things are not. And if you’re doing this, and you’re an inter-operator, you’re on the side of the law. And if you’re doing that and you’re an inter-operator, you’re violating the privacy and we’re going to come after you, not for interoperating, but for doing something that violates people’s privacy. Not for making shareholders of Facebook sad, but for doing something that harms the public.”
[01:06:34.17] Do you have an idea of a perfect world then? If you have this very deep book - and multiple books on the bad, the shovels as you even say, too…
What is the perfect world? Like, do we use Spotify? Do we use Audible? Do we abandon Meta?
No, no, no, the problem isn’t that these companies are run by people who are more wicked than the people who came before them. The people who ran DEC, or Hewlett Packard were just as capable of being scumbags as these guys are. The difference is that they’re not constrained by competition or regulation.
So I grew up at a time when one day my dad was bringing home terminals connected to the PDP-8 and DEC was the biggest tech company in the world, and was like kicking the shit out of IBM with its 360s… And then the next day DEC was like being bought by Compaq, right? Which had just been like a glimmer in people’s eyes. And the harm that they could do was [unintelligible 01:07:30.27] Silicon Graphics made amazing computers and did stupid things at the same time. I was a Silicon Graphics integrator. You know, they came in they went.
The companies would like you to think that all of the things that they do are inseparable; that you can’t have the good without the bad, right? That a bearded prophet came down off a mountain with two stone tablets and said, “Larry, Sergey, stop rotating your log files and start looking in them for actionable market intelligence.” Right? Google ran as the surveillance-free alternative to AltaVista and Yahoo. The PageRank paper that started it all in1998 opens with them saying “Advertising-supported search engines are terrible, and will always go to shit.” That was their credo. People are like “Oh, don’t be evil. Don’t be evil.” Long before “Don’t be evil” there was “Never mix ads with a search engine.” Right?
Facebook sold itself as the privacy-forward alternative to MySpace, right? How did they lure people off of MySpace? They said, “Oh well, that’s owned by the crapulent Australian billionaire. Everyone knows that he’s evil, and he’s spying on you to sell ads. Facebook will never process your data.” Right? That was their pitch in 2006. And then they had a referendum where they said, “Should we start spying on you?” They had a vote. And everyone said “No, don’t spy on us”, and they were like “Yeah, you didn’t mean it…”
“We’re gonna do it anyways…”
Right. So regulation and competition discipline firms. These guys - they want us to think that they’re like evil wizards, because at least then they’re still wizards. They’re not evil wizards. They’re ordinary mediocrities, whose rise to power was co-terminal with the decline of antitrust. We nerfed antitrust continuously for 40 years, and the people who kind of got in on the ground floor of that, where access to the capital markets let them extinguish their competitors, and where extinguishing their competitors made them too big to fail and too big to jail - those people were able to get away with both literal and figurative murder.
[01:09:35.08] And so a better world is one in which we have a dynamic system that can seek equilibrium against a variety of activities and circumstances. Where rather than having to hope that every time the world changes Mark Zuckerberg guesses right, because he is the unelected social media czar for life for 3 billion people, and if he says that our future is being legless, sexless, low-polygon cartoon characters in a heavily surveilled Metaverse named after an idea from a dystopian science fiction novel, then that’s just we got to live with… Instead, if we could have a future where who was in charge changed from time to time, and no one was fully in charge, and everyone had to look over their shoulder and worry that someone else was going to take their users and their suppliers away by offering them a better deal, then we would have a better future.
There isn’t a static future. That’s great. There’s no utopia. The reason that you can’t have a utopia is because even if you get it all right, and everything’s working great, there are exogenous shocks, pandemics, climate emergencies, asteroid strikes. Whatever. Stuff is going to happen. Your country gets invaded. Stuff happens. So the thing that makes a system utopian is not just how it works, it’s what happens when it fails. We have a system that barely works and fails badly. And I would like to replace it with a system that works pretty well, and fails incredibly gracefully. I’m a recovering systems administrator. Far more interested in making sure that I’v got a backup than I am in like the actual speed of the hard drive.
Yeah, backups are good. Triplicate backups. Cory, you know that, right? 321.
Yeah. Well, in fact, today is my hard drive swap day. I backup to this SSD every day, and then I get my mail at a postbox down the road, because there are creeps who send me death threats, so I don’t use my home address for anything… And the people who run that post box let me store my encrypted hard drive…
…and there’s one just like this in there, and I’m gonna goand swap it. I do that once a week.
And then I have a travel one. The current one is of the last time I hit the road, which was a couple of weeks ago.
You said regulation and competition. So regulation - is that government regulation, is that self-regulation?
No, it’s not self-regulation? No, no, no. Like actual democratically accountable regulation. And one of the things that makes regulation suck is when companies are really big. Because regulation - it’s like science, right? To do science, you have to ask what’s going on, you have to ascertain what’s going on, and you have to hazard an intervention that will change what’s going on to produce an outcome that you desire. And so in an adversarial process, which is like adversarial peer review, when you do science, where you write a paper and the people who hate you and want you to fail get to critique it… When you’re doing policy, you hold these truth-seeking exercises, where you go “Is net neutrality good?” And then you invite everyone who’s got an opinion to show up and tell you whether network neutrality is good. Well, if the entire sector consists of three cable companies and two legacy phone companies, all of whose executives used to all work with each other at various times in their lives, and they’re like godparents to each other’s kids, and walked each other down the aisle at their weddings, or whatever - they’re all going to show up and they’re going to go “No, net neutrality is terrible. We can’t do network management with net neutrality.” And everyone on the other side is going to be like either running like a WISP or they’re an academic, or they work for civil society, or whatever… And the regulator, who is almost always going to be a veteran from one of those five giant firms, because when there’s only five of them, the only people who understand how they work are their own executives, the regulator is going to go like “Ah, I’ve listened to the evidence, and I guess we don’t need net neutrality.”
Now, if there are 100 companies in the sector, not only they’re not gonna be able to agree on what their lobbying position is, they’re not going to be able to agree on how to cater their annual meeting, right? Half of them are going to show up and say, “Oh, you couldn’t ever manage a network if you had net neutrality.” And the other half are gonna show up and they’re gonna be like “We advertise ourselves as the neutral competitors to those jerks. And we offer net neutrality to people who understand what it means. We’re the most hard-charging, bandwidth-hungry, bull-goose tech weirdos that you can imagine, and we don’t have this network management problem that they’re talking about. So they’re full of it.”
[01:14:05.06] So the only way you get the facts and evidence, the only way you get good state regulation is if the companies themselves are weaker than the regulator. The same way that the only way a ref can referee a game is if the players are weaker than the ref. If the players pay the ref salary, then you will not get an honest game, right? The refs have to not just declare their neutrality… Or like, it is amazing that you have politicians who declare their neutrality after working in industry, or regulators who declare their neutrality after working in industry. Like, these are lawyers who themselves, if they were like getting a divorce, and they and their ex both wanted to hire the same lawyer, and that lawyer said, “Oh, I can work for both of you. I’ll just declare my conflict of interest and firewall it within me.” It would be like, “Um, no.”
“Firewall it within me.” I love that.
Yeah. There were these firms - telecoms companies, banks would not hire a law firm that represented their competitors in an action that they were adverse to those competitors in. They would not believe claims of this.
How do we break out of that loop, where we have the regulator goes back into the same industry, goes back into politics…?
You know, there’s this joke from Ireland… It’s not an Irish joke it’s a joke from Ireland. The punchline is, “If you wanted to get there, I wouldn’t start from here.” The decision to stop enforcing antitrust law 40 years ago was the most consequential political decision of the last 40 years, because it has created this situation where we need to go through an iterative process of weakening firms so we can strengthen antitrust, so we can weaken firms, so we can strengthen antitrust. And the best time to have solved this was 40 years ago, and the second-best time is right now, because it’s not going to get any easier.
Now, the good news is we’ve got an antitrust front bench in the Biden administration. And I’m not like a Biden guy, I gave money to people who ran against Biden, and it wasn’t the Michael Bloombergs running against Biden that I gave money to… It was the other democratic challengers… Nevertheless, Biden hired an incredible roster of antitrust, hard-charging fighters. So Jonathan Cantor at the DOJ - amazing.
There’s a famous thing from when James Comey took over the Southern District of New York, where he gathered all these DAs together and he said, “How many new people have never lost a case?” And all these like thrusting, macho lawyers were like “I’ve never lost a case.” And he said, every one of you, you’re the chickenshit club. If you’ve never lost a case, you’ve never fought a hard case.
First day on the job, Jonathan Cantor brings the Department of Justice Antitrust Division together, and he says, “How many of you have never lost a case? So we’re not the chickenshit club anymore. We’re going to fight the hard cases. We’re going to lose a bunch of them, we’re going to win some, and we’re gonna put the fear of God into companies.” Lena Khan - six years ago, Lena Khan was a third-year law student. She wrote a paper called “The Amazons Antitrust Paradox.” It was a rebuttal to a book called “The antitrust paradox” that Robert Bork, the failed Reagan Supreme Court nominee wrote, that is the reason we don’t enforce antitrust anymore. It changed the way people think about antitrust. Six years later, from third-year law student, she is now the Chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, the most powerful consumer regulator on the face of the Earth. And she is kicking ass.
This is happening in Europe, with the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act. This is happening in the United Kingdom, with the Competition and Markets Authority, and its Digital Markets unit… It’s even happening in China with the Chinese Cyberspace regulation, which mandates interoperability and penalizes companies that intentionally block it. Everywhere in the world there is a movement for this; it’s happening all over. And the good news here - it’s the thing we end chokepoint capitalism with.
[01:17:53.08] There’s a guy called James Boyle. He’s one of the founders of Creative Commons. He’s a copyright scholar, teaches at Duke University, runs the Center for the Public Domain with Jennifer Jenkins… And Jamie tells this parable. He says, “Before the term ecology came along, nobody knew that they were on the same side. If you care about the ozone layer, I care about owls, how are we fighting the same fight? What do nocturnal charismatic avians have to do with a gaseous composition of the upper atmosphere?” Then the word “ecology” comes along, and it crystallizes the commonality. It makes all of those struggles one movement, and the movement is born and becomes a force to reckon with. And today there are people who are angry that the web is five giant websites full of screenshots of text from the other four, and there are people who are angry that there’s three giant shipping cartels that ignored their regulators when they said, “Eventually, one of your ships are gonna get stuck in the Suez Canal if you don’t stop trying to get these economies of scale by making them bigger.”
There’s people that are angry that there’s one cheerleading league left, that has become the nexus of the most blood-curdling sexual abuse scandals you can imagine, because they had no competition, and nobody wanted to hold them to account, because there’s nowhere else to go… There’s one professional wrestling league left. They just bought the little nascent competitor that was popping us…
I saw that…
…and they reclassified all those ‘80s wrestlers you grew up watching as contractors, took away their medical insurance. They’re all dying of work-related injuries in their 50s…
…and begging on GoFundMe for pennies, so they can die with dignity. There’s people who are pissed off about that. People pissed off that there’s two athletic shoes companies, two companies that do all the spirits, two companies that do all the beer, five companies that do all the banking… There’s people pissed off about all of this. And what they don’t know is that they’re all on the same side. There’s only one fight, and it is the fight over corporate concentration versus democratically accountable government. And as soon as we realize that, as soon as we realize that the fight is over pluralism versus monopoly, then we will have a movement to reckon with. Then we will all be able to march together, and get shit done. And that is the most hopeful thing I can imagine, because I see it happening all around us, and I think that that is the future that we should be all keeping us our North Star and aiming towards.
We should have a name for it, right? You need to ecology that thing. You that thing need to –
I keep calling it pluralism… You know, I have the domain pluralistic… The problem with anti-monopoly is it tells you what you’re against, and not what you’re for.
Right. Defining yourself against something is never all that useful.
Well, I don’t have the best advice, but I just what to know what you’ve gotta do. Not how you’ve got to do it, but what you have to do.
You’re the wordsmith, Cory. Come on.
Well, anything that can’t go on forever eventually stops, and when it stops, the people will look for new solutions, and if those solutions are well understood, they can move from the fringes to the center overnight. That was the theory of Milton Friedman, the guy who ran the Chicago School of Economics, and created neoliberalism and got rid of antitrust. That’s how we got into this predicament. It’s the only good thing that he ever said; I like quoting it often, because I like to think that he looks up from the rotisserie that he’s rotating slowly on in hell, and here’s me saying it, he shakes his fist in impotent smoking rage, you know…
So that’s got to be our theory of change here, that the next time the crisis comes along, if the ideas are well understood about what we need to do next, that’ll be our time; that’ll be when we get the chance to do it.
Give me a chokepoint status on podcasts. Since you’ve kind of covered Audible, Audible books… We don’t produce Audible books. Give me a chokepoint status on podcasts and this landscape we’re in.
Yeah, so I wrote a piece about this called “Podcasts have remained hearteningly uninshitifiable”, or inshitification-resistant.
There you go.
So in order to inshitify a service, you need to first lock in the audience, and then you lock in the suppliers. So you lock in the audience by giving them goodies; then you lock in the suppliers by giving them goodies. And then you take away the goodies from both of them, and they’re locked in. And so oftentimes, you can lock in users by like just attracting other users. So if you’re on Facebook because your friends are there, and your friends are on Facebook because you’re there, then you all have to agree that it’s time to go, and where to go. And it can just be really hard. So you can mutually take each other hostage. That doesn’t really apply to podcasting.
[01:22:02.03] In fact, the fact that podcasting is built on RSS, and that RSS does have these forwarding directives that are just built into the XML, where you can change the URL of your podcast and all the pod catchers will just hop over, has made it very hard to lock in audiences.
And then there’s a platform lock-in for podcasters, and you had companies like Spotify go on these acquisition tears, where they bought out Joe Rogan, and they bought out Pineapple, and they bought out Gimlet, and all these other studios… And as soon as they took the RSS away and tried to lock them into the app, people just didn’t go over. They were just like “Forget it.”
Even BBC Sounds, which is like part of this long-run trend at the BBC… You know, I lived in the UK for years, and was involved in these fights, and helped ghost-write some of the charter renewal in the mid 2000s… There’s always been this group of people who feels like the BBC should not be publicly-funded, and should make its money by selling stuff to Americans, and then giving that stuff away to British people. And the problem is that that means that all the stuff that you make is for an American audience. And one of the things that BBC Sounds is oriented around is moving people from listening to BBC podcasts on pod-catchers that have ad skipping, to moving them to a proprietary app where you can’t skip the ads, which means that your ad rate card goes up, right? If you can’t skip the ad, then you can charge more for the ad.
And you can make a worse ad, right? You can inshitify the ads. And so people aren’t using BBC Sounds either. When podcasts go into BBC Sounds, people just change their listening behavior. And so it’s been very heartening. I think that it’s not that firms aren’t going to keep trying. Apple has just obfuscated its RSS even further. I’ve actually heard some people say that there is no longer a de-obfuscatable RSS feed from the Apple Podcasts feed. You can’t derive that anymore, which is a deliberate piece of engineering to allow Apple to usurp the relationship between audiences and performers, audiences and podcasters… Because it just means that if you leave the platform, there’s just no easy way for people to get a tool that goes through their iTunes Preferences, or their Apple Podcasts preferences, and just exports that list and moves it into a pod-catcher. And so with the knowledge that people can’t leave Apple, Apple can then put the screws to podcasters, and say things like “You have to use our ad network, and we’re gonna take a bigger commission” or whatever, right? It gives them all kinds of opportunities to shift the distributional outcome from the creative workers to the intermediary, which is the name of the game in platform capitalism.
Yeah, for sure. So you’re now writing at pluralistic.net. You’ve written this book, you have more books coming on the way…
…and we obviously appreciate you coming back here after so many years. Just don’t come back seven years later, Cory. Can you come back more often, please?
Yeah, come on, man…
Well, if you hadn’t broken that mirror that day that we recorded, I would have been back sooner.
[laughs] Yeah, right?
Yeah, I’d be happy to.
We appreciate you coming on.
Thanks. Thanks, guys.
We appreciate you digging into the chokepoint status on podcasting too, because that’s I – you obviously have clear insights that Jerod and I do not, and we need to have people like you on this… We had thousands more questions, of course, but… Just “How can we fight this fight?” is the biggest question. So maybe you can write about that. Maybe
as a post to this, a future writing is “How can we join this fight?” How can we - not put more on your shoulders, but…
There you go.
Well, it’s the second half of Chokepoint Capitalism, and it’s the back half of The Internet Con. So there’s lots. I have written that stuff.
Okay, cool. We’ll link it up.
Yup. Thanks, Cory.
Nice talking to you guys.
We appreciate your time. Thank you.
Our transcripts are open source on GitHub. Improvements are welcome. 💚