Free Software: The Enshittification Defense

Thu, 27 Jun 2024

Gather 'round, everyone! We're diving into the digital dumpster fire known as "enshittification," and this is a full-blown societal stink bomb.

Enshittification is when those shiny, user-friendly apps and websites we once adored slowly but surely turn into...well, let's say they lose their luster. That app you used to love? Suddenly, it's stuffed with ads, algorithms gone wild, and features that make you want to hurl. It's like your favorite restaurant replacing its gourmet meals with microwaved processed mush and charging you double for the privilege!

But here's the thing: enshittification isn't a tech problem. It's not about annoying ads or algorithms gone wild. It isn't just a glitch in the Matrix. It's a symptom of a deeper problem - it reveals a societal problem of unchecked power and the pursuit of profit at the expense of everything else, including the rights of the users, that's spread by proprietary software. It's like we've built a beautiful park, only to have it overrun by rabid raccoons hoarding all the picnic baskets.

But fear not, fellow freedom lovers! There's a cure, a vaccine, a technological knight in shining armor: free software. That's right, the kind of software controlled by those who use it rather than the other way around, and the community calls the shots. It's like having a park ranger who actually cares about keeping the raccoons in check.

So, please stick with me as we explore this stinky situation. We'll uncover the secrets of enshittification, expose the culprits, and discover how free software can save us from the enshittification apocalypse. So buckle up because this ride is about to get a whole lot less less fragrant!

Now that we've defined the beast, let's crack open the enshittification playbook and see how these digital devils pull off their dirty deeds. It's a three-step process so simple yet sinister that it'd make Machiavelli blush and leave users feeling like a digital pickpocket has duped them.

Step One: The Bait. This is where the platform or service bursts onto the scene, luring us in with freebies, features, and toys that are all shiny and new, as well as promises of a new world utopia that seem almost too good to be true. Free social networking? Sign me up! Unlimited photo storage? Don't mind if I do! It's like those carnival barkers promising you the world's largest stuffed animal if you can knock down those milk bottles. It's free, fun, and everything you've ever dreamed of! It's like being handed a delicious cupcake with no strings attached. Who could resist? Facebook offered a way to connect with friends and family; Twitter gave us a global town square. It was simple, fun, and addictive. People were hooked, line and sinker.

Step Two: The Switch. Once they've got you hooked, they start making subtle changes. It's like a magician's sleight of hand, so gradual you hardly notice. There's an extra ad here and a tweaked algorithm there. But those little tweaks add up. Remember those "free" cupcakes? It turns out they were laced with a secret ingredient: profit, and before you know it, that clean interface is cluttered with ads, your feed becomes a minefield of sponsored posts, those pesky algorithms start deciding what you see and don't see, and our data becomes the main course for hungry advertisers. It's like finding out your charming dinner guest is actually a multi-level marketing guru trying to sell you overpriced vitamins or inviting someone over for coffee, only to have them rearrange your furniture and install a soda fountain you didn't want in the middle of your living room. Not cool, right? Your beloved app has become less about connecting with friends and more about selling you overpriced sneakers.

Take Facebook, for example. It started as a way to share photos with friends, but once it hooked us, it became a data-mining behemoth, prioritizing paid posts and burying the stuff we care about. And Twitter? Elon Musk's reign has turned it into a dumpster fire, with more ads, less moderation, and more chaos. Several seagulls have taken over the town square, fighting over a single french fry.

Step Three: The Trap. You're now stuck in a digital roach motel - easy to check in, impossible to check out. By this point, you're so invested in the platform, so entangled in its web of features and connections, that leaving feels impossible. You've poured your heart and soul into it, shared countless photos, made virtual friends, built a following, and established your digital identity, so the thought of leaving is overwhelming. It's like realizing your dream house is infested with termites, but you've already unpacked all those boxes, and your charming dinner guest mentioned earlier has superglued themself to your couch. Sure, you could leave the house behind, but at what cost?

Take Facebook, for example. It started as a way to keep in touch with friends & family. Then, poof, your feed is flooded with clickbait articles and targeted ads for products you didn't even know existed. But try leaving, and you'll miss out on your cousin's baby photos and those hilarious cat memes. You're trapped, like a fly in a web spun from sponsored posts and privacy-invading algorithms.

And then there's Twitter. Once a vibrant town square, it's now a chaotic mess of a flea market where you're constantly bombarded with rage-baiting tweets, overpriced trinkets, questionable hot dogs, and spam bots hawking cryptocurrency. At least you can pay extra for a blue checkmark to prove you're not a troll...yet. But it's where your friends are.

The point is enshittification isn't an accident. It's a calculated strategy, a con job designed to squeeze every last thing of value out of us. And that is the trap. The platform has you right where it wants you and knows it. It's free to exploit your attention and your data while slowly chipping away at the very features that made you fall in love with it in the first place.

Now that we've exposed the enshittification playbook, that sneaky three-step shuffle turns our beloved digital playgrounds into piles of crap. But now, it's time to delve deeper into the heart of darkness to uncover the true enabler of this digital decay.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you... proprietary software.

Proprietary software is the perfect breeding ground for enshittification. Why? Because it's all about profit! These companies aren't building these platforms out of the goodness of their hearts. They're in it for the money, maximizing revenue at all costs.

And how do they do that? By treating us, the users, as mere resources, as data points to be mined, as eyeballs to be glued to screens. Our attention is their currency, our data is their gold, and they'll do whatever it takes to extract as much of it as possible.

This is where surveillance capitalism comes in. It's the dark art of tracking our every move, click, like, and share and then using that information to manipulate our behavior, sell us stuff we don't need, and keep us hooked on their platforms. It's like having a creepy stalker who's also your landlord, grocery store, and therapist. It's not exactly a healthy relationship.

Because the code is secret, they can make changes to implement all of this without your knowledge or consent.

So, in the proprietary software world, enshittification isn't just a bug; it's a feature. It's a predictable outcome of a system that prioritizes profit over people, control over collaboration and exploitation over empowerment. It's a system that's rigged against us from the start.

How does this free software fight back against the scourge of enshittification? Free software comes with four essential freedoms:

  • The freedom to use it for any purpose. Like your trusty Swiss Army knife, it's ready for whatever life throws at you.
  • The freedom to study and change how it works to your liking. Think of it as a DIY project, but you're building a better internet instead of a birdhouse.
  • The freedom to share copies so you can help your neighbor. Because good software is like gossip, it's meant to be shared.
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions. Because who doesn't love a good remix?

With the four freedoms of free software, the users are in control. The code is available to see and scrutinize. You have a say in how the software evolves; you can contribute your code if you feel adventurous. It's like being invited to the chef's table and getting to help cook the meal. The community will be all over it if someone tries to sneak in some shady changes.

Forking is where things get interesting. If a free software project starts to go down the enshittification path, users can fork it, creating a new version that stays true to its original values. It's like taking a wrong turn on a hiking trail and deciding to blaze your path instead of following the crowd off a cliff.

Online things can be enshittified, and the software you use locally can, too. It's more difficult because you must convince the users to install the updates, but that's not necessarily impossible.

Enshittifying free software is like trying to climb Mount Everest in flip-flops. It's not impossible, but it's much more challenging because users can always change the software and use the modified version. Imagine having a neighborhood watch group patrolling your digital streets, keeping those greedy raccoons at bay.

It's time to rise and embrace the power of free software! Switch to free software, support the developers, and spread the word to your friends and family.