Enshittification is a term coined last year1 by Corry Doctorow to describe the unpreventable decay of platforms, providing services of increasing price and decreasing quality, while simultaneously giving back less and less to the service providers ; all of that as a result of maximizing the profit of the platform - until it crumbles under the cupidity of its owners, and die a slow and wasteful death. It’s so familiar and palpable, it caught up quite well, was named word of the year 2023, and everyone’s been talking about it since then.

Enshittification is a particular form of a larger phenomenon that manifests across systems, the systemic maximization of exploitation.

It’s a concept I learned from the fantastic Dictator’s handbook2: if there is power to be exerted for the benefit of the few rather than the many, then it will be exerted. Those who exert the power for the many will be driven out by those who benefit the few. In other, clearer words3: just because they could, means they should, or someone else will and they will die. If you are a nice, responsible business, paying and treating your employees and partners well, you will be driven out by shitty actors who pay their employees the bare minimum and drive their partners to their knees; they will win, just because they can sell their product or service for less, while making a better margin than yours, and are more attractive to investors. They won’t hesitate to grease this or that politician to change the rules and make things progressively worse, until the world crumbles under their dominance.

In a very crude, naive and evident way: low ethics win at capitalism.

When applied to the entire capitalistic system, that means that what you get for your money will always get worse (or conversely you’ll be nickel-and-dime-and-penny-and-crumb’ed all the way through), while at the same time the portion of the cake that employees or partners receive will ever converge to the bare minimum that organizations can afford to pay while keeping them alive. The combination of both meaning that things seem to ever be worse for the majority of people4.

At a systemic level, it makes sense and it’s pretty intuitive. That’s why new charges keep appearing on your parking ticket while the odor of piss still seem to get worse. That’s why tomatoes are ever more expensive while the portion that farmers get keeps shrinking. That’s why the middle row of a box of cookies has 3 cookies instead of 4, and why you buy ice-cream by the volume and not weight, because it can literally be filled with air. Air that you now need to pay at the station while it was mostly free 10y ago. That’s why McDonalds is now charging you 25c a pack of mayo and don’t offer free refills in more and more restaurants. That’s why you need to pay for the privilege of seating in the middle seat of row 12 rather than being next to the toilets. That’s why you pay more and more subscriptions, including for your goddamned carseats heaters and car keys. That’s why devices get bricked within years of being sold. That’s why “we’re skipping raises this year because it’s tough”. It’s been there for a while, it’s an ever-going, always accelerating process - which I think enshittification would describe well, even though that’s not exactly what Mr. Doctorow was talking about.

That’s also why our planet is pretty much a write-off at this stage. Making things ecologically is more expensive, and if you do so someone else won’t, and they‘ll be cheaper.

Surely that’s a cynical vision. The street corner restaurant I go to is family owned, and all employees love the owner - and those guys live on the verge of closing. They’re not winning the war against the platoon of chain-owned fake-smiled no-shits-given look alike sustenance resellers in the same street5. It’s a sheer miracle they went through COVID. Unless they’re in a niche, small business owners have it tough: long hours and not a lot of returns. Businesses fully owned by a few individuals can live for a while and be a net positive. But as the number of people profiting from that business increases, and competition creates pressure, it becomes largely impossible to get a social stance that is not just posturing6. Generally, when a business starts, it starts with seed investment - be it a VC, mom’s money, or even just long nights. At this stage it’s only preoccupied by survival, and getting as fast as possible to the point where either a) it can generate enough money to survive7 or b) it can prove daddy that he should give us a little money, now that mommy invested and SHE WAS RIGHT TO DO IT, DAD. Past the point of survival, if the business is really onto something, either it will enter competition with others, where incentive will always be to lower prices, or make a shittier product/service ; or it will attract/keep investors who will surely make sure the business is “well operated” and maximizes profit. Until it gets acquired, at which point the only thing that will matter will be “line goes up” and margin.

It’s such a fundamental part of capitalism that it’s a legal mandate for companies to maximize shareholders’ profit, known as the “fiduciary duty”. Line must go up, year over year. Competition is the mechanism of capitalism supposed to make it an ever evolving instrument of progress, and the very thing that creates the pressure that makes things worse for people living in that system8. “Enshittification” made law. Which it really doesn’t need to be, since the system itself is already ensuring that it’s how things go.

Now going back to enshittification itself, there’s a guilty pleasure in the “and then they die” part of the concept. What’s not to like about karma catching back the greed of these platforms. Only, I don’t buy the unpreventable character of this death. It’s probably true for dopamine sellers such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, but their job is selling wind that’s mostly replacing coffee machine chit-chat, one is easily swappable by the next. In comparison look at Spotify, which is not anymore just a music platform, but arguably the one music distribution media. The war has mostly been won9. Same goes for live music and Live Nation. Things get more complex for the likes of Netflix, which once they reconsolidate a little and reinvent cable, things will settle. For the Amazon, AirBnb and Uber of the world, only future will tell - but these platforms have such a power to drive competition out that I think we passed the point of no return.

These makes sense in a systemic way, and if not them, then another will do it for even less. The actors might change, the model might even change, the only certainty is that as long as we have this system, these changes won’t be for the better.

Notes

ribe the unpreventable decay of platforms, providing services of increasing price and decreasing quality, while simultaneously giving back less and less to the service providers ; all of that as a result of maximizing the profit of the platform - until platforms crumble under the cupidity of their owners, and die a slow and wasteful death. It’s so familiar and palpable, that it caught up quite well, and everyone’s been talking about it.

  1. I think it actually dates from end of 2022, but leave me alone. 

  2. by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, there’s also a very good video by CGP Grey based on it: rules for rulers 

  3. Why didn’t I lead with that? Good question 

  4. Not me, I’m fine, I own a computer and I have only 3 payments left on it! 

  5. And I know, it’s not the same everywhere. France for example has a very strong culture of food, which makes it harder for chains to dominate. Stop trying to poke holes in my argument. 

  6. And will get canned the moment it’s not profitable anymore 

  7. See: default alive or default dead 

  8. And once competition’s gone, it’s free for all… 

  9. labels even had massive stakes in the platform, that they somewhat divested from during IPO to make a quick buck.