Cory Doctorow’s The Internet Con: The long con of boring politics
Means of Computation: A man sets up a new bitcoin mining machine to connect to the internet at a bitcoin mine built beside a hydropower station in a remote valley in Aba prefecture in southwestern China's Sichuan province. | Chinatopix via AP

If tech were led by exceptional geniuses whose singular vision made it impossible to unseat them, then you’d expect that the structure of the tech industry itself would be exceptional…. But that’s not the case at all,” writes Cory Doctorow, notable activist and science fiction writer. “Nearly every industry in the world looks like the tech industry: dominated by a handful of giant companies that emerged out of a cataclysmic, forty-year die-off of smaller firms which either failed or were folded into the surviving giants.”

Doctorow’s recently released The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation states quite bluntly what it is: “This is a shovel-ready book. It explains, in nontechnical language, how to dismantle Big Tech’s control over our digital lives.” Approaching such a mountain of a task gives one an immediate feeling of vertigo, but after a detour through how tech companies have cornered the market, what is to be done and what can be done are inextricable. This is all to say that Doctorow’s book is less an excavation of old theory applied to a new problem and more a new map navigating us through the old terrain.

Doctorow dives into how Big Tech got big by exploring the history of antitrust laws, the Chicago School of Economics lobby which manipulated policy during the Reagan/Thatcher era of deregulation, and how these gave rise to acceptable views of so-called “good monopolies” which we unfortunately know today. He spends ample time on dissecting the differences in copyright laws and trademarks, how these have served the corporations that have wielded them, and how the latter can serve us.

Dropping quotes on us like “infrastructure casts a long shadow” when explaining how Roman blacksmiths of the Classical Age affect how aerospace engineers design rocket boosters today, Doctorow demonstrates how standards and mandates are determined in the tech world today. He, likewise, helps illustrate how certain companies can ensure that “universal” standards fit their own designs. For example, the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, which sets standards for web browsers, is almost entirely staffed by full-time employees from the largest tech corporations.

Doctorow is never unaware of his audience, though, noting how his examination of standards “is supremely dull” (his italics, not mine). However, this is by design: “It is precisely because this stuff is so dull that it is so dangerous.” The boringness of this “procedural stuff” is “a powerful defense against public scrutiny.”

Although he seems to pull the thread through some dense weeds of historical cases of companies being sued by the Department of Justice or of Big Tech infighting for compatible software, the payoff is worth it. Doctorow takes us on this journey to show that there is, in fact, something exceptional about tech: Computers are universal, and thus building anything atop the concept of computation is inherently universalizable. Furthermore, Doctorow goes on to argue that because computers have become so ubiquitous in every facet of our lives—social and not—tech is foundational. “But tech—free, fair, open tech—is a precondition for winning,” by which he means the fights against climate change or against racial and gender discrimination.

His solution to winning against Big Tech? Politics and interoperability. Policy has gone a long way in protecting Big Tech companies from what their predecessors went through, such as government intervention and competitors who stood a chance at dethroning the ruling companies. Interoperability is the term for any technology that can “plug in” to an existing system or platform and work. For example, anyone who has ever owned an Apple product has known the frustration of finding a third-party charging cable that works as well as an Apple branded one. Another example would be a competing product like an alternative app store for iOS users where developers can create new applications without needing Apple’s sign-off. There is a reason why our options are so limited and they so often feel like they are not really options at all. Interoperability would offer relief to users who are stuck on a social media platform they no longer wish to be on, people who cannot afford replacement parts for their tech, and would even prevent the “algorithmic burial” of our personal art, material, and work.

Doctorow weaves history, humor, and politics seamlessly, all the while skirting the technical jargon which makes the tech industry—and the policy insulating it—seem so inaccessible. The Internet Con, though illuminating a history of billionaires who seem to just keep winning, takes on the impossible task of breaking up major corporations with a lighthearted seriousness which makes the fight ahead seem more than possible.

Doctorow’s analysis of Big Tech is the reality of so many political matters today, from limiting carbon emissions to the mental health crisis. There is a lot of boring work on the table that must be taken on. Hacking outdated software in a public department or whistleblowing against major corporations on WikiLeaks may, in effect, be heroic acts. But as Doctorow’s work seems to point to, the ethical duty falls onto fidelity with a cause beyond the exciting and flashy acts. If Doctorow is right about the boring work of standards being what makes it so dangerous to us, then we can expect the political solutions to this danger to be just as boring.

The Internet Con leaves the reader with the feeling that taking on such an industry—one so childishly protective of its intellectual property that it has no qualms in “conflat[ing] the engineer who figures out how to finesse a printer into accepting cheap ink refills with the criminal who shuts down all the IT systems in a cancer ward”—is nothing less than fighting the same idiots we already know, and not the brilliant nerds or evil geniuses which they portray themselves to be.

Cory Doctorow
The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation
Verso, 2023, 192 pp.
Hardback ISBN: 9781804291245
Ebook ISBN: 9781804292167

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Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.