Thursday, July 15, 2021

Monopolies and Interoperabilty

Another LOCUS article by Cory Doctorow on monopolies and trust-busting:

Tech Monopolies

He begins this essay by stating that he doesn't oppose monopolies for the sake of competition or choice as ends in themselves. He cares most about "self-determination." By this he means the individual consumer "having the final say over how you live your life." When a small handful of companies controls any given field or industry, customers have only a limited range of products or services to choose among, preselected by those companies, even if this limitation remains mostly invisible to the average consumer. Not surprisingly, Doctorow focuses on this constraint as imposed by Big Tech. He recaps the growth of "the modern epidemic of tolerance for monopolies" over the past forty years. In the present, technology giants tend to crush small competitors and merge with large ones.

To some extent, this tendency—e.g., the situation Doctorow highlights in which everybody is on Facebook because everybody else is, in a feedback loop of expansion—provides a convenience to consumers. I'm glad I can find just about anyone I want to get in touch with on Facebook. As a result of such "network effects," a system becomes more valuable the more users it has. As a reader and a bibliographer, I don't know how I'd manage nowadays if Amazon didn't list almost every book ever published. I resent the brave new broadcasting world in which I have to pay for several different streaming services to watch only a couple of desired programs on each. I LIKED knowing almost any new series I wanted to see would air on one of our hundreds of cable channels. (Yes, we're keeping our cable until they pry it out of my cold, dead remote-clicking hand.) On the other hand, I acknowledge Doctorow's point that those conveniences also leave us at the mercy of the tech moguls' whims.

Half of his article discusses interoperability as a major factor in resisting the effects of monopolies. Interoperability refers to things working together regardless of their sources of origin. All appliances can plug into all electrical outlets of the proper voltage. Any brands of light bulbs or batteries can work with any brands of lamps or electronic devices. Amazon embraces interoperability with its Kindle books by allowing customers to download the Kindle e-reading app on any device. Likewise, "all computers are capable of running all programs." For self-published writers, services such as Draft2Digital offer the capacity to get books into a wide range of sales outlets with no up-front cost. Facebook, on the other hand, forecloses interoperability by preventing users from taking their "friends" lists to other services, a problem that falls under "switching costs." If it's too much trouble to leave Facebook, similar to the way it used to be too much trouble to change cell phone providers before it became possible to keep your old phone number, consumers are effectively held hostage unless willing to pay ransom in the form of switching costs (monetary or other).

Doctorow concludes, however, with the statement that the fundamental remedy for "market concentration" isn't interoperability but "de-concentrating markets." Granting a certain validity to his position, though, how far would we willingly shift in that direction if we had to give up major conveniences we've become accustomed to?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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