[Plura-list] Podcasting "The Memex Method"; Watomatic, for lower Whatsapp switching costs

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Mon May 24 12:24:17 EDT 2021

Today's links

* Podcasting "The Memex Method": Reading my inaugural Medium column for
my podcast.

* Watomatic, for lower Whatsapp switching costs: Comcom in action.

* This day in history: 2006, 2011, 2016, 2020

* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current
writing projects, current reading


🦾 Podcasting "The Memex Method"

This week on my podcast, I read "The Memex Method," my inaugural weekly
column for Medium, in which I reflect on 20 years' worth of blogging,
and how it made me a better writer.


Blogging is the process by which I take everything that seems
significant and fix it in my memory; the process of explaining why
something seems significant for strangers is powerfully mnemonic in
exactly the way that scrawling tones in a private notebook isn't.

Do it long enough and your unconscious becomes a supersaturated solution
of fragmentary ideas that click together, until they nucleate,
crystalizing into nonfiction, fiction, essays, stories,novels.

The fulltext, searchable, tagged database of everything I've ever given
real thought to is how I synthesize whatever new things snag my
attention into longer, more reflective pieces - which go into the
searchable, tagged database, too.

Blogging - as Clay Shirky observed many years ago - inverts the
traditional "select, then publish" dynamic and turns it into "publish,
then select" - where the reader acts as the editor, deciding which
stories are worth their attention.

But that inversion is only one of three. Blogging is a way to discover
what your next book or essay or speech is about. Rather than being
inspired and doing research, the blogging method is to do research to be
inspired - to discover the book you never knew you had in you.

The final inversion is in the audience. Rather than deciding what
audience you want to appeal to (who will pay you or whom advertisers
will pay to reach), this method involves creating the publication
*you'd* want to read in order to discover the audience for it.

I've written and published more than 20 books (novels, short story
collections, graphic novels, YA, middle-grades, picture books,
nonfiction, scholarly work) since I started blogging. Far from taking
away time from "serious" writing, blogging made that work possible.

Not just because it created a daily writing habit, nor because it helped
me organize my thoughts - but also because it is iterative, a way of
structuring and auditioning arguments for an audience that refines how
to present technical, difficult material.

The podcast episode is live now, here:


Here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet
Archive; they'll host your stuff for free forever, too):


and here's the RSS feed:



🦾 Watomatic, for lower Whatsapp switching costs

Any discussion of monopolization of the web is bound to include the term
"network effects," and its constant companion, "natural monopolies."
This econojargon is certainly relevant to the discussion, but really
needs the oft-MIA idea of "switching costs."

A technology has "network effects" when its value grows as its users
increase, attracting more users, making it more valuable, attracting
more users.

The classic example is the fax machine: one fax is useless, two is
better, but when *everyone* has a fax, you need one too.

Social media and messaging obviously benefit significantly from network
effects: if all your friends are on Facebook (or if it's where your
kid's Little League games are organized, or how your work colleagues
plan fun activities), you'll feel enormous pressure to join.

Indeed, in these days of Facebook's cratering reputation, it's common to
hear people say, "I'm only on FB because my friends are there," and then
your friends say, "I'm only there because *you* are there."

It's a form of mutual hostage-taking.

That hostage situation illustrates (yet) another economic idea:
"collective action problems." There are lots of alternatives to
Facebook, but unless you can convince everyone on Facebook to pick one
and move en masse, you'll just end up with yet another social account.

This combination of network effects and collective action problems leads
some apologists for tech concentration to call the whole thing a
"natural monopoly" - a system that tends to be dominated by a single
company, no matter how hard we try.

Railroads are canonical "natural monopolies." Between the costs of labor
and capital and the difficulty in securing pencil-straight rights-of-way
across long distances, it's hard to make the case for running a second
set of parallel tracks for a competing company's engines.

Other examples of natural monopolies include cable and telephone
systems, water and gas systems, sewer systems, public roads, and
electric grids.

Not coincidentally, these are often operated as public utilities, to
keep natural monopolies from being abused by greedy jerks.

But the internet isn't a railroad. Digital is different, because
computers are *universal* in a way that railroads aren't - *all*
computers can run *all* programs that can be expressed in symbolic
logic, and that means we can almost always connect new systems to
existing ones.

Open up a doc in your favorite word processor and choose "Save As..."
and just stare in awe and wonder at all the different file-formats you
can read and write with a single program. Some of those formats are
standardized, while others are proprietary and/or obsolete.

It's easier to implement support for a standard, documented format, but
even proprietary formats pose only a small challenge relative to the
challenge presented by, say, railroads.

Throw some reverse-engineering and experimentation at a format like MS
DOC and you can make Apple Pages, which reads and writes MS's formats
(which were standardized shortly after Pages' release,  that is, after
the proprietary advantage of the format was annihilated).

This is not to dismiss the ingenuity of the Apple engineers who reversed
Microsoft's hairball of a file-format, but rather, to stress how much
harder their lives would have been if they were dealing with railroads
instead of word-processors.

During Australia's colonization, every state had its own governance and
its own would-be rail-barons. Each state laid its own gauge of
rail-track, producing the "multi-gauge muddle" - which is why, 150+
years later, you can't get a train from one end of Oz to the other.

Hundreds of designs for interoperable rolling stock have been tried, but
it's proven impossible to make a reliable car that retracts one set of
wheels and drops a different one.

The solution to the middle-gauge muddle? Tear up and re-lay thousands of
kilometers of track.

Contrast that with the Windows users who discovered that Pages would
read and write the thousands of documents they'd authored and had to
exchange with colleagues: if they heeded the advice of the Apple Switch
ads, they could buy a Mac, move their files over, and voila!

Which brings me to switching costs. The thing that make natural
monopolies out of digital goods and services are high switching costs,
including the collective action problem of convincing everyone to quit
Facebook or start using a different word-processor.

These switching costs aren't naturally occurring: they are deliberately
introduced by dominant firms that want to keep their users locked in.

Microsoft used file format obfuscation and dirty tricks (like making a
shoddy Mac Office suite that only offered partial compatibility with
Windows Word files) to keep the switching costs high.

By reverse-engineering and reimplementing Word support, Apple
obliterated those switching costs - and with them, the collective action
problem that created Word's natural monopoly.

Once Pages was a thing, you didn't have to convince your friends to
switch to a Mac at the same time as you in order to continue
collaborating with them.

Once you get an email-to-fax program, you can discard your fax machine
without convincing everyone else to do the same.

Interoperability generally lowers switching costs. But *adversarial*
interoperability - making something new that connects to something that
already exists, without its manufacturer's consent - specifically lowers
*deliberate* switching costs.

Adversarial interoperability (or "competitive compatibility," AKA
"comcom") is part of the origin story of every dominant tech company
today. But those same companies have gone to extraordinary lengths to
extinguish it.


Just as a new company may endorse standardization when it's trying to
attract customers who would otherwise be locked into a "ecosystem" of
apps, service, protocols and parts, so too do new companies endorse
reverse-engineering and comcom to "fix" proprietary tech.

But every pirate wants to be an admiral. Once companies attain
dominance, they start adding proprietary extensions to the standard and
fighting comcom-based interoperability, decrying it as "hacking" or
"theft of intellectual property."

In the decades since Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook were
upstarts, luring users away from the giants of their days, these same
companies have labored to stretch copyright law, terms of service, trade
secrecy, patents and other rules to ban the tactics they once used.

This has all but extinguished comcom as a commercial practice. Today's
comcom practitioners risk civil and criminal liability and struggle to
get a sympathetic hearing from lawmakers or the press, who have
generally forgotten that comcom was once a completely normal tactic.

The obliteration of comcom is why network effects produce such sturdy
monopolies in tech - and there's nothing "natural" about those monopolies.

If you could leave Facebook but still exchange messages with your
friends who hadn't wised up, there'd be no reason to stay.

In other words, the collective action problem that the prisoners of tech
monopolies struggle with is the result of a deliberate strategy of
imposing high technical and legal burdens to comcom, in order to impose
insurmountable switching costs.

I wrote about this for Wired UK back in April, comparing the "switching
costs" the USSR imposed on my grandmother when she fled to Canada in the
1940s to the low switching costs I endured when I emigrated from Canada
to the UK to the USA:


Today, there's a group of tech monopoly hostages who are stuck behind
their own digital iron curtain, thanks to Facebook's deliberate lock-in
tactics: the users of Whatsapp, a messaging company that FB bought in 2014.

Whatsapp was a startup success: founded by privacy-focused technologists
who sensed users were growing weary of commercial surveillance, they
pitched their $1 service as an alternative to Facebook and other
companies whose "free" products extracted a high privacy price.

Facebook bought Whatsapp, stopped the $1 charge, and started spying. In
response to public outcry, the Facebook product managers responsible for
the app assured its users that the surveillance data WA extracted
wouldn't be blended with Facebook's vast database of kompromat.

That ended this year, when every Whatsapp user in the world got a
message warning them that Facebook had unilaterally changed Whatsapp's
terms of service and would henceforth use the app's surveillance data
alongside the data it acquired on billions of people by other means.

Downloads of Whatsapp alternatives like Signal and Telegram surged, and
Facebook announced it would hold off on implementing the change for
three months. Three months later, on May 15, Facebook implemented the
change and commenced with the promised, more aggressive spying.

Why not? After all, despite all of the downloads of those rival apps,
Whatsapp usage did not appreciably fall. Convincing all your friends to
quit Whatsapp and switch to Signal is a lot of work.

If the holdout is - say - a beloved elder whom you haven't seen in a
year due to lockdown, then the temptation to keep Whatsapp installed is
hard to resist.

What if there was a way to lower those collective action costs?

It turns out there is. Watomatic is a free/open source "autoresponder"
utility for Whatsapp and Facebook that automatically replies to messages
with instructions for reaching you on a rival service.


It's not full interoperability - not a way to stay connected to those
friends who won't or can't leave Facebook's services behind - but it's
still a huge improvement on the nagging feeling that people you love are
wondering why you aren't replying to their messages.

The project's sourcecode is live on Github, so you can satisfy yourself
that there isn't any sneaky spying going on here:


It's part of a wider constellation of Whatsapp mods, which have their
origins in a Syrian reverse-engineer whose Whatsapp comcom project was
picked up and extended by African modders who produced a constellation
of Whatsapp-compatible apps.


These apps are often targeted for legal retaliation by Facebook, so it's
hard to find them in official app stores where they might be vetted for
malicious code.

It's a strategy that imposes a new switching cost on Whatsapp's
hostages, in the form of malware risk.

Legal threats are Facebook's default response to comcom. That's how they
responded to NYU's Ad Observer, a plugin that lets users scrape and
repost the political ads they're served.


Ad Observer lets independent researchers and journalists track whether
Facebook is living up to its promises to block paid political
disinformation. Facebook has made dire legal threats to shut this down,
arguing that we should trust the company to mark its own homework.

Whatsapp lured users in by promising privacy. It held onto them
post-acquisition by promising them their data would be siloed from
Facebook's main databases.

When it reneged on both promises, it papered this over by with a dialog
box where they had to click I AGREE.

This "agreement" is a prime example of "consent theater," the laughable
pretense that Facebook is "making an offer" and the public is "accepting
the offer."


Most people never read terms of service - but even when they do,
"agreements" are subject to unilateral "renegotiation" by companies that
engineered high switching costs as a means of corralling you into
clicking "I agree" to things no rational person would *ever* agree to.

Consent theater lays bare the fiction of agreement. Real agreement is
based on negotiation, and markets are based on price-signals in which
buyers and sellers make counteroffers.

A "market" isn't a place where a dominant seller names a price and then
takes it from you.

Comcom is a mechanism for making these counteroffers. Take ad-blockers,
which Doc Searls calls "the largest consumer boycott in history." More
than a quarter of internet users have installed an ad-block, fed up with
commercial surveillance.

This is negotiation, a counteroffer. Big Tech - and the publications it
colonizes - demand you give them *everything*, all the data they can
extract, for every purpose they can imagine, forever, as a condition of

Ad-block lets you say "Nah."


The fiction that tech barons have "discovered" the "price" that the
public is willing to pay for having a digital life is a parody of market
doctrine. Without the ability to counteroffer - in code, as well as in
law - there is no price discovery.

Rather, there is price-*setting*.

Not coincidentally, "the ability to set prices" is the textbook
definition of an illegal monopoly.


🦾 This day in history

#15yrsago Kids turn “teen repellent” sound into teacher-proof ringtone

#10yrsago Falun Gong sues Cisco over complicity in China’s “Golden
Shield” – allege torture, murder

#10yrsago Scenes from Los Angeles’s teacher-librarian witch-hunt

#5yrsago Philippines’ new “dictator” will give a hero’s burial to
Ferdinand Marcos

#5yrsago Judge handcuffs public defender for speaking out in court

#5yrsago Algorithmic risk-assessment: hiding racism behind “empirical”
black boxes

#5yrsago Grass in the park at the center of San Francisco gentrification
debate is now for rent

#5yrsago Technology’s “culture of compliance” must be beaten back in the
name of justice

#5yrsago Lawsuit: Texas’s largest jail is full of people who are locked
up for being poor

#5yrsago After the precariat, the unnecessariat: the humans who are
superfluous to corporations

#1yrago Coronagrifting and other bad design fictions


🦾 Colophon

Today's top sources: Red Ferret (https://www.redferret.net/).

Currently writing:

* Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Friday's
progress: 254 words (1854 words total).

* A short story about consumer data co-ops.  PLANNING

* A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation.  PLANNING

* A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written
with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown."  FINAL EDITS

* A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause."  FINISHED

* A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues."  FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (Part 06)

Upcoming appearances:

* In conversation with David Dayen (Second Life Book Club), Jun 4,

* Book launch for Terry Miles's Rabbits (Book Soup), Jun 7,

Recent appearances:

* How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism: Seize the Means of Computation

* Interoperability and Alternative Social Media

* Mohanraj and Rosenbaum Are Humans

Latest book:

* "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother novel, a standalone
technothriller for adults. The *Washington Post* called it "a political
cyberthriller, vigorous, bold and savvy about the limits of revolution
and resistance." Order signed, personalized copies from Dark Delicacies

* "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet
analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a
(print edition:
(signed copies:

* "Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new
introduction by Edward Snowden:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies

* "Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime,
gender, and kicking ass. Order here:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed
copy here:

Upcoming books:

* The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics,
Beacon Press 2022

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.
That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially,
provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link
to pluralistic.net.


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"*When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla*" -Joey "Accordion
Guy" DeVilla

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