How ‘Calculated Misery’ and Capitalism Increasingly Go Hand in Hand
If you feel like products and services are becoming unnecessarily worse, you’re not imagining it
If you have to fly somewhere these days, and unless you’re willing to wear multiple layers of clothes during your travel as some people do, you’ll likely need to pay extra for your baggage.
If you want to sit next to the person you’re flying with, you’ll also have to pay to choose your seats in advance or hope that whoever the system allocates near you will be willing to swap.
If you’re on the bigger or taller side or perhaps just want to be comfortable since airline seats and legroom keep getting smaller, you must also pay for an aisle seat or extra legroom or upgrade to business class.
And then for water on board if you get thirsty. And early boarding if you don’t want to battle with other passengers over the overhead bin space. And the bathroom if you really can’t wait until you land. Oh, sorry. That one is just an idea. (For now, at least.)
But you might remember that there weren’t nearly as many add-ons once upon a time. Checked baggage, boarding times and seat selection all used to be free. Over time, though, air travel has become deliberately less comfortable and more inconvenient, and if you want to have the ‘luxury’ of avoiding all that discomfort, you need to cough up some cash.
Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.
Well, the approach certainly seems to have worked well for the industry so far. In 2022 alone, eight major US airlines made $4.2 billion in revenue on assigned seat fees, and the industry raked in $5.3 billion in baggage fees.
But it’s not just airlines that capitalise on people willing to spend money to avoid artificially imposed misery.
The online experience is getting more and more miserable
In the early days of YouTube, the platform had no ads. In August 2007, they aired the first one and then introduced pre-roll ads — ads that play before the content of a video — a year later.
At first, it was just one or two, which you could often skip. Today, there are usually three or more in a row you have to suffer through to watch the video you actually want to watch. Or you can pay for YouTube Premium to make these ads go away and never bother you again — if you keep paying for the service, of course.
But given that some users have been complaining about eight or even ten consecutive unskippable pre-roll ads, it’s not unlikely that the platform will only keep increasing its ad load in the years to come.
Even if you don’t use YouTube, you might have noticed that life online has worsened lately.
Snapchat, the popular messaging app, once didn’t have ads, then they introduced both ads and a premium subscription, Snapchat+, that lets you enjoy it the way it used to be, essentially.
The platform formerly known as Twitter did a similar thing following Elon Musk’s takeover. Only even if you pay for their premium subscription experience, you’ll still get ads. Just roughly half less than the non-paying users. TikTok also recently announced that it’s testing ad-free subscription tiers. And so did Meta, which owns Instagram, Facebook and Threads.
But these ‘premium’ services often don’t just promise to make your experience ad-free but improve your posts' reach and actually show them to people who… followed you in the first place, meaning they likely had to shadowban you first. Some also offer features that used to be free. (Just like checked bags on airlines.)
So you can either consent to the free experience becoming increasingly worse, crawling with annoying ads and prompts to upgrade and accept having your content demoted or pay up to end the torture.
That’s what Cory Doctorow talks about in his theory of ‘enshittification’ that describes how social media platforms die:
First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves.
As a result, the social web that once resembled an open semi-egalitarian forum is becoming a playground for the ultra-wealthy, who seem to be racing each other in how much misery they can get away with imposing on their users in hopes of lining their own pockets. In the meantime, many apps and websites are following suit.
Google Search has been getting progressively worse lately, to the point users now have to resort to workarounds and hacks to try and find useful information among all the sponsored links and widespread junk. Amazon's shopping experience seems to have undergone a similar downgrade, which tech journalist John Herrman called the ‘junkification’ of Amazon earlier this year.
But even niche apps aren’t immune from the temptation of making things shittier. When I started writing this piece, I opened a free writing tool I’ve used for almost half a decade. And guess what? The free service is now essentially nearly unusable, and I’d have to pay a hefty subscription fee to use it how I did in the past.
Oh, the irony…
It’s not just the digital world, either
The closest equivalent to ‘calculated misery’ in the world of consumer goods is planned obsolescence. In a nutshell, that’s purposefully designing a product to have a short life span.
Real estate broker Bernard London first coined the term in his 1932 paper, but it didn’t enter common usage until much later because, well, finding high-quality and long-lasting products wasn’t always as tricky as it is today.
Most of the household appliances my parents used — some bought during the Soviet times — lasted for decades. They had the same vacuum cleaner throughout most of the 90s and early 2000s and only replaced it not long ago. It didn’t break. They just wanted to have one that had a carpet-cleaning functionality.
Meanwhile, my partner and I bought a vacuum cleaner a couple of years ago, and although it wasn't cheap, it’s… already starting to break. But if you want to repair an existing appliance or gadget, it’s often more affordable to buy a new one. Sometimes, it’s not even possible to fix it.
That’s because companies like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Tesla, and General Electric, to name a few, spent billions lobbying against right-to-repair laws and essentially allowing their consumers to have a chance to repair their products. And although those laws have been passed in multiple places, they are far from perfect. In the UK, for instance, some of the most prominent categories — like smartphones, laptops, cookers, microwaves, hobs, etc. — are still entirely excluded.
And so, instead of repairing what you already own, you’re stuck on the treadmill of constantly buying new things and then replacing them. But sometimes, it’s not even because the product stopped working.
It’s long been suspected that tech companies intentionally cripple smartphones and computers via software updates, a practice referred to as ‘performance throttling.’ And some, like Apple, indeed admitted these updates can slow down your phone’s performance.
Of course, when it comes to physical products, there’s another factor that can explain why the quality only seems to be deteriorating lately: demand. Hunger for micro-trends combined with the ‘new and more is better’ consumer culture we have today, created and stoked by corporations, means they are incentivised to produce faster and faster and take as many shortcuts as necessary.
‘Old’ products, especially tech, aren’t only slower and gradually more painful to use but also seem… uncool.
Still, it’s not like designing tech products for longevity is impossible. Startups like the Dutch Fairphone and their easily fixable and updatable smartphones, for instance, prove it is.
But it’s not difficult to guess the main reason why we haven’t seen more companies follow their lead, though.
These are just mechanics of capitalism
We often refer to murky business practices and corporations trying to cut corners as ‘failures’ of the capitalist system.
But are they really? Or is everything going according to plan?
All that ‘calculated misery’ and ‘enshittification’ and ‘junkification’ and deliberate erosion of quality and longevity of consumer goods, despite technology becoming more advanced, would likely cease to exist in a world that doesn’t prioritise endless growth.
Or where we ensure a handful of corporations can’t control most products, brands, and services.
That’s another problem here. Whether it’s air travel, social media or consumer tech, these industries remain dominated by a small group of companies. And I doubt they would still be able to successfully get away with all that artificially manufactured misery if they had many credible competitors. In particular, if these competitors refused to engage in this practice.
But because that’s not the case, and because they’re all doing it — to a lesser or greater extent — they can keep doing it, and plenty of people will line up for their new products and premium subscriptions. And if you don’t like it, you can just opt out and stop moaning or suck it up, we’re often told.
At what point does that end, though? How much more imposed misery can be deemed as ‘acceptable’ and ‘normal? Or environmental destruction, since that’s what throwaway culture leads to?
And what if, one day, we can’t opt out?
Switching costs — which is how companies hold us hostage — are already pretty high for certain products and services. And seeing how everything becomes subscription-based these days, they will likely only keep increasing.
In my building, there’s already a subscription-based rental appliances store. And it even has a vacuum cleaner. It could make sense for us to switch to renting once the one we currently have inevitably breaks instead of buying another that won’t last more than three or four years.
But then what happens when that service becomes increasingly pricey, and we have to pay for a ‘premium’ tier if we don’t want a vacuum that will likely spit out dust in our faces?
If I don’t own anything — and as your typical young Millennial, I don’t even own a house — and most of my money is swallowed up by all the subscriptions I need to make my life possible, I might not even be able to buy a vacuum. And I have no choice but to suck it up, do I?
As long as companies are incentivised and allowed to grow at any cost — even if that means degrading their own product — they will likely never seek to change or improve the world.
And we probably need to brace ourselves for even more manufactured misery to come our way and for many more things to have a price tag.
Including… going to the bathroom on a plane.