Common sense doesn't scale

Imagine you were hired as a babysitter by some parents for their child. They are usually pretty casual about things, but they mentioned the kid has to go to bed at 8pm.

8pm comes around and the movie the kid is watching has 5 minutes left. And while I’ve never been a babysitter, and I know nothing about children, I would like to think that I, and probably most people, would let the kid watch that 5 minutes. Common sense says if they are a good kid who isn’t actively trying to break the rules it’s probably fine and doesn’t hurt anybody.

Now imagine you were hired as a babysitter by hundreds of parents, for thousands of children at once.

Some kids are actively trying to break the rules, some are going to bed right at 8, some are trying to start an entire new movie, and then there’s that one who has 5 minutes left. In this example you couldn’t possibly use common sense to figure out what to do for each kid. You would probably just plug all the TVs into a power strip and turn them all off at 8pm sharp. However, you kind of screwed over that one kid who just wanted to finish their movie. They weren’t trying to hurt anybody or actively cause problems, but got shut down anyway.

As that babysitter your job is to try to make sure the kids are taken care of, that you get paid, and to make sure you get hired again in the future. You’re not a bad person, and you’re not trying to make the lives of these kids worse. But in this situation there is no way to scale your common sense, empathy, or humanity to do a great job. You can only do your best to do a good job at that scale.

This is Big Tech in a nutshell. Each Big Tech company has been tasked to babysit an immense number of people while rights holders, governments, advertisers and legal entities watch over them with their own sets of expectations.

If you give any tech company the benefit of the doubt (difficult, I know), each began by trying to treat their users well, as nobody (generally) starts a company for the sole purpose of screwing over those who want to utilize it. But quickly something becomes more important than people: to not get shut down by entities more powerful than they are.

Even the most loved Big Tech enterprises will never, ever be able to treat its users well at scale. No redesign of their copyright policies, no new terms of service, no new algorithm and no new owner will ever be able to change the fact that when you get that big you can no longer treat your users as individuals and you will actively hurt many of them. Once you get to a certain size working with your users becomes a data problem, not a people problem. And data problems cannot be solved with common sense, nuance, or empathy.

Scale is our enemy. Be it open source or closed source. For-profit or not. As long as single organizations have to impose some interpretation of endless rules on that many people everything falls apart. The only solution is smaller services, standalone organizations, self-hosting, and decentralized networks allowing for it all.

If you are taking advantage of any service that you see as “big” it’s only a matter of time before things go wrong. No service should have that many users to try to manage and no organization should have that much power to try and wield. Find small versions of things. Build small versions of things. Increase the diversity of opinions and perspectives on how rules should be interpreted. Big Tech isn’t there for you to improve your life. You’re a liability just as much as you are an asset. They will shut you down even if it’s not fair, because they have to.