The freedom* of choice

Since the topic is no longer hot, I can rant on it as well.

Sometimes I get asked why I name the search company with the name starting with G (and part of Alphabet) Baidu consistently throughout my blog. There are several reasons for that, mostly it’s because since they use my work without acknowledging it I don’t see a reason to promote their name either, but more importantly, I feel the company would fit well into a totalitarian regime (on the top of course, they do not want to be mere servants). And recently they’ve proved that once again.

You should be aware of the theory of enshittification by now: at first company caters to the users, then it shifts its focus to the suppliers and finally it starts to serve its own interests. I believe it is just a natural manifestation of shifting power balance but not the intents: companies want to have all money (control, whatever) without doing much work, users prefer to have everything as cheap as possible instead; so in order to get a hold on the market a company needs needs to build a user-base first, then it still has to submit to the suppliers’ wishes (since it still depends on them) until it finally gets an effective monopoly so neither the users nor the suppliers have any other option. Of course in reality there are many factors that still limit companies (sometimes EU regulations can be useful!) so it’s not as bad as it could be otherwise. But who knows, maybe we’ll see the cyberpunk future with large corporations becoming de facto states.

Anyway, back to the Internet search. Previously there was such thing as Internet—a gathering of different web sites and personal pages—and there was a need to find a piece of information of a web site of certain interest. Thus search services came into existence. Some were merely a catalogue of links for certain topics submitted by people, other crawled the Web in order to find new information (IMO AltaVista was the best one).

And then Internet matured and companies discovered that money can be made there. And that’s when we started to get annoying ads—large Flash banners, pop-ups, pop-unders and so on (I vaguely remember time before ads became that annoying but I hardly can believe in that myself). But the process has not stopped there, ad revenue meant that now the sites have a reason to attract users not merely to increase the visitors counter (yes, many sites had such widgets back in the day). That’s how we got another pillar of modern Web—SEO spam. Also with the technological progress we got large sites dedicated to organising user content (previously there were such things as GeoCities or Tripod but they were rather disorganised hosting services for random user homepages), including the worst of them—social networks. Eventually those sites tried to replace the whole Web—and it worked fine for most users who get their daily dose of news, recreation and social interaction from one or two of those sites.

So we have these megasites full with ads and generated nonsense or plagiarised content and Baidu had a reasonable idea of cutting the middle man—if you stay on one site to browse mostly generated nonsense why can’t we provide it all instead of referring you to an ad revenue for a different site? And if you think this idea is bad, there’s not much you can do about it—the very limited competition acts the same. Starting your own search service would require an insane amount of bandwidth and storage to do it right (even the large companies had their search quality declining for years because the content has exponential growth while storage space for even indexing it is limited, so you have to sacrifice something less popular). Mind you, if you limit the scope severely it may work just fine, it’s scaling to all Web content and for general audience that is rather impossible.

Now where does freedom* (yes, with marketing asterisk) of choice come into this picture?

I remember reading back in the day how The Party solved the problem of lacking resources to fulfil needs of people. They declared that the needs of the people are determined by the party (so if you think you should have other food beside bread, mashed eggplants and tinned sprats—well, that’s your own delusion that has nothing to do with your real needs). It feels that Web N.0 companies decided the same—for now mostly in the form of recommendations/suggestions but considering the growing limitations (like avoiding seeing ads on Baidu hosting using Baidu browser—at least they have not introduced mandatory quiz after the ads like reportedly one russian video hosting does) it may soon be about as good as in China (i.e. when you try to deviate from the prescribed path you’ll be gently returned to it and if you persist you’ll be punished—banning your Baidu account seems to be as bad as losing social credit score already). That’s the real freedom of choice—they’re free to choose an option for you and you’re free to choose to accept it (also known as Soviet choice).

Good thing is that most people don’t care and I can manage without. Bad thing is that it spreads elsewhere.

I’m talking mostly about various projects, especially systemd and GNOME. In both cases the projects offered a certain merit (otherwise they would not stand out of their competition and not get support of IBM) but with the time they became too large in their domain and force their choices on Linux users. For example, systemd may be a conceptually good init system but in reality it can work only with the components designed specifically for it (or do you have a better explanation for existence of things like systemd-timesyncd?). Similarly GNOME is very hostile to attempts to change GUI appearance, so when third-party developers failed to take a hint with plugins and themes breaking every minor release, GNOME developers had to explicitly introduce libadwaitha and forbid any deviations from the light and dark themes hardcoded there. At least finding an alternative there is still possible.

Well, there you have it. I’m not the first to highlight the problems and I’m not proposing a universal solution to them either. But if you ever wondered why I restrict myself on many modern technologies and NIH my own multimedia framework, here’s your answer.

8 Responses to “The freedom* of choice”

  1. Paul says:

    I again removed rustc from system, no enough disk space, and proved useless for me as its FFT/RDFT library is slower than one in Librempeg at least when testing convolver with camilladsp tool (and I made sure I’m not using debug build). But onto topic there is nowhere one ring to fit all solutions, and now you just get more ways to get distracted and to not do anything useful all days with modern web. And the most web search engines are every next day more and more useless for me.

  2. Kostya says:

    Your words remind me of a joke about Soviet automatic haircut machine: “- But people have different heads. – Only until the first time they use this machine.” There may be no one good solution for everybody but certain companies try to force it nevertheless, conditioning users if needed.

    As for the search quality, the saddest thing is that now when I search for some obscure formats information I often get only links to my own blog and obvious SEO garbage.

  3. Peter says:

    So in your little lexicon, how do you communicate the awesome search company starting with B. Or do you never use it?

    I use B and Y, occasionally because G is heavily filtered at the request on their suppliers. Take comics for example. Searching for “Mad Magazine” on G and all you tend to get is sites that want to sell you comic subscriptions, whereas these other search engines tend to return sites that actually serve comics directly. B and Y are of course not without other issues.

  4. Kostya says:

    I think I tried Chinese Baidu once or twice and decided it’s not worth it. I mostly use On2On2Go (accessible via On2 old domain name) and occasionally (back in the day it had extremely good search for Ukrainian segment of Internet but nowadays I fear it’s all just repackaged Baidu results, like with the search engine above).

    As for Y, beside being russian with all the consequences of that it had another fun feature: they decided that if you’re using special keywords (e.g. for domain-specific search) you must be a robot or somebody abusing their search as your own site indexer and thus show you a captcha every page. At least that’s what their developers said. I understand why e.g. exclusion stopped working on other search engines but this is something else.

  5. Paul says:

    Admit it, everything goes dumb at the end. The search engines are no exception.

  6. Kostya says:

    I’ll answer with the usual “it depends”. But the process of things getting dumber is rather natural process of self-sabotage – something becomes popular, the original people behind it lose control (usually because of company growth, new investors and management who do not understand what made it great in the first place). For example, Seymour Cray used to start off a new company each time when the old one grew too large in order to get rid of that effect.

    Then again, you seem happy working on librempeg (and I assume, merging all patches from the upstream) so at least one thing hasn’t gone to that stage yet.

  7. Paul says:

    “Upstream” is in big stagnation stage, it will go downhill very strong in few years.

  8. Kostya says:

    I thought you’ve been expecting this for a decade as a former Libav developer.
    IMO there are no reasons or signs for the upcoming drastic changes and it will keep going steady.

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