These scandals have not always damaged these companies’ utility or profit; while Uber’s valuation has declined, Facebook and Google’s stocks have grown dramatically. But they have pierced the prevailing techno-optimism by calling attention, again and again, to the same question: How can users trust platforms that are often no better than the worst of their users? That query has special resonance for families who are victims of today’s cyber scalpers. These high-tech scoundrels have scammed online retailers and turned the laissez faire rules of eBay’s platform against the interests of its shoppers. Like the Russian propagandists on Facebook and Twitter, the cyber scalpers succeeded, not by flouting their platforms rules, but by mastering them.
2. The Dark Side of Automation
Bots and artificial intelligence have been hailed as the next great technological breakthrough. They populate a vision of a future where corporate bots replace customer-service agents and where personal AI assistants help people shop or manage household tasks, like Her, or, less creepily, Jarvis. In this future, bots serve as automators of tedium and toil, allowing companies and individuals to focus on what really matters to them.
But in the last 12 months, bots have been mastered by trolls and scam artists. They have automated the worst elements of human nature—the instinct to deceive, ridicule, and extort. Immediately after the first presidential debate last year, more than a third of pro-Trump tweets (and about a fifth of pro-Clinton tweets) came from bots. Facebook and Twitter were flooded with bots that, in mimicking the most obnoxious users, merely amplified the sites’ worst tendencies. These “bot-makers see an opportunity to exploit anonymity with a humanlike touch at an inhuman scale,” John Herrman wrote for The New York Times.
It is a perfect description for the Grinch bot programmers, as well. Scalping is an ancient practice. But cyber scalping allows these scammers to operate at an inhumanly vast scale and with inhuman speed, so that they can absorb the entire supply of popular toys at Walmart and Target’s websites.
3. The Predation of “Late Capitalism”
Merriam-Webster’s word of the year is feminism—a worthy selection. But in economic circles, perhaps no term has been more emblematic of 2017 than the ubiquitous yet amorphous “late capitalism.”
The concept sounds vaguely Marxist. But it wasn’t coined by Karl Marx himself, according to William Clare Roberts, a political scientist at McGill University interviewed by The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey. Rather, he said, the term came from Marxist acolytes alluding to the darkness that comes just before the dawn of socialism, the moment when “we see the ligaments of the international system that socialists will be able to seize and use.”
It’s hard to imagine a better advertisement for switching economic systems than anonymous scalpers ripping off well-intentioned parents in the name of free markets. But that’s essentially the attitude of the Grinch-bot coders and their ilk. Last year, two brothers bought a stockpile of Hatchimals—the it-toy of 2016—to force families to pay large markups to get the toy. It was like an analog version of the Grinch-bot scandal. Interviewed by Time magazine, the brothers were remorseless; in fact, they were proud. “We didn’t break any laws,” one brother, Mike Zappa, said. “And we aren’t dictating how the market is pricing the toys on eBay. What we are doing is capitalism at its best.”
It’s a shameless defense. But it’s not so different from the argument lurking in eBay’s corporate statement, which implies Grinch bots aren’t a scandal, because their behavior is technically legal. Indeed, that makes a fine summary for the worst storylines of the year, from politics to tech to business. Sometimes, the scandal is what’s permissible.