THERE’S a human, all-too-human element to the Michael Matheson Apple iPad scandal. Your kids running up more than £10k in data charges on your parliamentary device, as they cooried in watching live Celtic games on a family holiday in Morocco… Aaargh. There but for the grace of Jobs go I.

The titanic personal embarrassment – your beloved family, on a doubtless restorative holiday, causing you such professional and public grief – has clearly produced some missteps by the Health Minister. Let the investigation proceed.

But it’s become an all-island story because the haplessness involved is easily relatable. It appears that Mr Matheson updated his occupational SIM card (from EE to Vodafone) on his mobile, but not his tablet: the old provider was evidently locked into eye-watering data rates.

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Yes, that’s negligence as an information-era adult. Though perhaps a detail understandably overlooked, as the entire Scottish NHS thunders across your desk.

But there’s a loud pinging noise going off in my head. Why weren’t the alarms being sounded by the service provider themselves?

I know if I make even the most trivial online banking purchase that’s beyond my usual UK-based spending patterns, my bank’s fraud-watch algorithms shut me down immediately, informing me swiftly of their actions.

Why wasn’t an algorithm being triggered by the rapidly escalating data charge on Matheson’s official iPad? These are endlessly surveilled and computable times, where we grudgingly accept total monitoring (and prediction) of our behaviour, so we can receive “free” services.

Accordingly, shouldn’t we expect a service that we’re actually paying for to be super-aware of aberrant behaviour? Maybe that’s something for Matheson’s investigators to explore.

Yet there’s a lot of bad digital-commerce behaviour around. On three occasions in the past several months, I have discovered long-unsubscribed journals suddenly restarting subscriptions from my bank account, expressly without my permission. The apologies and refunds are fulsome – but what’s the drill here? Did they believe, in the multiplying chaos of my online retail life, that I wouldn’t notice?

Again, I perform a mild salute to the smartness of my banking app, which is now able to break down my spending into useful categories. This helped me discover, post-Covid, just how much my digital subscriptions had jumped up. Not just their variety, as I projected on the wall of my lockdown cave, but also their steadily escalating monthly fees.

None of this is to exculpate the Health Minister. But there is an additional context here. It has two names – one polite, one not. The first is “platform decay”, explained as a pattern of decreasing quality in online platforms. The other, saltily coined by the Canadian tech critic Cory Doctorow, is the “enshittification of the internet”.

Is enshittification the same as the shitty treatments I have been describing? Not quite – though there’s overlap.

Both depend on users lazily and comfortably relying on their communication technology, itself seductively designed to induce that reliance. Thus lulled, they end up being gradually (in Matheson’s case, explosively) more stung and exploited, just for using the services they originally signed up to.

The leading enshittifier at the moment is, predictably, Elon Musk and his transformation – or befoulment – of into

Musk perceived instantly that he had one of the perfect conditions for enshittification. Twitter had a multi-million-strong user base, who had built up relationships and reputations among themselves over years. Twitter was a walled garden; those inside would find it difficult to rebuild those audiences somewhere else.

So as a long-standing Twitter/X user, it’s been a horrible year. Musk has removed functions – like the ability to feed tweets into various other websites. In a blink, this destroyed a whole ecosystem of social influence. Musk, crudely, wants your eyeballs only on his site. But in taking measures in that direction, he’s doubled the promotional workload of many freelancers and creatives.

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Worse, he’s trying to obliterate any other competition. Many freelancers and thinkers I know moved on to Substack in the past few years, as a writer-friendly platform that helped scriveners build both a social community and a paying audience. Twitter used to be in an ideal synergy with Substack: punchy posts in the former led readers to longer and more thoughtful essays in the latter.

Now, because of Musk’s explicit antipathy – where his algorithms actively suppress the distribution of posts that mention Substack – X posters are reduced to silly circumlocutions (“check my web-address in my profile”). I expect this feature to be restored soon… except now, it will have a price-tag on it.

Other enshittifications include YouTube allowing access to simple functions – eg, a second overlay screen on your device – but only upon payment of a steadily increasing premium.

Google and Facebook captured people in a lattice of friendships and curiosity. Now that you’re locked in, they flood the first few items in your feeds with advertiser-bought content. And let’s not forget Amazon – pulling vendors into the system on loss-making rates, then ratcheting up fees on transactions when they achieve near-monopoly.

Ironically – and this maybe only adds to our Health Minister’s klutziness – there’s an obvious solution to much of this. Which is the kind of “freedom to switch” that regulators forced upon the mobile industry (replace your sim card!).

The jargon word is “interoperability”. Imagine if you could easily lift your entire network of friends, built up over years of labour, from one platform to another, with legal enforcement behind this. Companies would be fighting to not enshittify your experience – perhaps “enfloralise” it instead.

There are reasonable debates about how best to do this. The EU is storming ahead with a Digital Identity passport scheme. Internet platforms in the European jurisdiction would primarily deal with this identity, whenever you signed up for a new service.

The idea is that you can assert your rights to possess the information and interaction you feed into any digital company. There’s an obvious caveat here. To what extent do you trust said European super-state to manage such an identity, without the temptations of policing and surveillance?

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Doctorow, coiner of enshittification, has his own solutions in a 2021 World Economic Forum paper titled “Privacy Without Monopoly: Data Protection and Interoperability”.

Not an easy read – particularly as it constantly (and fussily) tries to strike a balance between poles. That is, between the encouragement of digital competition among enterprises, and the right for users to exit from digital conditions that are treating them, well, like shit. You can understand why advocates of crypto and blockchain prefer to ensure privacy by running a parallel, “trustless” system.

In other areas, Big Tech’s stories seem much more exciting than the minister’s travails with his tablet. Like many other commentators, I am entranced by what’s bubbling and buckling behind the doors of all these AI companies. New homework machine, or a next step in planetary evolution?

But there’s something usefully corrective about a humdrum cock-up with a company iPad. It reminds us of our bumbling, faltering, emotional human lives. And that technology should be enhancing and enabling those lives, not making them worse and more frazzled.

We may then go on to draw some citizens’ (and perhaps also regulatory) lessons from this particular family incident. As ever, Scottish independence offers possibilities for best practice and reform.

A sore yin for the Mathesons, though. Put yourself in their espadrilles.