It’s a Christmas tale for our time: Cyber nerds using high-tech software to buy a slew of baby-monkey robots and holding them ransom for thousands of dollars.
Good tech gone bad! Nefarious nerds! Dubious online platforms! Predatory late capitalism! Imagine if every tech and business motif from the past 12 months gathered to celebrate an end-of-year reunion in a single story.
This is that story. It is the story of the Fingerlings and the Grinch bots.
We begin, as Christmas stories sometimes do, in a toy store. Every holiday season has its must-have gizmo, like Cabbage Patch Kids or Tickle Me Elmo. This year’s sensation is the Fingerling, a plastic five-inch-tall baby monkey. Engineered to cling to an outstretched finger with its plastic hands and feet, the toy giggles, burps, and farts in response to petting and shaking. Imagine a manic pygmy marmoset robot with minor gastrointestinal issues, and you get the picture.
Many years ago, in the days when malls ruled the world, adoring mothers and fathers fearing the wrath of a wanting child would storm into stores and shove each other across aisles to grab a toy like the Fingerling. These days, however, the battle royale over popular toys has shifted online, where the dangers are more exotic than a mother’s flying elbow.
The new holiday showdown pits humans against software. It’s not a fair fight. A fleet of bots—software programs that can automate activities like search, chat, and online ordering—have been dispatched by anonymous online scalpers to buy up the most popular children’s toys on the internet. These bots overwhelm retail sites with bulk orders from multiple IP addresses and autofill payment and address information faster than humanly possible. Hence, the apt nickname: Grinch bots.
Fingerlings are currently sold out at the websites of Toys “R” Us, Walmart, and Target. Where did the toys go? To sites like Amazon and eBay, where the bots’ owners are listing the $15 playthings for $1,000, or more. (It’s not clear who these people are, but they evidently possess programming chops, yet no soul.) Cyber scalpers have used the same methods to deplete online retailers of other toys, like Barbie Hello Dreamhouse and L.O.L. Surprise! Doll, which they can resell at exorbitant prices. While offline toy scalpers and online ticket scalpers are an old trend, this seems to be the first case of mass-scale online toy scalping.
Retailers have failed to block the bots, and platforms have refused to stop the sellers. For example, eBay has claimed that there’s little it can do to halt the legal exchange of toys. “As an open marketplace, eBay is a global indicator of trends in which supply and demand dictate the pricing of items,” the company said in a statement. “As long as the item is legal to sell and complies with our policies, it can be sold on eBay.” The Grinch bots are not technically stealing or defrauding. They are practicing a form of legally sanctioned ransom.
The yuletide fleecing of middle-class parents has attracted political attention. “Grinch bots cannot be allowed to steal Christmas, or dollars, from the wallets of New Yorkers,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said. He has proposed legislation that bans bots on retail sites, expanding a law that already prohibits the use of bulk-buying tickets for concerts or theater. That law’s name is the Better Online Ticket Sales Act—or the BOTS Act.
But even if fines make scalpers fear, the law won’t pass before this year. As Grinch bots reap and hoard playthings, ‘twill be too late for Fingerlings.
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Why is this story so fitting for 2017? The Grinch bot drama mashes together two moral panics about once-celebrated tech stories—platforms and automation—and sprinkles them with dread about predatory capitalism. Beyond the nimbus of presidential scandal and the watershed revelations of sexual harassment, these fears have dominated the tech and business news cycles this year.
1. The Dark Side of Platforms
A platform is a digital interface that offers consumers access to a wide range of products, which the platform itself doesn’t necessarily own. Think Netflix for video, or Google for information. In a widely shared 2015 essay, Tom Goodwin, a writer and marketing strategist, summarized the spectacle of platforms tech this way:
Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.
He was right: Something interesting is happening. But while Goodwin’s summary inspired sunny optimism back in 2015, the last 12 months have revealed the dark side of platforms, which often serve as clearinghouses of human indecency. Propaganda has thrived on Twitter, Google search results have elevated false breaking news stories, and Uber devised a controversial program called “greyball” to maneuver cars away from regulators trying to bust illegal ride-hailing. Most dramatically, a former executive at Facebook now claims the company is “ripping apart” society.
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.