The Shitty Tech Adoption Curve Has a Business Model

It is difficult to get a public procurement officer to understand something, when a vendor’s salary depends on his not understanding it.

Cory Doctorow
4 min readJun 11, 2023
A jail cell, seen through the bars. Bundles of US $100 bills are piled up on the floor of the cell.
Flying Logos/CC BY-SA 4.0 (modified)

In the “Shitty Technology Adoption Curve,” oppressive technologies are first imposed on people who don’t get to complain — prisoners, migrants, children, mental patients, benefits recipients — in order to normalize these tools and sand down their rough edges. Once the technology has been rendered a little more acceptable, it crawls up the privilege gradient, bit by bit, until even the most socially powerful among us are using it.

In other words: 20 years ago, if you ate dinner under a CCTV’s unblinking eye, you were probably dining in a supermax prison. Today, you’re likely just someone who bought some luxury surveillance, like a “home automation” system from Google, Apple, Amazon or Facebook.

From “bossware” and “repo-ware” to “ed-tech” and “landord tech,” each disciplinary technology starts with people way down on the ladder, then ascends the ladder, rung by rung, until it reaches you.

Case in point: the jails of Fulton County, Georgia, are fitting out prisoners with tracking bracelets from Talitrix, a prisonware company. These tracking bracelets give guards both realtime and historical access to every movement that every prisoner makes, as well as biometrics, down to the heart-rate of every prisoner.

Fulton County’s jails are in real trouble: “[Inmates] are sleeping on the floor in plastic trays. Cell doors hang off hinges, footage from one local news report shows, and leaked water pools on the floor in some areas. Last September, one person was found dead and covered in bed bugs.”

The funding to buy Talitrix tracking bracelets is part of an emergency cash infusion triggered by outrage (and litigation risk) over these inhumane conditions.

But the hundreds of sensors being studded throughout the county’s jails and the expensive tracking cuffs are obviously solving the wrong problems, like “how do we stop prisoners living under these inhumane conditions from erupting in violence, or taking their own lives?”

(For avoidance of doubt, the right question to answer is “How do we eliminate these inhumane conditions and focus on rehabilitation?”)

Why are prison authorities so focused on ineffective, expensive “solutions” rather than the obvious, commonsense — and cost-effective — measures that would actually resolve the problem?

Bottom line: no one gets rich by improving prison conditions. There is no business model for making prisons humane centers of rehabilitation that help people with real problems address those problems, re-enter society and reconcile with the people they transgressed upon.

By contrast, selling expensive prison-tech to sheriff’s departments yields a profit, some of which can be diverted into hiring more salespeople who court procurement officers with a slick pitch about how their gadgets can make their lives easier.

In other words, people who merely want to hire more counselors and therapists; improve prison libraries, training and food; and help prisoners after they serve their time will never produce better PowerPoints, expensive junkets, lavish sales dinners, elaborate trade-show booths, and slick brochures than the profiteers.

Why do school boards prefer flashy ed-tech to hiring more teachers? Why invest in school cops and metal detectors rather than mental health care, small class sizes, and cash transfers to struggling families with unstable housing, employment, and food?

Why do transport departments invest in license plate cameras and congestion charging rather than improving public transit and making it cheaper to ride a bus, tram or subway?

There’s no business model for taking the simple steps that address problems. Addressing human needs isn’t complicated — it’s just hard. It requires allocating public resources to social workers, teachers, housing, nutrition, health care, mental health, addiction counseling, and other cost-centers. The people who do this work — public employees doing public-spirited jobs — don’t have the luxury of profits to divert to promoting their work.

The shitty technology adoption curve owes its existence to this fact: solving human need produces public goods that we all benefit from, whereas securing private contracts from public agencies produces a surplus for the contractor that can be laundered into securing more contracts.

Evil, in other words, has a business-model.

The appetite for hurting people with shitty technology boundless. It will never be content to extract from the most easily oppressed among us. If we allow companies to wax fat on public funds to hurt the most powerless, they will build up a war-chest that lets it come after the rest of us. Today’s prisoner-tracking technology is tomorrow’s warehouse worker tracking technology, and will next come for office workers — and then for all of us.

Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is Chokepoint Capitalism (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).