Oh no, canvas not supported :(


sharing economy apps and the new bottle-wavers

29 January 2016

This is the third installment in a two-month series of posts on the intersection of politics and technology, written for a class at Western Washington University. The series consists of two bookend posts with four focused discussions in between; this is the second discussion. You can find the other posts here, here, here, here, and here.

For better or for worse, the modern age has ushered in new ‘disruptive’ technologies the like of which we have never before seen. The classic example of this is what some people have taken to calling the sharing economy.

The sharing economy, in a nutshell, is based on the idea that while traditionally people have bought good or services from specialized third parties (taxi rides from taxi companies, hotel rooms from hotel companies), people totally would buy these things directly from each other if there existed a reliable channel to mediate those transactions. What’s more, lots of people have services to offer, but no good way to offer them.If you’re going out of town for a week, your apartment is just sitting there empty, and (so the thinking goes) empty living space has an inherent value which you are not capitalizing on. Catchphrases like “unused value is wasted value” get thrown around a lot when describing this sort of situation.

Enter “sharing economy” apps. Uber, Lyft, et al., let you play taxi using your very own car. Airbnb lets you play hotel with your own property. The apps are a mediated channel for connecting consumers with providers, and (hopefully) giving each a reasonable level of assurance about the other. Basically, they give you a way to easily rent out things you already own, on your schedule. Stated in the abstract this way, it probably sounds nice. And a lot of the time, it is. But it also has its share of failures, and most people seem to turn a blind eye to them, drunk as we are on its successes.

Let’s start with the name: “the sharing economy”. This is a masterpiece of euphemism. Sharing is letting someone crash on your couch. Sharing is carpooling. The second you attach a price to something, the second you offer your services on a market instead of as a favor, what you’re doing stops being sharing. But of course, sharing is such a nice word that people are reluctant to stop using it, even though very cogent arguments have been put forward about how misleading the name is, and other, better names have been suggested, such as “access economy”.

The next problem is that price aside, the generous-individuals-sharing-hospitality-because-we’re-all-such-good-buddies narrative still isn’t really true. Power players, both individual and corporate, have emerged, trying in essence to be the hotel and taxi companies (so to speak) of the sharing economy. The more successful they are, the more resources they have to put towards furthering their success, because that’s how capitalism works. Of course, many die-hard capitalists would say that if this is the will of the market, then so be it. But it doesn’t sit well – aren’t these exactly the sort of entities the sharing economy promised to move us away from?

Then there’s the issue of regulation. And make no mistake: this is a big issue. Uber, for instance, has had no end of legal troubles in virtually every country where it operates. Its failure to fit the business models around which extant legal regulations are built means that it can in many cases dodge or muscle past regulations meant to apply to businesses offering the service it provides. Uber’s ability to sidestep laws meant to hold it to ethical standards means that it has been able to engage time and again in startlingly unethical practices.

How unethical, you ask? I’ll let you judge that for yourself. All I’m saying is, it’s not a pretty picture. And it doesn’t stop with Uber’s own practices – they also have a track record of enabling and defending drivers’ ethically questionable conduct.

And it’s not just Uber: Related companies like Lyft have also been taking all kinds of questionable liberties with their workforce, provoking high-profile lawsuits and setting controversial legal precedent. The question of whether these companies’ workers, some of whom are full-time drivers who make their living off of Uber, should even be allowed to organize is still under active discussion, somehow.

It’s not just these quasi-taxi services, either. San Francisco has gotten pretty tired of Airbnb, seemingly for good reason. Plus, it seems like for every one of the service’s funny stories (“boutique igloo”!), there’s a horror story to balance it out, and while the blame in these stories rarely rests on one party alone, it’s also rare to find one in which the facilitating service is not at least partly at fault.

What this situation reminds me of, somehow, is this little story that shows up in a longer novel, told to one character by another. The story concerns the term “bottle-waver”, which I think the author coined. Maybe it was Neal Stephenson, though I’m not sure.

In any case, the story goes that there’s this tiny island, and there’s an uncontacted tribe living on the island. They all live peaceful lives, unconcerned with what might lie beyond their shores… until one day, an empty glass bottle washes onto the beach. This bottle just blows their minds – they’ve never even seen glass before and now suddenly here’s this, and they don’t have the slightest idea what to make of it.

The villagers are equal parts awed and terrified, so, seeking answers, they take it to the village shaman. The shaman immediately recognizes this glass bottle to be an object of great magical power, but also has no idea what to do with it.

Of course, no self-respecting shaman could admit that, so to save face the shaman grabs a stick, puts the bottle on the end of the stick, and waves the stick overhead, shouting “Its power is mine!” The villagers, seeing this, are all forced to agree, and everything returns to the way it was.

The bottle-waver, then, is someone who claims as their own that which they don’t even understand, hoping that by recognizing the power of that which they have claimed, they will themselves acquire its power. Actually understanding the power in question is totally unnecessary, maybe even detrimental – all you have to do is come off, to the less informed, as if you understand it. This reminds me very much of the attitude these companies take towards their collective innovation, the ‘sharing economy’.

It’s unclear whether any of these companies truly understand or even care about their technologies’ ramifications on the marketplace, or on the cultures in which they operate. They’ve hit upon something nobody’s ever seen before – their glass bottle – and as soon as they found it, they all lunged for their sticks, to see who could wave it the highest. Now Silicon Valley watches, enthralled as everyone in the crowd wishes nothing more than to take the bottle’s power for themselves.

Suggestion after suggestion gets thrown out – “Uber but for x,” “Uber but for y” – but as of yet, they’re all too enthralled to suggest the one thing that might actually help: That we all catch our breath, take the bottle down off the stick, and take a moment to try and figure out what bottles are actually good for.