July 09, 2014

How Sharing Becomes Exclusionary

by Alan Beatts

A common idea in science fiction is the post-scarcity society; one in which energy is so cheap and manufacturing involves so little effort that, for all intents, physical property and goods are no longer in limited supply and, as a result, have little or no cost (and, by extension, no value).  Voyage To Yesteryear by James Hogan is one of my favorites but you'll find examples in the works of Ken MacLeod, Iain M. Banks, Robert Heinlein (as is often the case, ahead of his time), and many other authors.  A feature of many of these societies is a real sharing economy in which, once a person no longer needs an item, it is passed along to another or just abandoned in a public place for the next person who needs it.  Another feature of some of these societies is a sort of curious disdain for people who want to collect possessions regardless of their need for them.

People often comment that we are living in the world of science fiction.  Day-to-day features of our lives were elements of SF only a decade ago (smart phones, self-driving cars, and facial recognition software are all fine examples).  I suppose that the current rise in the "sharing economy" as exemplified by companies like Uber and Airbnb could be mistaken as the early days of the science fictional post-scarcity shared property society.  But it's not.  In fact, it's more like a horrible dystopian novel by someone like Richard Morgan, Philip K. Dick or even George Orwell.

When I was much younger I was a relatively enthusiastic Libertarian . . . or at least something like one.  I never really agreed with the Libertarian party but I did think that the government should regulate businesses less and generally stay out of people's personal lives as much as possible.  I also thought that a fee-for-service model was better than tax-funded public services and that privatization wasn't such a bad idea at all.  In retrospect I think I was pretty dumb or, at the very least, simple-minded.  Despite the change in mindset that I've experienced over the ensuing decades, I still feel a little uncomfortable bashing the modern sharing economy so vigorously.  But . . . .

There are two big, obvious problems with companies like Uber and Airbnb, but there's also a much less obvious problem that might be even bigger.  The first problem is that no one is actually "sharing" anything.  What happening is that people are "selling" stuff, be it rides in their cars or nights in their house.  And, while the people doing the selling are making some money, the companies assisting in those sales are making boat-loads of money.  Let me put it this way -- I "share" a truck with someone.  We both use it when we need it and make arrangements with each-other about when we'll use it.  We each cover half the costs of the insurance, repairs, and gas.  However, we pay our own parking tickets.  But neither of us makes any money off the deal, despite most of the purchase cost of the truck having been paid by one of us.  That is actual sharing.

What the current "sharing economy" is about is private parties selling the use of a thing (or their own time in the case of companies like TaskRabbit) to other private parties with the assistance of a third party (which is a large for-profit company, or at least one with dreams of being large).  No-one is actually "sharing" a goddam thing and everyone involved is in it for the money -- the people selling want to make some money, the companies running things want to make a lot of money, and, in most cases, the people buying want to save some money.

It's not that I'm against people wanting to make (and save) money.  After all, I run a small business.  But I do think it's a problem when you call something and present something as "sharing" when it's not.  And it does have an effect.  Recently lawmakers all over the US have tried, with varying levels of success, to pass laws regarding the sharing business model.  It's a tough sell when you're trying to "restrict" the "sharing economy".  It makes one sound like the mean kid at preschool who hoards their toys, "Billy hasn't learned to share yet," (and the teacher shakes his head sadly).

The other problem is that there isn't much accountability.  It's a strange business that was pioneered by companies like eBay and AbeBooks in the 90s.  The idea is that the big company involved in the transaction isn't _really_ involved.  All that they do is connect the buyer and the seller then take a fee or commission for the transaction.  And often they even "clear" the transaction by collecting the money from the buyer and passing it along to the seller.  But, despite that level of involvement, the "facilitator" is not actually a party to the transaction.  If something goes wrong (i.e. the items sold are damaged, not as described, or aren't even delivered) the facilitator can't really be held responsible.  In all cases that I'm aware of, they just shrug, send some nasty notes, and possibly de-list the seller.  But they're not accountable.

That is possibly a problem when you're buying a rare book or a solid-gold Kama Sutra coffee pot, but it can really be a problem when you're staying in someone's house or being driven around in their car.  And it's also a problem when you're driving someone around _in_ your car or renting out your house.  Recently people driving for Uber have discovered that their insurance doesn't cover them when they're doing commercial driving and neither does Uber's insurance.  So, they get into an accident, get dropped by their insurance, and, unable to pay for the repairs for their car, end up with no car and unable to earn money driving.  And Uber just shrugs and, I'm sure, figures that there are plenty more drivers where that one came from.  Likewise, people renting out their apartments via Airbnb have been evicted by their landlords for violating their lease.  To which Airbnb shrugs and responds that they should have checked their lease and local laws first.

Instead of a real sharing economy, what is actually happening is more like a "sharecropper economy".  Like the landowners after the civil war, companies like Uber and Airbnb have all the advantages in the situation and no shortage of people willing to work for them, despite the lack of any chance of advancement, benefits, or the give-and-take obligations that go with employment.  Meanwhile, they're subject to far less regulation, restrictions and taxation than taxi companies and hotels.  And, obviously, they're willing to fight tooth and nail to avoid any additional regulation or to pay the taxes that they already owe.

And then there's the hidden problem.  The story that is being told about the sharing economy is that it is helping people support themselves.  I constantly hear Airbnb talking about how occasional rentals are helping people pay their mortgages or their rent.  The thing that is being left out of that is the rock-hard fact that, to participate you have to have something that someone else wants.  If you want to drive for Uber X or Lyft you have to have a car.  If you want to rent a room on Airbnb you've got to live somewhere someone else would want to stay (and you can't have six of your family members sharing a two-bedroom apartment).  In short, if you want to be part of the sharing economy, you can't be poor or actually scrabbling to make ends meet.  If your life is like that, you don't have anything the sharing economy wants.

But, if you're poor, you can certainly get a job cleaning rooms in a hotel.  And driving a taxi has been a decent job for recent immigrants to the US for decades.

Now, I ask you, does this sound like a dystopian SF novel?  A society in which the lower-middle class do work (without any job-security or benefits) for the upper and upper-middle class while the lower class are excluded and subsist on shrinking jobs at businesses that are being destroyed by the economics of the "sharecropper economy".

In fact, I think that was a feature of novels by William Gibson, Richard Morgan, and Harry Harrison.  Excellent books all, but none of them very happy.  The great thing (perhaps the greatest thing) about science fiction is that it allows us to look at where we are, extrapolate that into the future, and consider where we might end up.  And, upon considering that, it gives us a chance to change the outcome.  I love to read dark visions of the future, but I sure as hell don't want to live them.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Alan. There has been too much celebration of the faux sharing of things like Lyft and AirBnB and not enough criticism of the reality of the situation, which as you so aptly put it is closer to sharecropping than sharing. And of course those companies/systems are part of the entrepreneurial disruption that is doing so much harm to the city we both live in, San Francisco,