Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Guilded Age

The seal is broken on the “sharing economy.” There is a chance we can roll back that name; the collection of things it represents, however, is sticking around in some form. Uber has steamrolled through municipality after municipality. Airbnb Head of Global Policy Chris Lehane, at a press conference following the defeat of Proposition F, a ballot measure that would have more stringently regulated Airbnb-style rentals in San Francisco, described this change as emblematic of “a broader evolution in capitalism.” He’s probably right. Airbnb’s pitch, that your home is not just a place you live but an underutilized asset, represents a kind of systemic creep that’s hard to reverse. In the coming years, with or without interruption, various Uber-fors will grow in size and influence. (...)

In the meantime, sharing economy companies must deal with more immediate issues. For example: A lot of the things they help people do are not quite legal. By extension, despite these companies’ best efforts to evade liability and pass it to their partners, some of the things they do are not quite legal. A lot of the things they help people do, as self-evident as these companies may think they are, are either not widely understood or are running up against some pushback. Some of this pushback comes from incumbent competitors, to whom the sharing economy companies represent a more efficient or cheaper competitor. So they’re trying to change the law; they’re trying to alter public opinion; they’re trying to win private and public battles in politics and public relations. They’re hiring the biggest-shot lawyers and PR people in the world. They’re also trying to mobilize their users, “partners,” and anyone else who’s using their various platforms. (...)

Uber’s regulatory battles will, to some extent, pave the way for other services, be they car-hailing apps or delivery networks or privatized replacements for public transit or just other types of on-demand labor whatevers. Airbnb’s will free up, to some extent, Airbnb competitors. But because they’re first, and because they’re huge, and because their investors have lots of adjacent interests, these regulatory battles belong to them. This means our next laws regarding how people drive and get driven, and the next sets of rules determining what and where a hotel can be, will be written largely by these companies. Or, at least, in the context of the specific battles these companies are fighting. Let’s say you don’t have any, or many, qualms about this “broader evolution” in capitalism and all the changes it may entail in our ideas about labor, ownership, and capital itself. Or just that you’re directly invested in it: you use or drive for Uber; you use or host on Airbnb. Your interests, in the near term, would obviously align with Uber’s and Airbnb’s! They’re fighting for your ability to use Uber and Airbnb. Of course you want that. You have demonstrated that you want that! These companies are fighting on your behalf in a real way. But they’re doing so as an unavoidable side effect of fighting for themselves. Airbnb in particular is comfortable speaking as a perfect representative of the concept it popularized, and the types of laws it would seek to defeat or enact would have to be somewhat well-aligned with the general idea of person-to-person nightly room rentals. But an ascendant Airbnb is different from a dominant Airbnb. An Uber battling with taxi companies is different from an Uber that has replaced taxi companies. These companies know this. Their leaders are CEOs and investors, not activists. Their interests will change, and not necessarily in parallel with the interests of their partners.

by John Herrman, The Awl |  Read more:
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