Editor’s Note: For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion-dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ?+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a new weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. We’ll spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but it’ll all be in plain English. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.
The brightest minds of the roaring ’20s figured that we, as a society, would be doing things very differently by the time 2015 rolled around. John Maynard Keynes, in particular, thought he had it all figured out. In a famed essay entitled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” (1928), he presented a theory whereby we’d be working far less and relaxing far more. After all, our society created all sorts of technological advancements intended to help free up more of our time. Machines handled routine tasks and increasing telecommunication killed the need to relocate just to talk. Logic dictated that all of the freed time would be returned to those who created it. If society figured out how to accomplish a full day’s worth of work in half the time, well then, that meant half a day of leisure.
Except it hasn’t panned out as such. Instead, we still find ourselves engaged in overwork, and so we look to the next rendition of Keynesian optimism for our future — this time with the so-called sharing economy. Shared resources promise to make more services and stuff more freely accessible, and by making everything convenient to access and pricing them at lower costs, the difficulties of modern life can be alleviated (so the thinking goes). As sharing apps make more cars and rooms and people and toys available and monetized, we’ll achieve a better life.
A Tale of Two Shares
Assessing broadly, the sharing economy breaks down into two categories: shared services and shared goods. Shared service platforms, like Uber or TaskRabbit, use people trained in a certain trade and make them available to anyone within the local sharing community. Those workers are essentially freelance workers using the platform to source work: driving cars, putting together Ikea furniture, et al. Workers can be specialized and highly trained professionals who work long hours every week, or someone looking to pick up hours with entry-level skills.
“Uber is so much easier. I don’t have to wait for calls to be handed down. I just tap a button and I have a rider. I make much more money in far less time.”
In talking with Uber drivers, I found most are positive about their work. I spoke to one Uber driver in Seattle who relocated to America after growing up in southeastern Africa. Prior to the invention of Uber, he worked for an executive car service. “Uber is so much easier”, he said. “I don’t have to wait for calls to be handed down. I just tap a button and I have a rider. I make much more money in far less time.”
Although some rely on sharing services as a primary income, others use the sharing service platforms to supplement their income, often trying to monetize their downtime. Another Uber driver I talked to filled in his Friday and Saturday nights to help pay for dates with his wife. It was a way to get a little extra spending cash. Of course, it’s hard to imagine that an essentially freelance position is any sort of sustainable future; if Uber ever figures out how to birth a fleet of self-driving pods, the humans who made it huge will be quickly shoved aside.
Shared goods operate on a different paradigm and with different stakes. Often shared goods come from those with a surplus of resources — Airbnb allows people with extra space (or occasionally vacated spaces) to monetize their empty rooms or home, and services like Spinlister let people put their idle bikes and gear to work. The “employees” of shared good economy tend to not be seeking additional sources of income to an already stable source, rather than seeking work through a shared serviced to provide a primary (or strong secondary) income.
I can’t fault either of these folks for being ambitious. I, too, have a handful of jobs, and the extra income and additional experience is rewarding. But I often wonder: why am I using the free time gained by technological efficiencies to burden myself with more work? And is the shared economy any better for freelance workers hoping to make a buck?
In moderation, I see these services as a boon. They bolster the economy, give purpose to workers, and serve to form new relationships that wouldn’t otherwise exist. If the trend continues, though, predictable work could become a foreign concept. Labor laws will, hopefully, adapt to take services like these into account, because a world of freelancers with no safety net, no routine, and no ongoing stability won’t lead to a robust economy.
Conversely, Uber and Airbnb can contribute to extra income, which could (at least in theory) facilitate extra leisure time (or better spent leisure time). Doubling down on workload can be a good thing; it just might come with unintended consequences.
User Utopia, or Dystopia?
The emergence of the sharing economy does actually serve to save users time. A faster cab hailed here, a cheaper place to stay there — eventually, you’re looking at enough of a meaningful difference in life. Hailing an UberX is almost always cheaper than hailing a traditional cab, so there’s a cost savings in addition to convenience. With Airbnb, the service often enables guests to stay in places that are both more convenient and more affordable than traditional lodging.
The downsides — an unsupported network of freelancers and a populace consumed with monetizing down-time, free space, and idle goods — sit lurking in the corner.
On the surface, it’s a smorgasbord of accessibility and flexibility. Workers make additional income, users farm out tasks that enable them to spend more time doing something else. It’s a beacon of hyper-efficiency, and these services have also forced the established players to up their game. With Airbnb, hotels now have real competition from a new segment. With Uber, taxi regimes are at long last being challenged. The upsides are rather obvious, but the downsides — an unsupported network of freelancers and a populace consumed with monetizing downtime, free space, and idle goods — sit lurking in the corner.
Nearly 100 years ago, Keynes and his ilk dreamed we’d all be working less and relaxing more. That reality is still a far cry, and so it is unlikely the latest Keynesian optimism will pan out. Sharing platforms have an uphill battle to raise the working class up in any meaningful way. They won’t raise wages en mass, nor are they apt to spark a revolution to provide basic benefits to their freelance workers. Still, they do provide another avenue to generate revenue, which is a bigger deal to those living paycheck to paycheck than to the more affluent clients who use these apps for convenience. The sharing economy isn’t going away, but it also — as it looks now, anyway — won’t change the world.