Tom Slee’s What’s Yours is Mine
I’ve been a Tom Slee fan for a few years, ever since I read his delightful and illuminating book Nobody Makes You Shop at Walmart, which explains game theory and other economic tools in plain English; in particular, why Walmart is nobody’s first choice but still succeeds in taking over towns, and why a plethora of “choices” can leave you with no good options at all.
Well, Slee has done it again, this time with a well-timed and comprehensive critique of the so-called “Sharing Economy” called What’s Yours Is Mine. He exposes the hyper-capitalism behind the feel-good marketing of Uber, AirBnB, Instagram, TaskRabbit, and other companies.
Slee is a data nerd, and as such he does quite a bit of number crunching, specifically on AirBnB. For example, he was the guy who, with Murray Cox, figured out AirBnB had purged 1,000 homes from their site right before a “data release.”
Cooking the books looks bad, but it’s not the norm. Slee works out various statistics for AirBnB and compares them to its marketing pitches; most aren’t fraudulent, but they’re consistently misleading. In other words, they shared only those stats that would make themselves look more “sharing-y”, when in fact they make the bulk of their money on fake hotel-like rentals, skirting regulations.
Similarly, Slee makes a strong case, which is not new to those of us who follow this stuff, that a large part of Uber’s value is represented by skirting responsibility for safety, for avoiding insurance issues, for avoiding having capacity for wheelchairs, and the like.
Slee goes into critical quality of life questions for Uber drivers and other “sharing economy” workers and puts the boasts of the companies to the test, which they often fail. So no, Uber drivers don’t typically make $90,000 per year in New York.
There are two parts of the book which are new for us critics of the sharing economy. First, the valuable section on reputation systems. What does it mean when all reviews are 4 or 5 stars? How could a 1-star review ever compensate for something really going bad? To what extent is the rating system a form of big-brother surveillance on drivers, and how can Uber claim it doesn’t control its drivers as employees when it fires those with “bad” ratings?
And most saliently, what kind of trust does the reputation system engender when both driver and rider knows how much power there is in the ratings? As Slee says at the end of this chapter:
We trust strangers on Sharing Economy platforms for the same reason we trust hotel employees and restaurant waiters: because they are in precarious jobs where customer complaints can lead to disciplinary action. The reputation system is a way to enforce “emotional labor”; service providers are compelled to manage their feelings and present the face that the platform demands, to become that “friend with a car” or that “neighbor helping neighbors.”
Slee goes into a “Short History of Openness” that I hope every programmer reads, about the ideals that so often give way to power and control of large companies, leaving a bunch of “hollowed out middle” in their wake – think Pirate Bay.
This segues him to a discussion of the commons, and in particular the digital technological management of the commons. Sharing economy companies can be seen as providers of such, replacing old-fashioned, informal management systems, while creating billion dollar companies along the way.
Which commons is he referring to? For AirBnB, he might be talking about the cultural commons of a Barcelona’s nightlife, when it’s grappling with an inundation of AirBnB tourists. For Uber, he might be talking about the streets themselves, or various taxi cab regulation systems that, for all their clumsiness, protect both riders and drivers in various ways.
In any case, as Slee describes in thoughtful detail, these companies are imposing news kinds of commerce on the commons. This is known in Silicon Valley as “disruption,” and it’s not always an improvement. Slee goes lists ways in which the commons are eroded by commerce in its various forms (I’d excerpt this entire section if I could).
Slee wrote this book because of a pattern of betrayal he has found represented by the sharing economy companies. In his words, “what started as an appeal to community, person-to-person connections, sustainability, and sharing has become the playground of billionaires, Wall Street, and the venture capitalists extending their free-market values even further into our personal lives.”
He’s made his case really well. The only question is, how long will it take for this message to be heard?