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“The technology is just a shiny shopfront”: the case against the sharing economy

Uber isn't special because it has an app – it is special because it has billions in venture capital funding behind it. 

Tom Slee, a British-born software designer, lives in Waterloo, Ontario, a place better known as the home of Blackberry. As a result, he tells me over the phone shortly after the release of his book, “we’re quite familiar with companies that seem to be the future, but turn out not to be, after all”.

What’s Yours is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy is a painstaking examination of the latest set of companies claiming a chunk of our future. AirBnB, Uber and apps that send you anything from dinner to a cleaner all claim that they’re portals, upon which vendors and customers can “share” (or “buy and sell”, as we’ve called it for thousands of years) their products. At first glance, it’s a utopian vision, which bypasses all the nastiness of Big Business. Yet Slee’s book redraws the landscape in harsher terms, as a group of companies backed by enormously wealthy “old-school venture capitalists” which count themselves out of the rules and regulations that other companies are bound by.

“Intimacy scaled up is no longer intimacy”, Slee points out in the book, yet the companies rely on that word, “sharing” to bypass expensive laws and regulations. They’re bound by a Catch-22, in which they must seem small and intimate for their models to work and appeal, but they must be enormous and world-consuming to make the kind of money their investors require.

Slee was exposed to the concept of the “sharing economy” early on through his work in the tech industry, and from the beginning he was sceptical. But he says the doubt really set in when he completed a data analysis of AirBnB’s New York Listings in 2013. He found what he calls “a somewhat different pattern” to AirBnB’s claim that most of its users are occasionally renting out spare rooms.

“In particular, it showed that probably 40 per cent of their business comes from people with multiple listings,” he tells me now. Meanwhile, the people renting out a room in their house make up, according to the data, “about two to three per cent of their business. Really a tiny fraction”. In its conclusion, Slee acknowledges that the book comes from a “sense of betrayal” that an ideology sold as “an appeal to community, person to person connections, sustainability and sharing” has become the playground of billionaires.

I ask Slee if the companies themselves are aware of the sleight-of-hand that allows for their enormous growth and resistance to regulation, all the while claliming they’re operating for the social good. “It seems to be a defining characteristic of Silicon Valley that it manages to believe in both at the same time,” he says. “It’s in their interests not to ask too many questions about the conflicts between these two motives.” Of course, some companies are more aware of the trick than others: AirBnB, he argues, is still convinced of its ethical high ground, while “few who work for Uber” probably are. 

It helps that it’s become de rigeur to mock bureaucracy and human resources departments, even as we bemoan zero-hour contracts and acknowledge that labour rights fought for over centuries are slipping away. “I’ve sometimes found myself defending those boring structures and then come away thinking ‘am I really advocating for HR departments?” Slee says. Some demystification of company structures wouldn’t go amiss in most industries, yet the sharing economy’s offering seems to be to remove them altogether. 

The same shift in public opinion that favours start-ups over old models seems to have impacted our trust in governments. Yet as Slee points out, we shouldn’t allow this to happen without a fight: You talk about government – the role of government – now, and there’s very little receptiveness to that. Governments are a manifestation of democracy. To me when democracy fails, the solution is more democracy, not to walk away from it.”

Slee sees the sharing economy as an ourgrowth of “solutionism”: the idea that there are easy solutions to complex social problems. We’re all prey to this mode of thinking, which is perhaps why we place otherwise unimaginable levels of trust in any venture with technology connected to it. We climb into Ubers far more trustingly than into unlicensed minicabs. In the current FBI v Apple debate, we find ourselves placing more trust in a giant company than in a democratically elected government. It remains to be seen whether this trust is misplaced or not – but in an increasingly cynical world, its existence is worth re-examining.

The book undermines not only the sharing economy, but the whole concept of tech-based ventures. We think of apps as primarily technological; we think of Silicon Valley as a concentration of tech talent. But Slee puts it another way: “Increasingly, it seems to me that the defining thing there is the concentration of money and investment.” Uber isn’t special, he argues, because it has an app: “What Uber has is $8bn to spend.” This is what drives competitors, like London’s black cabs, crazy. It’s not as simple as getting an app.

Because of their financial backing and fast growth, tech companies can become enormous and profitable to a point where they can defend less-than-ideal labour policies or approaches that undermine local laws. Their immense popular appeal allows them to paint sparring matches with local governments as David vs Goliath, despite the fact that they’re global companies with more than enough cash to spring for lawyers and spin campaigns.

We need to understand that technology, like weapons, enables the spread of ideology or new kinds of business or politics, but it doesn’t create them. The early ethics of the internet may have been pleasingly liberal – free content for all, equality, an end to prejudice –  but its content is always reflective of the people behind it, not the technology itself.

“The technology is just a shiny shopfront,” Slee says. “But behind that there’s all the logistics operations that goes on, and that’s a huge part of the sharing economy's success. And in particular, finding ways to cut down costs by basically passing them on to other parts of the system.”

Legislators, meanwhile, are beginning to fight back. Italy’s Sharing Economy Act sets out definitions of the sharing economy for the first time, thereby treating it as differnt from other businesses, but this endeavour is basically aimed at taxing the sharing economy properly. The days of loopholes, it seems, may be numbered. 

As Boston lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan said of Uber while fighting their worker/contracter laws: “Just because your services are dispatched through a smartphone doesn’t make you a technology company. You’re a car service.”

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.