The Unbearable Loneliness Of The Sharing Economy

on August 25, 2014

The sharing economy promises the potential for riches, personal empowerment, new modes of work, and fear, the kind of fear that swells from a livelihood dependent upon algorithms, star ratings, and the feedback of strangers. 

When we imagined the future, certainly starting from the point when the smartphone was born, few of us expected a world where in-kind tips and real time number crunching might determine where we live, how well we ate, the size of our home, the composition of our dearest friends.

Of course, in a world where billions are virtually connected, all fighting over the same job, the same task, the same dollars to be made by sharing our rooms, our cars, our talents, can we have any real friends? Or does everyone morph into some 21st century amalgamation of customer-competitor?

The billions of dollars fueling Uber, Airbnb and the sharing economy appears to generate as much fear as it does potential, and rightly or no, the great minds and deep pockets of Silicon Valley are failing to address these fears.

There is, in particular, a persistent fear which suggests for all save a fortunate, wiley few, the sharing economy will transform us into the modern day equivalent of chimney sweeps, smartphones replacing brooms, our independent (contractor) status leading us toward digital subjugation rather than technological emancipation: Alert! You have been selected to compete! Right now, for X dollars an actual human being will pay you to drive them some place. Go!

The Future Has Arrived Only It’s Evenly Distributed

The most popular, most repeated quote about our highly technological present comes to us from dystopian novelist William Gibson: “the future has already arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

Except, what if Gibson is not just wrong but profoundly wrong? What if the future, the now, is in fact evenly distributed, and we are all equally victimized by it? What if technologies, algorithms, and Big Data do not liberate us but instead place us all at the mercy of a system where periodic demands — a room, a ride — meet endless supply?

A transformative element of Uber is its “dynamic pricing” feature, which can measure real time demand and shift prices accordingly. Can it also measure real time desperation?

I travel regularly between San Francisco, which is leading the current global technological economic transformation, and Detroit, which led the last. I sense at least as much fear as embrace for the new, sharing-based economy.

Confession: I believe these fears are generally overstated.

Over the long arc of time, the benefits of technology spread to the many. This spread appears to be quickening its pace. An iPhone may for now be available only to the world’s 10%, an iWatch to the world’s 5%, and the direct medical benefits from the individualized analysis of their combined HealthKit data available only to the world’s 1%. I believe this will change, fast. As we’ve seen from the rapid evolution of the Android platform, copying, learning and the endless tearing down of barriers is in our DNA, whether motivated by concerns for humanity or desires for riches. Technology’s benefits spread from the few to the many.

The problem, of course, is this spread can take years, and for some, decades before the technology’s benefit bears them fruit. What till then?

The answer: Government.

It is through government we mitigate the ill effects of technological disruption. Yes, this gets nasty. It always does. Already, petitioning the government for redress — and for preferential treatment — from the sharing economy has begun in earnest. Just as the disruptive impact of the sharing economy is eradicating many existing rules and regulations, have no doubt it will lead to many new ones.

There is one area, vital to our person, yet where government cannot protect us and which Silicon Valley has failed to even acknowledge: loneliness.

Message In A Bottle

A great unspoken fear of the sharing economy is loneliness.

Consider that should the sharing economy work as envisioned, all of us, with our cars, our homes, our tools, time, talents, eager to rent or sell each of these the moment a potential opportunity pops up on our smartphone screen, have been reduced to waiting.

Waiting where? Waiting for how long? With whom?

With the sharing economy, there may be no need for offices, no demand for meeting spaces. Sit alone, phone in hand, and wait to be summoned. As the world grows more virtually connected, physical connections diminish.

This is not how it’s supposed to be.

Even in the 21st century, we stand in lines, bemoan our commutes, tolerate annoying coworkers in large part because we all crave regular physical connection with others. The tools and technologies which fully enable telecommuting have existed for many years now, yet most people reject their use. This is not a failure of the tools nor of management. Plainly stated, we desire to be near others.

The leading platforms of the sharing economy may disrupt the need for us to interact with our fellow humans in physical space. That is scary.

Perhaps that’s why more and more we read these joyful tales of customers at coffee shops ‘paying it forward’. Standing in line, paying for the person behind us, we are reminding them and ourselves in even this small way that each of us matter, and that none of us should ever be reduced to a score. We are alike and we are together.

Which makes me wonder if those investors relentlessly pushing the sharing economy forward have it all wrong. Clearly, there’s an opportunity to connect us not to a platform but to one another. Who will build this?