The Unbearable Loneliness Of The Sharing Economy

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?

Published by

Brian S Hall

Brian S Hall writes about mobile devices, crowdsourced entertainment, and the integration of cars and computers. His work has been published with Macworld, CNBC, Wall Street Journal, ReadWrite and numerous others. Multiple columns have been cited as "must reads" by AllThingsD and Re/Code and he has been blacklisted by some of the top editors in the industry. Brian has been a guest on several radio programs and podcasts.

12 thoughts on “The Unbearable Loneliness Of The Sharing Economy”

  1. “Can it also measure real time desperation?”
    That was brilliant!

    When MS won the PC wars things were still relatively benign. Competitors and suppliers may have gotten an unwelcome overlord. So be it. They weren’t worthy of it themselves either. No matter who they would have gotten, overlords are generally viewed with contempt. The customer user was not directly impacted by oversight, just indirectly, and various alternatives were available.

    The reigns have tightened. Customers of all camps are now more tightly managed, followed, or branded. Most of this is through abdication. I remember the sincere outrage directed at Lotus in the ’80’s when they sold customer data. Now it’s the norm, and the slot machine players are rooting for the dealers and the house.

    Here’s where I agree with you that government needs to step in, to protect the Constitution, if nothing else. You can’t just abdicate that. Privacy matters. Definition of ownership matters. If some of these products and services rise to the level of being public utilities, then the government should address that. Google is a good example. It’s next to impossible to use the internet without Google making some money from that. IMO that’s a public utility and should be treated as such. Apple would be another example where a seller has undue influence over the customer’s property.

  2. Brian – This is an interesting take although people have talked about this disconnect for a number of years: first with PCs, then the internet, then social networks, then mobile etc. I’m not sure the sharing economy is the impetus for this or will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back although it is perhaps a contributor to an escalating de-socialization in society. Moreover, I think your premise presumes that the sharing economy will be the new model for work, which I don’t necessarily agree with. I think some folks will use it for full-time income, others for the occasional sale of something they own or some skill might have, and most somewhere in the middle. A marketplace that more closely resembles eBay IMO. The move away from offices towards co-working and telecommuting has been on for some time; again, pre-dating what we now consider to be the sharing economy.

    It is true though that most social networks have made us more insular and not brought us together in the flesh. Meetup may be an exception but has generally not been the rule. Maybe there’s a way to achieve this in mobile? I guess time will tell.

    1. Except in those cases where “traditional” organization have been able to use social media as an effective communications and recruitment tool.

  3. Eh, when I travel to new places I get to share the same house with strangers and make new friends. I can meet new people for dinner on Mealsharing. I once spent a week with an awesome dog I hosted through DogVacay. And I got to know many of my fellow TaskRabbits on a gig that recurred each month for over a year. “Loneliness” will always be a factor in any business — whether you’re stuck in a cubicle, or you work from home and only connect with your colleagues over Skype. The Sharing Economy doesn’t tip the scale one way or the other, in my opinion.

  4. You might find this interesting Brian.

    It may add another left-field dimension to your interesting speculations.
    We have an existing, unavoidable trend driven by good old profit maximisation leading us all directly towards the end of human workforces, of many professions. It’s a popular tool among the Bizerati. No one can resist the push for profit growth by cutting costs through automation. It’s been happening already for more than a century. The difference today is that the solutions are nearing better than mere ‘good-enough’ status and the trend towards de-humanising work will increase dramatically as a result.
    Machines will automate most manual jobs, software-driven knowledge systems will decimate the professions.
    If one enlightened employer resists the temptation, competitors will wipe him out, before being wiped out themselves.

    Will we advise future generations: ‘Why bother with study, other than as a hobby?’?
    Are we talking 75+% unemployment within 50 years?
    Are we talking global civil unrest? Revolution? Worse?

    Q Which jobs will be among the last to disappear.

    A Police, military

    How quickly will the global population collapse, through despair?
    Who will be driving cars, using smartphones etc …..?
    This is a horrifying scenario.

    However, by 2214, this awe-full, force majeure change may well save humanity and good ole Planet Oith.

  5. Loneliness is not a physical space, it is a mental place. Technology will not change that fact. Just like the technology of the past, letters mailed through the postal system, newspapers, telephone calls over land lines and automobile trips over the interstate; new technology like texting, email, news online, and self driving cars (I hope) will be tools we can use to combat loneliness.

  6. First class reflections replayed at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog. The two sucking chest wounds in the “sharing economy” are the complete exposure of labor to being victimized (drives, for example, in addition to having no benefits are also not being compensated for time getting to and from pick up and drop off points, nor for wear and tear on the car), and the complete absence of holistic development — Smart Cities meeting True Cost Economics and Open Source Everything, which is what I do now. The 1% still control the economy, and articles like this emphasize to me that the sharing economy is theater, a way of keeping the masses hopeful and distracted while the 1% continue to BURN the seed corn.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *