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Tom Slee: sharing is OK if not profitable.

LAANE's Jon Zerolnick spoke with Tom Slee, an Ontario-based writer whose work on the intersection of technology, politics, and economics has appeared in The Literary Review of Canada, The New Inquiry, The Guardian, and Jacobin.

One other thing that bothers me is a rhetoric the companies all use around the idea of "extra money." As in, "it's not a job, it's just a bit of extra money." Once you say "extra money," it's like, "Oh, we don't need rules and regulations, because it's just extra money." This is the same rhetoric that was used back in the 60s around women's jobs. There wasn't equal pay for equal work, because "it's not a real job, it's just extra money." Using the phrase "extra money" is a slippery way to undermine employment standards, and to undermine things that unions and progressive politicians have fought for for a long time. Any low-paying job is a way to earn "extra money." There's no such thing as "extra money."

I'm involved in digital technology, but over the last few years, people - especially Silicon Valley companies - have taken a lot of the democratizing and egalitarian rhetoric around the internet - the rhetoric of openness - and they've used that to make money. What annoyed me about that is the betrayal: you're taking language that I sympathize with, that I identify with, and you're using it to make a big pile of money.

For instance, Airbnb just closed a funding round for $450 million. On paper, the founders will now be billionaires. And yet they're using the language of community and the language of sharing. While the sharing economy presents itself as a communitarian movement, the venture capital-funded wing of it is an extension of the harshest of free-market economics into areas of our life that have previously been protected from it.
So who benefits and how?

The people who will do quite well off the sharing economy as it is evolving are consumers. Airbnb is a perfectly fine thing for travelers, and I wouldn't be surprised if Uber and Lyft managed to offer reasonably good services most of the time. These things naturally work to do low-price, widely-available services, and might well work for consumers in the same way that Wal-Mart offers good things for consumers. They all offer low price, but what's the cost of that?

Is there a way to achieve the communitarian benefits without the social costs?
I think there is. It comes down to two things. One is that venture capital is a real problem for the sharing economy. Once you've got large-scale capital involved, you have incentives that lead to problems. Venture capital demands a return, right? That means growth becomes the number one priority. And the demand for growth works against a number of the ideals that are used to promote [the sector]. Let's take the idea that the sharing economy is sustainable, which has a big appeal to a lot of people in the green movements: sharing rather than buying, that's a good thing. But that's not how it works once you get into the venture capital mode.

To take an example, Zip Car was an early internet car sharing company. Then Zip Car got sold to Avis, and their goal, all of a sudden, is growth. So what do they end up doing? They go to university students and say "You don't qualify to buy a car on your own, but you can access a car through us, because you can share it with other people." Instead of being an alternative to owning, the venture capital people turn the service into a gateway drug to consumption. The goal of Zip Car is to get more cars on the road, as long as they're Zip Cars. The goal of all of these entities is to grow the number of transactions, and all other considerations get pushed aside.

And two, micro-entrepreneurialism is a problem. That's the Silicon Valley sharing economy phrase of the day: "You can make a living at this, you can make money from this."


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