The sharing economy – what could be wrong with that.
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Angry customers take to social media over Uber's "surge price", after some customers were slugged with hundreds of dollars in charges. (Vision courtesy ABC News 24)
Our neighbour, an old-timer called Shirl, pops in to warn us of the diamond-back python sunning on our fence. She's been chain-sawing trees, she adds by way of explanation – and I see that her lawn is indeed innocent of life above toenail height. I say thanks, although now we're less worried about snakes than the sweet-faced rabbits that graze our lawn each morning and might soon be bunny-shaped bulges. From which Shirl rightly discerns we're city blow-ins. Python lovers. Rabbit-lovers. Tree-lovers too, no doubt.
I tell you this because (excepting Shirl) almost everyone in the coastal hamlet where I write is part of the sharing economy. It's a classic 100-cottage community – cornflour sand, crystal sea, lazy, hazy bush – that decamps as one over summer to fleece those, like me, who crave simplicity.
The sharing economy, then, is nothing new. Life, the internet and everything may ooze with glabrous humans exhorting you to exploit your spare room or drive-time to fund your new start-up or sports car. But in many ways it's as old as the hills.
Indeed, at one level, all economy is sharing economy. I share my bread with you, you share your money with me. We all share in creating an asset-holder called government to own the streets, pools, parks, hospitals and libraries we all enjoy. You and I share my roof and your panels to generate electricity, or my farm and your hives to generate honey.
But there is something new here. Uber, Airbnb, GoGet and the rest – home share, ride-share, bike-share, car-share - have two common qualities. All depend on massive, mobile, connectivity and all involve blurring public-private boundaries in ways that have caught legislators napping.
That by itself - bursting from the known regulatory world into uncharted territory - gives the sharing economy a strangely old-new flavour, a neo-primitivism – or perhaps, cyber-retro – also discernible in your classic bearded hipster. Ur-man-meets-hypergeek.
It's exciting. To harvest the fruit of your unused room or ride-time – simply to join up, get the app, get the cash – feels bold and somehow out-there; your very own freewheeling, loincloth-wearing owner-operator paleo-business.
But then come the tales; of gouging, of demand-pricing that hikes the cost of the tired-and-emotional ride home by 800 per cent, of home-share guests being imprisoned and assaulted by hosts and, equally, of guests who wield axes, spread faeces and trail destruction.
What seems, one minute, refreshingly free and open, almost anarchic, the next looks rapacious and exploitative. What feels on Tuesday like socialism-in-action looks, by Friday, like capitalism on steroids. Surge pricing, buyer beware, eat or be eaten.
So which is it? Sharing economy? Or shark economy?
The sharing economy – aka collaborative consumption or peer-to-peer (P2P) consumption – appeals on at least seven different levels. First, for me, is the almost aesthetic pleasure of filling gaps. To make our shifting socio-spatial pattern both more complete and more intricate is as satisfying as those mindfulness colouring-in thingies that became last year's go-to Christmas gift.
There's also the virtue formerly-known-as-thrift (a word now vanished from our lexicon); the moral and environmental satisfaction of repurposing time, space, hardware or fuel that was routinely wasted, like pop-up cafes on leftover scraps of median strip.
Third, there's the altruistic joy of sharing itself. Play nice now. Give little Johnny a go.
Fourth, the authenticity thing: the fact of staying in real people's real houses, instead of hotels. Or riding in real people's real cars. Making the connect.
Fifth is the paleo appeal, the mix of adventure and nostalgia. The combination of very 21st century characteristics – the reliance on global connectivity and the vague hue of social entrepreneurship - satisfies two of our most fundamental cravings at once; for freedom and safety.
Sixth is the welcome fudging of public-private boundaries. Future historians will regard the 20th century as peak me-time, conceiving life as a collection of wholly-owned solipsisms, swelling our private selves to include cars, parks, pools, cinemas and houses and diminishing the public realm accordingly. The share economy starts to haze these silos, making dwelling and driving into part-communal activities in a way that feels like hope.
And seventh is the grassroots nature of these shifts, embraced by huge numbers of ordinary people well ahead of government or legislative validation.
(By the time NSW managed to legalise Uber just before Christmas, thousands of us were already using it. Airbnb is still murky in legal-status terms, although more than 70,000 Australians average $7500 income from it annually. Sydney is Airbnb's 10th largest global market but most councils, including the City of Sydney, regard it as unlicensed tourism and owners have received letters threatening fines of up to $1.1 million fines in Leichhardt and Randwick).
This is why the sharing business model is called "disruptive". It's like, you can do that? You can invite complete strangers into your house, or car and survive? And make money? Cool!
It's exhilarating, not least because of the risk. But like anything trust-based, it's great until things go wrong. What happens when a paying stranger dies in your shower, or breaks his teeth on your front step? What about tax? GST? Job security? Price gouging? Should a New Year's Eve ride home really cost $750?
Is the answer more regulation, or more competition? Either is arguable. In US cities, Uber competitors like Lyft and Zimride, and taxi fightback e-hailing apps like Flywheel and Bandwagon (or Hailo and Haxi in Europe) help combat surge pricing. But it's unlikely that reliance on caveat emptor alone will sustain the social contract.
The challenge for law-makers is to find an elegant balance: protecting basic rights of both consumers and service-providers while keeping the casual feel, the grass-roots energy, the small scale, the distributed nature, the authenticity, the engagement, the eco-soundness and the sheer, shared exhilaration.
Economy is manifest desire. Perhaps if regulators view the sharing economy as shared desire, rather than a dry tangle of liability and risk, we'd more easily get the balance right.