Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Hitchhiker's guide to the sharing economy

I remember the first time I found eBay.   My parents were incredulous.  But I didn't care where it was coming from.  I just had to have my Britannia Beanie Baby.  So, after a bit of wrangling, I convinced by parents to let me create an account in their name.  To this day my father is known to his sellers only as Bubbleflueff, someone whose transactional history somehow spans Furbie to boxing gloves.  Nearly two decades later, we've crossed into Web 2.0 (I think that's how we refer to it? Or 3.0?), that takes this person to person transaction to a whole new level.

AirBnB.  Lyft (Fine. And Uber).  Fiverr.  Thanks to these services my roommates and I have played host to Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, Koreans, Frenchmen, Germans, Swiss, Belgians, Swedes, and Americans.  In fact, the only repeat country we've had is two or three American guests.  Traveling abroad, AirBnB has enabled me to get urban design-centric tours of Tokyo, and an exclusive visit into this building (my host owned one of these so I got the chance to stop by, otherwise closed to tourists).  I've been able to rescue myself when I stepped off at the wrong bus stop heading for Newark, and I've been able to locate someone to help me build a smartphone application in much shorter time than it would have taken me to do myself.

It goes without saying at this point, but if you haven't tried these tools, you should. Hint: if you preload your route on Google Maps while on wifi, you can still use GPS data free to locate yourself on the map, all while avoiding international roaming charges.  Oh-one other benefit.  There's also the built in filter that you are bound to meet people who are tech-savvy and forward-thinking.

Yes, it is clear the sharing economy does reflect on a generation of individuals who fell on hard economic times.  But necessity is the mother of invention, and these fruits of the recession are having a significantly positive impact on both local and foreign cultural exchange.

Large institutions arose for a reason.  They fulfilled a gap in the market in the desire for safe, stable operations.  Reliability and consistency trumped identity and gave rise to the leviathan of then hotel industry.  Taxis replaced hitchhiking.  But thanks to the mobile technology revolution, information is now realtime in location too, and an ecosystem of connected services is allowing for the revival of what I would argue is actually the more traditional way of doing business-but with greater accountability.

AirBnB, and other sharing economy services, are not without flaws and controversy.  Yes, I have found a strange-looking stain on the sheets.  Your neighbors may dislike the sudden uptick in strangers passing by their homes.  Rents may be on the rise because individuals are willing to pay more assuming they can rent spare space on AirBnB.  And independent operators are not going to have the experience or preparation to respond in the event of emergency situations (do you have a plan in place for tending to a guest who has come down with a bout of food poisoning, or who is having an allergic reaction to shrimp?).  In these situations, things tend to go perfectly until they go horribly wrong.

But taken in the grand scheme of things, those wrinkles are likely to iron themselves out.  Once again, regulators find themselves caught in a situation where they cannot keep pace with technology, and are playing catch-up.  Just as their forebears did with the boomtimes of yore, many of these companies are flouting regulations that arose in order to protect unsuspecting citizens who might otherwise buy that snake oil.  The question is where the balance lies.

It's incredibly exciting to see some of the changes that are taking place, and completely reinventing the way we buy, sell, engage, and travel.  I can only wonder what tradition will next use technology to make a comeback.

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