Episode Seventy Eight: The Pre-Post-Scarcity Economy; Cities

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

The service was yesterday. In the end, I did a short speech, one I adapted from something I had written last Thursday. I have to admit, I don’t remember much of the day, now. Whether that’s because of how I was feeling or, to be honest, the preventative drugs that I’d taken in order to deal with the day, I’m not entirely sure. As upsetting as the day was, it was a reunion of sorts, and it was good to see family and catch up.

Things haven’t stopped moving, though – there are items on lists, and there are still enough people in the farmhouse that it doesn’t feel empty and it doesn’t sound quiet. And, this being the midwest, the fridges are full of food that have been unceasingly brought round by friends and family. We’ve only just managed to finish off the meatballs.

Thank you to everyone who sent a note. It means a lot, and I shared some of them with my wife.

1.0 The Pre-Post-Scarcity Economy

I’ve been thinking more about airbnb, Uber, TaskRabbit and other exemplars of The Sharing Economy to figure out what I like about the concept, and what’s troubling about it. In principle, there’s nothing particularly *wrong* about the sharing economy – it’s a more efficient utilisation of resource, so what’s not to like? Marc Andreessen retweeted Patrick Collisson’s tweet about John McHale on the sharing economy from a 1972 text[1], of which I’ll quote a little bit:

“World society need no longer be based on the economics of scarcity. There is a revolutionary shift to a society in which the only unique and irreplaceable element is man. This is one of the main points about automation. In previous periods, objects, products, resources, etc. tended to have more importance in sustaining the societal group than individual man. Man was, in a sense, used most prodigally in order that the idea of man might survive. The material object was unique. Man was expendable. Now, through developed industrialization the object may be produced prodigally. The product is expendable–only man is unique… …Use value is now largely replacing ownership value. We note this, for example, in the growth of rental and service – not only in automobiles and houses, but in a range from skis to bridal gowns – to “heirloom” silver, castles and works of art.”

I’ll tackle TaskRabbit, not least because when I tweeted the other day the contents of their Mother’s Day marketing email[2], it sparked a conversation amongst friends about what felt unsavoury about TaskRabbit and what didn’t. On the one hand, you have what I’ll admit to be the undeniable benefit that, in some cases a TaskRabbit “job” can and will be better than an equivalent less-than-minimum-wage service job, and also potentially more interesting. In my case, I’m pretty sure that my unease around TaskRabbit speaks more to its future potential than its current reality: that is, it represents the virtualization of human labour.

I’m not entirely sure, you see, that TaskRabbit preserves what McHale would call the uniqueness of man precisely because it offers a means to automate access to man, or labour. Of course, whilst typing that, there is of course no difference in practice of history other than scale: one has for a long time been able to persuade another to do a job, or perform a task, in exchange for money. And there have long been agencies in the middle – how is TaskRabbit different than a more-efficient Manpower or a Randstad, for example?

This is going to make me sound like a crotchety old bastard, and I’m cognisant of that – but the reality of a TaskRabbit in a late-capitalism, pre-post-scarcity, non-utopian society is that it feels like it’s easy to take advantage of people. That is: the *framework* of TaskRabbit seems like it would be fine in the world of Star Trek, or any post-scarcity economy (cf the Ken McLeod Star Fraction universe where you go round volunteering to do things and helping out because you feel like it), but in *this* world, where’s there’s gross inequity in terms of labour, or at least potential for exploitation, TaskRabbit feels icky to me. Because for every unique man for whom a TaskRabbit job is posted, there will be (or may be) another who is

The thing about sharing economy services that we have at the moment is that, as a species, we decidedly do *not* live in a post-scarcity economy. I mean, some of us might. But the vast majority – and I realise I’m being inflammatory here – say, around 99% – don’t live in a post-scarcity economy.

A post-scarcity economy works when both sides of the economy are post-scarcity. I do believe that you can segment Airbnb hosts (and include in that bucket, say, VRBO hosts) who are operating at the capital-begets-capital end of the market, but that at the other end you’re operating at the “lost some hours at the zero-hours contract job and need some extra cash to get by”. For me, providing a way for the people who “need some extra cash to get by” and *simultaneously* saying “hey, this is the utopian post-scarcity economy – isn’t it awesome how the internet is helping us pretend we live in the Federation” is a little bit rich. Leave a message, and call me back when the “need some extra cash to get by” hosts have a guaranteed basic income, for example. Or, as someone commented on Twitter, when the 3D printers have finished providing sanitation for all seven billion of us.

This is a side point that I believe needs to be teased out when we talk about the sharing economy. The fact of the matter is is that we’re in a *pre-scarcity economy*, and that post-scarcity, when it happens, will feel like one of those technologically driven phase-changes: the kind of simultaneously fast/slow infrastructural change in society where we went from no-one having a mobile phone to, well, nearly everyone – even at the bottom of the pyramid – in an astonishingly small period of time. But what we have right now feels like teetering on the edge of a chaotic transition.

I say all of this as someone who simultaneously enjoys and appreciates the experience of both Uber *and* good public transport. Who enjoys and appreciates the experience of good hotels and good Airbnb finds.

I think this is what I mean when I say some of what the sharing economy is doing right now feels distasteful to me. It’s as if people have worked out that you could sort of provide programmatic access to people who are being squeezed. In the case of Airbnb, it’s underutilised infrastructure in the form of housing that could be repurposed. Those who are best poised to take advantage of this are those who have the capital to invest to provide more services – instead of buy-to-let, it’s buy-to-flexible-let.

But in the case of TaskRabbit, the underutilised infrastructure is… us. Now, if I pull out my dusty history knowledge, around the same time as the industrial revolution in England, piecework in the form of garment work became an emancipating form of labour for women: something that could be done at home, easily, by lower-skilled and lower-paid workers and opened up a new avenue for earning where practically none existed before. Now, we have piecework in terms of stay-at-home working like teleworking. Or, I don’t know – has anyone done a good survey on stay-at-home jobs (and by jobs, I mean employment conferring benefits?)

Perhaps part of what grates is a sort of cognitive dissonance in the way that TaskRabbit presents itself. You can post a task (“Outsource household errands and skilled tasks; rejoice as your to-do list disappears”), become a TaskRabbit (“Discover opportunities to make money while helping out your neighbors”) or “get quality candidates” (“Find candidates to staff your company’s long-term and short-term projects.”)[3].

All of this is under the guise of “redefining what it means to be neighborly”:

“From this experience, TaskRabbit, an online and mobile marketplace that connects neighbors to get things done, was born. Fully vetted, entrepreneurially-minded professionals contribute their time and skills to help busy people find extra time in their days to do the things they love. Neighbors helping neighbors — it’s an old school concept reimagined for today.”[4]

For which: really? On your front page you’re talking about corporate staffing solutions. And perhaps this is a particularly American, entrepreneurial concept of “neighborly” – well, I guess it must, as it’s missing the required vowel. After all, what’s there to argue about when you get to a) help neighbors, and b) make a little extra money? Being a TaskRabbit, TaskRabbit reminds us, is not a job – it’s “neighbors helping neighbors”.

One of the thoughts that niggles at the back of my mind, though, is why a company like Etsy doesn’t instinctively get lumped in to receive the same ire (at least, some ire), that companies like Uber and TaskRabbit do. Part of it, I think, is in terms of positioning: Etsy doesn’t once, I don’t think, talk about “making a little bit of extra money”, instead concentrating on “buy[ing] from creative people who care about quality and craftsmanship.” And sure, we’ve all seen regretsy, but at least Etsy is up front and honest about the whole endeavour: you’re making stuff and you want to sell it. It doesn’t matter whether you have a job. It doesn’t matter that you’re helping out a neighbour. It’s simply that you like making things and Etsy are providing a storefront for you. Sure, there’s a bit of twee-ness in Etsy’s copy[5], but at least it feels like they mean it. I would much prefer genuine twee than fake twee, no?

That’s not the same as Uber and TaskRabbit, where essentially the latter is an auction where workers bid, or Uber, where customers are literally hailing down orders. With Etsy, it’s seller led, not buyer-led. And perhaps that points to a difference in outlook and emphasis. What would an Etsy-style TaskRabbit look like?
[1] https://twitter.com/patrickc/status/465545034725466112 and http://goo.gl/h4LIs8
[2] http://newsletter.danhon.com/episode-seventy-five-the-sustainable-web-taskrabbit-airbnb-cities/
[3] https://www.taskrabbit.com
[4] https://www.taskrabbit.com/about
[5] http://www.etsy.com/about?ref=ft_about

2.0 Cities

I got a whole bunch of notes back regarding my thoughts about cities, Britain’s missing second city and the concept of a “minimum viable city”. I realise all of this is armchair urban planning wank, but at least I get to say that this isn’t my job and that I’m not supposed to be qualified in any of this. That’s the prerogative of the amateur newsletter raconteur.

There was an interesting write-up that came my way of a talk from Theorizing The Web – “An Urban Geography of the Web Industry”[1]. At the same time as pointing to it, I think it’s pretty easy to take it with a grain of salt and to realise that it’s pretty hard to generalise – it’s pretty much talking about the Bay Area, I think, because nowhere else in the world do you have that type of concentration in such a unique situation.

It’s a compelling point: the web, thanks to Moore’s law’s application in computing and communication infrastructure has allowed businesses to scale non-linearly. In that, in the industrial era, and even the early information-worker era, you generally needed More People to do More Things, and the People and Things scaled pretty linearly. See: Detroit. Even with robots. With pure bits and bytes companies *and* the fact that we’ve passed a threshold in terms of “enough” people being online for there to be a genuine mass consumer market (see: 1 billion served), you get companies like Facebook that *could* serve a billion people and employ not even ten thousand people, of which the majority are new recruits over the past eighteen months. You can see (although, as always, you’d be wise to ask for the data that backs it up) that such a change in the nature of industry and the makeup of employment, does something to a city in terms of its makeup.

What *is* interesting, though, is whether we’ll start to see counter-examples. I’m always reluctant to bring my employer into the mix, but here’s the quick background. Wieden+Kennedy is an independent advertising agency, one of the award winningest in the world. It is headquartered not on Madison Avenue, New York, but in Portland, Oregon. Why Portland, Oregon? Because its founders didn’t want to make the kind of advertising that Madison Avenue made, and reasoned that if they *weren’t* on Madison Avenue then they wouldn’t have to waste time weeding out the kind of people who wanted to be on Madison Avenue and make Madison Avenue kinds of advertising. Long story short, thirty years later, there’s a bit of a boom in Portland and the agency headquarters office is an anchor of a revitalised downtown neighborhood that sheds off fledgling businesses every now and again, much in the same way that other companies like Nike or Intel do.

Now, you’d think in the big wide world of the web you’d be arguing for decentralisation and if you’re nodding along you’re probably dhh and he’s got a nice book he wants to sell you about his manifesto for how you should do business. Look: there are obviously stupendous network effects at play once you get into the Bay Area – they’re completely undeniable. What’s possibly *less* clear is that it is probably slightly more doable than it was before to have build a successful, sustainable company outside the Bay Area (see above for Etsy), but it certainly isn’t easy. It never is, of course. But one benefit of not being in the Bay Area is that you’re Not In The Bay Area.

Against all of this is the simultaneous news from the New York Times (who, predictably, are on it) that residential rents are on the rise[2], of which: nngh. In conjunction with 1.0 above, part of this reminds me of the introduction of offset current/mortgage accounts and some sort of hazy memory of consumer bank products in the UK that swept money into a high interest account “while you slept”. It’s this squeeze-every-amount-possible in order to maintain a standard of living that starts to feel offensive.

The conversation on Metafilter about the rent news is somewhat predictable: a derail in the first comment about moving to a less hip city that discounts what many on the ground are feeling in terms of actually needing to colocate in the same physical space: or – you have to be where the jobs are. And if you want a particular job, then you’re going to have to move to that location. The UK’s experiencing that problem with London, as I wrote about earlier, where London’s turning into some sort of supermassive black hole that is literally sucking the economic growth from the rest of the country, whose event horizon is no longer delimited by the M25, and while there are pseudo micro-hubs in the US (see: Austin’s growth in the tech sector) it’s plain to see that cities are where the action’s at. News like this, of course, makes it sound like cities are being co-opted by capital-growing-capital that’s pricing out the engine (ie young professionals) that are going to grow that capital in the first place.

One of the oft-cited differences between London and the US cities is the extraordinary amount of control that has been devolved and centralised in the case of the UK’s capital city, compared to, say, “the Bay Area”. When you’re talking about infrastructural level complexity of change and management, quite how you’re supposed to manage that on a highly localised basis is unclear to me. In one way this points to the need for different types of governance models as cities scale and level up in terms of the problems that they encounter. I’m not exactly sure how this squares with the fiercely independent, pioneer spirit of America, never mind America’s west coast.

[1] http://blog.rachelhyman.info/mapping-the-economy-onto-socio-urban-space
[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/15/business/more-renters-find-30-affordability-ratio-unattainable.html?_r=0 and Metafilter Thread at http://www.metafilter.com/139000/Its-only-supposed-to-be-30-of-your-income