One of the perks of being a top Uber driver is the company’s employee-of-the-week award. It’s called the Sixth Star prize, and it comes with a swag bag and a $1,000 American Express gift card. It’s the sort of thing that all sorts of big companies do to encourage their workers to go that proverbial, or actual, extra mile. But with Uber, there’s a hitch. The taxi behemoth does not employ any of its drivers. They are all independent contractors, paid by the gig.
Working for Uber might come with its perks, then, but it also comes without the benefits and protections many businesses provide for their employees. That’s unfair and illegal, a Boston labor lawyer is now arguing in court, potentially threatening the business models of the dozens and dozens of popular apps that make up the so-called “on-demand economy.”
How would you like to live in an economy where robots do everything that can be predictably programmed in advance, and almost all profits go to the robots’ owners?
Meanwhile, human beings do the work that’s unpredictable – odd jobs, on-call projects, fetching and fixing, driving and delivering, tiny tasks needed at any and all hours – and patch together barely enough to live on.
Brace yourself. This is the economy we’re now barreling toward.
They’re Uber drivers, Instacart shoppers, and Airbnb hosts. They include Taskrabbit jobbers, Upcounsel’s on-demand attorneys, and Healthtap’s on-line doctors.
They’re Mechanical Turks.
The euphemism is the “share” economy. A more accurate term would be the “share-the-scraps” economy.
The backlash against unethical labor practices in the “collaborative sharing economy” has been overplayed. Recently, The Washington Post, New York Times and others started to rail against online labor brokerages like Taskrabbit, Handy, and Uber because of an utter lack of concern for their workers. At the recent Digital Labor conference, my colleague McKenzie Wark proposed that the modes of production that we appear to be entering are not quite capitalism as classically described. “This is not capitalism,” he said, “this is something worse.” 
But just for one moment imagine that the algorithmic heart of any of these citadels of anti-unionism could be cloned and brought back to life under a different ownership model, with fair working conditions, as a humane alternative to the free market model.
Take, for example, Uber’s app, with all its geolocation and ride ordering capabilities. Why do its owners and shareholders have to be the main benefactors of such platform-based labor brokerage? Developers, in collaboration with local, worker-owner cooperatives could design such a self-contained program for mobile phones.
Just after 4 a.m. on a recent Friday, while most of the neighbors in her leafy Boston suburb were still asleep, Jennifer Guidry was in the driveway of her rental apartment, her blond hair pulled back in a tidy French braid, vacuuming the inside of her car. The early-bird routine is a strategy that Ms. Guidry, a Navy veteran and former accountant, uses to mitigate the uncertainty of working in what’s known as the sharing economy.
Every reservation is analyzed by Airbnb’s algorithm, which combs it for red flags — new listings that are signing up reservations at a suspicious clip; messages that include the term Western Union — and assigns it a trust score. If the trust score is too low, someone from Airbnb’s trust and safety team will follow up to ensure that everything is on the level. And of course, these efforts are supplemented by Airbnb’s user reviews and comments, which can also steer unsuspecting renters away from dicey properties.
All this seems to work well enough for Airbnb. But as the sharing economy spreads across so many other markets — from car rides to house cleaning — other companies could benefit from this storehouse of data as well. After all, if someone wanted to sign up as a Lyft driver, it would be good to know that they had been banned from Airbnb. That prospect has led some to predict the dawn of a fully reputation-based economy — one in which your behavior and track record follows you from service to service, a kind of FICO score for the sharing economy that would let both platforms and individuals know how trustworthy you are based on your history and activity.
For travelers trying to economize, the ability to rent someone’s spare bedroom is a real breakthrough. Cities like New York, London and Paris are easier to visit than they have been in many years.
But for those who actually work in the hotel industry, this business model is bad news: Airbnb and its imitators might eventually put them out of a job.
A new study by researchers at Boston University demonstrates for the first time that as the so-called sharing economy rises, the traditional lodging industry gets squeezed. For every 1 percent increase in the size of the Airbnb market, the researchers found, hotel revenue slips 0.05 percent.
That does not sound like much of a drop. But Airbnb is expanding at a rapid clip.
We’ve all become stuffaholics, addicted to more, more, and don’t-stand-in-my-way because I want more!
When it comes time to get rid of our stuff, we suffer from another affliction, separation anxiety. When it comes time to say goodbye to our stuff, we find ways to avoid giving it the death sentence and actually throwing it away.
As a result of our separation anxiety, we’ve created a massive self-storage industry to “age our stuff” just a bit longer. In the U.S. alone we have over 2.3 billion square feet of rentable storage space.
Nigel Marsh sums it up well when he says, “There are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet, screaming desperation, where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate to enable them to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.”
There is, however, a cure for this ailment, and its called the “sharing economy.”
The sharing economy is creating some amazing business models around the use of “other people’s stuff.” Here’s why it will be such a disruptive force in our future, and some of the next great opportunities in this space.