By Tom Slee
The news is full of their names, supposedly the vanguard of a rethinking of capitalism. Lyft, Airbnb, Taskrabbit, Uber, and many more companies have a mandate of disruption and upending the “old order”―and they’ve succeeded in effecting the “biggest change in the American workforce in over a century,” according to former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.
But this new wave of technology companies is funded and steered by very old-school venture capitalists. And in What’s Yours Is Mine, technologist Tom Slee argues the so-called sharing economy damages development, extends harsh free-market practices into previously protected areas of our lives, and presents the opportunity for a few people to make fortunes by damaging communities and pushing vulnerable individuals to take on unsustainable risk.
Drawing on original empirical research, Slee shows that the friendly language of sharing, trust, and community masks a darker reality.
Steven Poole on The Guardian wrote:
"His new book, What’s Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy, explains that he’s motivated by 'a sense of betrayal: that what started as an appeal to community, person-to-person connections, sustainability, and sharing, has become the playground of billionaires.' Good people who wrongly see the Internet as inherently egalitarian, he writes, have 'unwittingly aided and abetted the accumulation of private fortune' by giving these new apps an unearned patina of public-spiritedness. [...] Progressive readers may share in Slee’s sense of righteous indignation, but his message is really directed to the rest of the world — people using these apps to get groceries or make a trip to the airport, without much thought to ideology. He points out several effects that are, at the least, unlovely [...] Ultimately, I read Slee’s book as a call to conscious consumption. [...] There may be a role for intermediary organizations to 'crowdsource' the process of conscious consumerism itself, just as organizations today help consumers figure out how and where to support sustainable agriculture, or to avoid products manufactured by child labor. In any event, even recognizing that these questions are worth asking feels like a key first step."
Daniel MacDonald on The Journal of Labor & Society wrote:
"What all these artificial constructions amount to for Uber, Airbnb and the like is an attempt to bypass laws enacted over decades precisely in order to protect both renters and landlords, taxi drivers and passengers. Impressed by their popularity and financial clout, most lawmakers bend over backwards to accommodate them. [...] Slee points out, rightly, that his arguments are not about whether he or his readers actually use these services. In modern times we have been miseducated to believe that consumer choice is all-powerful, but the idea that consumers exercising their sovereign right to choose will always lead to the best outcomes is obviously in the interest of corporations seeking to escape official regulation. So, Slee uses Airbnb himself but backs the city authorities seeking to regulate it more tightly; and there is no contradiction in taking an Uber home from a party while wishing the company were better behaved. Only the law can force it to be so."
Robert E. Levine on The Spectator wrote:
"This book, however, is not simply an anti-Uber or anti-Airbnb polemic: Slee has carefully sifted through a range of examples of the sharing economy and has put together arguments that address all of them. This holistic approach is one of the major strengths of the book: by the end, you will be familiar with the major philosophies that drive the sharing economy and why they are flawed, illustrated with myriad examples from someone who has done their research carefully. [...] However, the book is not without its drawbacks. By focusing on problems with the sharing economy as a whole, Slee offers a sort of 'doomsday thesis' that may not sit well with the progressively-minded reader. That is to say, Slee argues that any sharing economy project is likely to fail because of the eventual influence of outside capital and the mixing of commercial instincts with altruistic behavior. But this outcome need not inevitable. Slee mentions efforts to classify workers as employees instead of independent contractors, or recent attempts to unionize, but this is done in passing. He apparently does not think that these changes could do anything to save the industry from its capitalist core [...]. That might be true, but it is not obvious that a more worker-centric model of the sharing economy could not be viable. [...] A more systematic treatment of the possibilities offered by these legal battles and alternative models would have been appreciated and would have rounded out the book a little better."
"In What’s Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy, Tom Slee, an author and blogger who also works in the software business, delivers a smart and searing critique of a business that people are only just beginning to think about in a serious way. While some bloggers still treat the sharing economy as some kind of cause, Slee rightly analyses it as a business model masquerading as a movement. [...] Slee is at his best when he digs into specifics — many of which show that at least some sharing economy companies have unfair advantages. [...] Most of us realise that, for better or worse, sharing economy companies are extending the market. But we also have to confront the ways they’re distorting it."
Panel Discussion with Tom Lee on the Sharing Economy
- What do we do about a problem like Uber? Tom Slee speaks his brains, interview in The Register, 15 January 2016
- The Sharing Economy’s Dirty Laundry, opnion piece by Slee on Jacobin, 23 March 2016
About Tom Slee
Tom Slee writes about technology, politics, and economics and in the last two years has become a leading critic of the sharing economy. He has a PhD in theoretical chemistry, a long career in the software industry, and his book No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart is a game-theoretical investigation of individual choice that has been used in university economics, philosophy and sociology courses. He lives in Waterloo, Canada and blogs at www.tomslee.net.