Government-Run Sharing?

Just came across Dean Baker’s opinion piece on Aljazeera America from yesterday in which he advocates for a publicly-run version of the “sharing economy.” In Baker’s own words:

In addition to a level-the-playing-field approach, we can also treat the sharing- economy companies to some new competition: a public option. The idea is that governments can set up public sites that would provide the same services as the sharing economy companies. The difference would be that the public sites would cut out the middleman. They would be set up to benefit customers and service providers, with the government charging only the fees necessary to cover costs.

While this sounds on the surface like something I’d be in favor of, having worked at one of these tech companies, I know first-hand how unworkable it would be to have government-run sharing apps. Full-stack product development, setting up initial networks, targeted marketing, and real-time empathic customer service are just not in the government wheelhouse. Governments regulate — that’s their wheelhouse. And that’s what they should be doing with a long-view on the sharing/on-demand economy.

Right now, many local governments across the globe are in panic mode — creating regulations in reaction to new technologies that have real-world impacts (Uber and AirBnB are the obvious players here, but there are so many others: TaskRabbit, Handy, Car2Go, MiniBar, PostMates, and on and on). Workers, customers, and even former employees are filing lawsuits against on-demand companies left and right. I see this as part of the natural process of establishing equilibrium. But it doesn’t have to be this difficult — or litigious.

The sharing economy is here to stay, and it will only continue to grow. There is so much potential for positive change from these emerging technologies. Bike-sharing is one excellent example, especially when implemented in an intelligent way. But regulators need to educate themselves on what’s out there and what the implications of each application might be, not only for health, safety, and labor, but also for other as-yet unknown impacts. Governments need to get one step ahead instead of ten steps behind.

They also need to stop clinging to the status quo, protecting entrenched industries just because they’re, well, entrenched. It’s time to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of the innovative versus the status quo, and figure out sensible and sensitive regulatory cocktails that benefit and protect the most citizens. This, of course, is no small feat, but I believe our governments are up to the task. They can do this better than they would ever be able to manage running a technology company, that’s for sure.

It’s time for governments to become innovators, not of technology, but of regulation.

Read Dean Baker’s piece here:

Aljazeera America

Aljazeera America

Mesh Networks, Internet Resilience, & Community Connectivity

There’s a lot in that blog title but such is the reach and potential of mesh networks. These are neighborhood-level, semi-guerrilla networks of wireless routers or nodes placed in a neighborhood to connect locals to the internet for free. They’re like a collection of free wifi hotspots which are not only connected to the internet, but also to each other to create a local network. This is where the mesh’s real power lives: in its ability to connect a community to itself. When the regular internet goes down, those on a local mesh network can still connect to and communicate with one another. One can easily see how this has the potential to create a deeper sense of community not only in internet space but also in physical space.

The Red Hook mesh (in Brooklyn, NY) illustrated this perfectly after Superstorm Sandy. The regular, wired internet was unreliable and often nonexistent, but those on the mesh were still able to communicate and coordinate locally. What’s especially interesting is how the mesh cut across socioeconomic boundaries in the area, connecting people in townhouses, apartments, and public housing projects alike. Aside from providing a necessary resource in a time of emergency, the mesh, at least in this case, accomplished something many city planners hope to achieve: a greater sense of community cohesion in a diverse neighborhood. (And at a low economic cost, at that – though it will require some funding to maintain, as all good things eventually do.)

The local focus of mesh networks was summarized in a New York Times piece from August 2014:

Joshua Breitbart, a senior fellow at New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, which created the software that helps the Red Hook mesh operate, said digital culture was too focused on the global, as opposed to the local. “The general narrative of Silicon Valley is, build an app and change the world,” Mr. Breitbart said. “There should be room to say, ‘Build an app and change my neighborhood.’”

The Red Hood mesh is maintained by “digital stewards,” all of whom currently live in public housing projects. This is another important piece in the community puzzle, as these stewards get trained and then pass their training on to others in the community, building another network form offline while putting their online skills to work. According to Anthony Schloss, one of the creators of the Red Hook mesh:

“If this works,” he said, “you have this virtual platform, this virtual community that everyone can be interacting with, devoid of all the cultural assumptions. And if you flip it, and the people who build it and are maintaining it are young people from public housing, that totally changes the way people think about each other and what technology can be.”

Technology is a beautiful alien that landed in our neighborhoods and gave us ways to change deeply set social patterns. These are exciting times.

Learn more about mesh networks by clicking the thumbnails below (note: these articles were not written by me).

New York Times

New York Times

Wired

Wired