At the Boston Review: “Silicon Valley to Liberal Arts Majors: We Want You”

I have a book review / essay up at the Boston Review. Titled “Silicon Valley to Liberal Arts Majors: We Want You” it is a review of two books: The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World  by Scott Hartley and What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing by Ed Finn.

The beginning:

If you are a student of the liberal arts, is there a place for you in our increasingly-digital world? Not really, according to many. Bill Gates thinks your programs should be cut in favor of STEM subjects, his fellow tech-billionaire Vinod Khosla says “little of the material taught in liberal arts programs today is relevant to the future,” and Marc Andreesen says you will end up working in a shoe store. Maybe you should just learn to code.

Tech billionaires claim that fuzzies—students of the liberal arts and social sciences—are doomed to working in shoe stores, but two new books pin the future of tech on them.

Or maybe not. Two new books make a case that the technology industry can no longer be driven purely by software engineer hackers, and that you have a critical role to play in guiding it in more ethical and humane directions. That said, their authors differ dramatically about what that role is. Scott Hartley wants you to bring your skills and insights to the world of technology startups, to unlock the full potential of technological innovation. Ed Finn, on the other hand, seeks to hold the technology industry to account: he believes we need “more readers, more critics,” posing questions about who technology serves, and to what ends…

A few notes:

  • The essay benefited greatly from editing by Deb Chasman and Adam McGee.
  • It has been repeatedly tweeted by the account of the book “The Fuzzy and the Techie”. I can’t work out if they didn’t actually read it, or if they just think any publicity is good publicity, or if I was kinder on the book than I intended to be.
  • “Liberal Arts”. Is that purely an American thing now? I sometimes can’t tell any more. And sometimes it includes natural scientists, sometimes the meaning seems more narrow. At any rate, I wrote the review not really knowing precisely what it means.

Airbnb downloadable data sets

I’ve continued to collect data about listings in cities around the world from the Airbnb web site, and I’ve been posting maps based on them here.  Each map takes some manual work, so I have not uploaded all the data I’ve collected. But after many requests I’ve finally uploaded the basic data for all the 99 cities (and/or regions) I’ve surveyed, and they are available here. For some cities, it is just one survey, while for others there are (roughly) monthly surveys over a period of two years or more. Each download is a zip file that contains one or more comma-separated values (CSV) files that can be read into your generic spreadsheet program or other application of choice.

The code I use is posted on github here, and the method is described roughly here, although there are some changes over time. If you find mistakes or if you do find it useful, I would love to hear anything about how you use it.

On Orange Tyrants

A few months ago I read a couple of historical novels by Philippa Gregory, set in the reign of Henry VIII (The King’s Curse, and The Taming of the Queen). I thought I was reading for entertainment, but they have been the best guide to what to expect from Trump that I’ve come across.

Henry was a second son, not brought up to be king, and he was spoiled. He could not bear that anyone be better than him, at riding, at archery, at jousting, whatever.

So what Gregory’s books convey very well is how not to deal with a privileged and powerful narcissistic orange bully with no attention span. Henry could flatter and be generous, and the objects of his flattery would think they had influence. But when Henry’s needs or wants changed, or when anything went badly, these people were suddenly cast aside. His wives are the obvious examples, but counsellors and ambassadors and nobles too.

All of a sudden, they would hear that Henry was disappointed in them. That after years of friendship and loyalty, Henry was dismayed to find that they had let him down (because nothing, ever, was Henry’s fault). And then they would simply be frozen out, unable to reach him, refused entrance to court. And maybe they would lose their head. Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell: both had their moment, and then didn’t. (Maybe don’t be called “Thomas” or “Anne” either)

So when I see people saying that Trump understands them (the Canadian government, the technology leaders who paid court), that — in the words of the tech leaders — they will set him straight if he goes off-course, I think: you have no idea how this works. Of course he and his crew will flatter you, tell you how brilliant you are, how much he admires you. Until he doesn’t. Until he decides that you have disappointed him. And then you will hear about it second hand, or maybe through Twitter. You’re out, and the axe will fall, and you’re not so special after all.

Those “realist” commentators who say they can manage Trump (with a bit of flattery here, a few wise words there) need to read about Henry VIII to see how that story ends.

If that takes too long, they should at least follow @KngHnryVIII on Twitter, who set it out in August here. From which:

Let me put it this way, you know that feeling of anxiety and fearful remorse that can steal over you in the darkest hours of the night? I don’t have that. Neither does Trump.

Update: David Golumbia points out that Sean Spicer’s infamous first press conference may be an example. Told to deliver a stinging rebuke, he follows his master’s bidding. When the rebuke causes problems, Trump hangs him out to dry, saying maybe he went too far. That’s what you get for riding an orange tiger.

Looking back at my 2016: publications and media

Here is a reasonably complete collection of things written by me, interviews of me, book reviews about my book, and articles to which I contributed through interviews or quotes or data sets for the year 2016. It’s been a busy year, and rewarding in many ways.


My second book What’s Yours is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy was published by OR Books in November 2015, but I am including the book and related articles here, making it a “long 2016”.

  • US and UK edition (link), OR Books, November 2015
  • Canadian edition (link), Between the Lines Press, February 2016
  • German edition (Deins ist Meins): Verlag Antje Kunstmann
  • Spanish edition: Lo tuyo es mío, Taurus, November 2016
  • Simplified Chinese edition: (Ginkgo Book Co.)
  • French language edition (France and Québec): Ce Qui est à Toi est à Moi, translated by Hélène Rioux, Lux Editeur

Book chapter

Invited Essays

Reviews of “What’s Yours is Mine”


Quoted, and Airbnb data

Report: How Airbnb hid the facts in New York City

Together with Murray Cox of Inside Airbnb,  I produced a report on Airbnb’s removal of 1500 listings in New York, just in time to make its public release of data look good.


Airbnb in Lisbon: a few corrections

Airbnb just posted one of its charming city reports providing an Overview of The Airbnb Community in Lisbon and Portugal. The summary is here and the full report is here. At the prompting of some Lisbon urban geographers and activists concerned about the damage Airbnb is doing to the historic centre of their city, I’ve done some surveys of Lisbon.

The Airbnb report, as usual, presents some concrete figures, leaves out some other figures, and also presents a lot of figures that are not very interesting at all. It does so with the company’s traditional absence of supporting data or methods. Let’s look at a few of the most important.

Airbnb: “More than 4,500 hosts shared their space on Airbnb last year”

My results: Between May 2015 and May 2016,  I identify 4633 separate hosts who have properties with reviews. There are over 6000 separate hosts with listings on the site. The Airbnb statement confirms the data I have collected.

Airbnb: 72 percent of hosts in Lisbon have only one listing and hosts have lived in the city for an average of 25 years

My results: In my most recent survey, 71% of hosts have only one listing, confirming Airbnb’s statement.

What Airbnb doesn’t say: 65% of listings in Lisbon belong to hosts with multiple listings. The majority of listings in Lisbon do not belong to regular folks who use the site only to occasionally rent out the home in which they live. The number of “multiple listing” hosts is growing even faster than the overall number of listings. The total number of listings almost doubled between May 2015 (5600) to June 2016 (over 10,000), and the percentage of listings belonging to multiple-listing hosts has grown from 59% of the total to 65% of the total. To me, this “percent of hosts with only one listing” is always the most deceptive of Airbnb’s phrasings, and in the case of Lisbon it is particularly misleading.

Airbnb: A typical listing in Lisbon is shared for 76 nights a year and more than half of all listings in Lisbon are rented for fewer than 90 days.

My results: I don’t have reliable occupancy data, but this claim also is noticeable for what it doesn’t say. There are about 2,000 Lisbon listings with no reviews at all: clearly a host with no guests causes no problems and makes no money, but using a median value (the “typical” listing) gives each of these listings equal weight. What is of interest is those at the top end: and of course there is not much said here. We can infer that almost half are rented for more than 3 months in the year, but we don’t know the concentration at the top end.

What we do know is that the areas with most listings (Santa Maria Maior and Misericordia) have a disproportionate share of the business. Between them, they have about 40% of the listings but well over half of the visits, and (with prices there being more expensive) an even bigger share of the revenue. You can get a better idea of what this means by looking at the maps here (taken from my listings page), and download a full set of listings with each one:

Airbnb’s continued presentation of partial and biased “data” about its activities in cities around the world shows their lack of interest in accountability and, ultimately, their lack of interest in the cities where they operate.

Regulating the Sharing Economy

A long overdue post.

There is no slowdown in the debates about how to regulate Airbnb, Uber, and other Sharing Economy companies, as city after city in country after country faces up to the challenges of how to deal with these new actors. If only there were a clearly thought-out, well-written work that spelled out the issues involved, provided a framework in which to think about how to respond, and provided a useful set of recommendations that provided the starting point for regulatory ideas.

Well luckily there is.

Vanessa Katz’s “Regulating the Sharing Economy” was published last September the Berkeley Technology Law Journal. I heard about it at the time (thanks Chris Hoofnagle), but I was just going through final edits on “What’s Yours is Mine” and did not have a chance to write about it. I assumed someone else would, but a quick Google suggests that it has been overlooked. This is a shame. If you are interested in the topic, I strongly recommend it.

Now I am not a lawyer, still less a legal scholar, so I don’t really know the standards that apply to law scholarship, but as someone concerned with the topic I can say this: there are proposals for regulation that have been picked up and become part of the public debate (eg from venture capitalist Nick Grossman,* self-regulation proponent Arun Sundararajan,* Tim O’Reilly*), and I learned more from Katz’s piece than from any of these. It’s one of the few articles I’ve gone back to over and over again because Katz offers a way to think through the issues, to go beyond the too-easy claim that new technologies and new businesses need new rules, and to think about what’s really new, and what’s left unchanged.

A good starting point is to ask why we want to regulate some industries and not others, and Katz identifies a few principles that explain why we have a public interest in some private transactions. One class is “special relationships” in which the consumer is particularly vulnerable, and when additional burdens are placed on the service provider:

  • Relationships that pose potential health, safety, and financial concerns for consumers: landlord-tenant relationship being one example.
  • Relationships in which service providers have a disproportionately strong bargaining position: innkeepers and “common carriers” such as taxi drivers are required to accept all customers without discrimination. It’s a constraint on business, but one that is justified by the vulnerability of the customer.
  • Relationships in which the service provider is the “least-cost  avoider” – the party who can adopt precautions against a certain risk at lowest cost. Katz does not spell it out, but these situations are related to markets with asymmetric information: to keep the market working the service provider (as least-cost avoider) is required to guarantee certain standards: product liability being an example.

Sharing economy companies are quick to say that many existing regulations do not apply to them, but Katz is one of the few who asks the other question – what regulations are needed to deal with new challenges raised by the platform companies. Among these are reputation systems and their lack of appeal / process, privacy (a big deal when we start talking about in-car cameras, as well as customer data), and surge pricing (what happens when Uber offers personalized pricing based on your phone battery levels?)

All in all, an excellent read.

Airbnb data collection code and city stats

Over the last couple of years I’ve continued to tweak my Airbnb data collection code and run it against a number of cities. Anyone interested can see a partial list here, and if there’s a city you would like me to post data for, you can make a request here.

Some time ago I made the GitHub project private, as there’s obviously a potential for Airbnb to identify patterns and shut down attempts to scrape data. But enough people keep asking for it that I’m opening it up again, and you can find it here if you are interested. I make no claims to elegance or good practices in the code, but it’s worked for me.