Lucky Me

Three writerly things I’m enthusiastic about at the moment.

First, my recent post In Praise of Fake Reviews has been reworked and polished thanks to the efforts of Rob Horning, and posted at The New Inquiry.

Second, I’m off to New York City next week to take part in the Digital Labor conference. I’ll be on a panel on The Future of Workers in the Sharing Economy; we each talk for about 30 minutes and then discuss. I’ll be talking in part about reputation.

Third is an article in progress, but more on that later.



Airbnb City Maps

Inspired by the (much better!) maps of Amsterdam listings, here are some of my surveys of Airbnb cities converted to Google Fusion Tables. Data is obtained to the best of my ability, and I believe it is statistically pretty good, but I can make no guarantees as to its accuracy. Always visit the actual page for any individual listing.

Notes from Personal Democracy Forum 2014

So I was lucky enough to be at the Personal Democracy Forum at the beginning of June in New York. A few scattered thoughts.

I had a prejudice that this would be something of an inward looking conference, and was happy to be proved wrong. The range of perspectives was much broader than I expected, and while the core of the conference is the intersection of the internet with electoral politics and governance, the range of topics was broader than I expected too.

Which made the many references throughout to some loosely-defined “we” a bit odd. These were references from the stage and from organizers that implied a community around the internet and its use in (loosely progressive?) politics. This was the 11th PDF, a lot has changed over the last decade, and I’m not sure there is such a “we” any more.

The highlight of Day 1 was the appearance by video of Edward Snowden, a year after the first published leaks. Snowden impressed. He came across as thoughtful, well-read, articulate, and modest, which is a compelling combination. He even looked bashful at the prolonged applause, which was winning. I wish I could say the same for John Perry Barlow, who was “in conversation” with him, but I can’t. Barlow kept dragging the conversation around to himself and kept prompting Snowden to agree with him – prompts that Snowden politely stepped around. Snowden’s main point was a simple one: that, whatever one thinks of states spying on each other (as in, the US spying on Angela Merkel for example), mass surveillance of entire populations is significantly different and crosses a pretty clear line into illegitimacy. In addition, it has not even proved to be useful for its stated goals of preventing terrorist attacks. Snowden may turn out to be as pivotal figure for our time as Daniel Ellsberg was for the Vietnam War era. The video is here.

Some other selected personal highlights from the talks, with links where I can…

The theme for Day 1 was “Save the Internet”, focusing on the role of an open internet for political freedom. I found Katy Pearce‘s talk on “How Authoritarian Regimes Take Advantage of Social Media” and Zeynep Tufekci’s talk on “Movements in a Connected Age: Better at Changing Minds, Worse at Changing Power?” both fascinating. Pearce has been looking at activism in the former Soviet states for years, and she paints a complex picture of the tensions and continuing changes as digital technologies morph and take on new roles in society. Tufekci returned from her native Turkey with interesting ideas about the difference between what is needed to spark sudden uprisings and what is needed to sustain a social movement or to achieve lasting political change. Demonstrations, she argued, act as a signal for a movement’s organizational capacity. When demonstrations happen more easily, governments may misread the organizational strength they imply–and perhaps this happened in Egypt in 2011–but such misreadings won’t persist.

Later on, after my own panel session on the sharing economy was over (written up by Sam Roudman here, I felt it went pretty well but then I’m not the one to ask), more talks. Susan Crawford on the potential for municipal investment in “dark fibre” (ie, optical cables that are open for use) was all new to me – she writes about it here. Sue Gardner, now leaving Wikipedia, is an inspirational figure and her concerns about Building the Public Internet were compelling. You can find similar thoughts by her here from last year.

Day 2’s theme was “The Internet Saves”, the idea being to focus on digital activities that used the Internet for good. The first morning session was great: Matthew Burton and Mike Bracken both talked about the importance of government service – a welcome change from the usual tech focus on entrepreneurship as the solution to social problems – and both delivered far more than they promised, which is the right way to go. If you have 17 minutes, do listen to Bracken: entertaining and novel. Bracken draws his language from Tim O’Reilly, speaking of “Government as a Platform”, but his conception differs from that of O’Reilly (does one write “O’Reilly’s”? that doesn’t look right). The bulk of the O’Reilly “Government as a Platform” talk is more accurately described as “Government as Data Source”: government provides the data, private industry uses it to build services. Bracken was talking about building a complete stack of services within the government, and to me that’s a different take on the topic, and one that is far more promising.

But then came Brad Smith, Microsoft’s General Counsel, and the contrast could hardly be more stark. Lots of overblown rhetoric and ringing phrases but much less substance and little self-awareness. Let’s just say he sounded like a trial lawyer. And then much of the rest of the morning reflected the Omidyar Network’s approach to dealing with social issues by setting up businesses to deal with it, an approach I am not fond of. Omidyar Network is clearly doubling down: one short talk here was about HandUp, a startup that funnels donations to the homeless. Yes, a startup. So there was more for me to grumble about here, but again – that’s the point of a good conference, to hear different points of view.

The format for the whole program was talks of about 20 minutes with no questions (plus breakouts). It worked well: allowing Q&A would have slowed everything down, and a lot of positions got spelled out just by having the variety of presenters on stage.

So good job TechPresident, and thanks for the opportunity to take part.

Out and About

Despite the slack posting here (but I do have some things I’m working on, honest), I am flattered that people still want to talk to me about sharing economy and related topics. Here are some recent posts and articles where I appear.

  • I’m going to be talking sharing with a panel of people at Personal Democracy Forum 2014. Unusually for a technology-focused conference, over half the speakers are female, which is great. The blurb for my pane; says “Defining and Debating the “Sharing Economy” (Thurs June 5, 3:30-4:30pm): Tom Slee, James Slezak, Denise Cheng, Adam Greenfield, Nancy Scola (moderator). Is there such a thing as the “sharing economy,” or are some people more interested in sharing, while others are interested in the economy? How can we usefully distinguish between “sharing economy” enterprises that empower their users and those that may actually seek to exploit them? A critic [that’s me], an advocate and an academic observer will take a close look at these questions and try to get to the bottom of what is good and what is hype about this emerging phenomenon.”
  • Terry Dawes of CanTech Letter is right. Jeremy Rifkin’s views on the future are indeed, neat, simple, and wrong.
  • Jon Zerolnik of LA-based investigative website Capital and Main interviews me about Couchsurfers and Billionaires.
  • Thanks also to Houston Davidson of the College Hill Independent for talking to me about Sharing for Money.
  • The always-excellent Nancy Scola writes about Arun Sundararajan and quotes me.
  • Hey, look! My non-earth-shattering 1988 paper with Preston McDougall on “The correspondence between Hückel theory and ab initio atomic charges in allyl ions” is now online!

The People’s Platform: Who are No Logo’s Children?

Of all the books I’ve read about digital technology and its effects on our culture, Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform is closest to my own beliefs. I think it’s a wonderful book, but what I really want is to see more people disagree with it.

The trouble is, everyone seems to like The People’s Platform. In Canada, The National Post likes it and The Globe & Mail calls it “a No Logo for digital natives”. In the UK The Guardian says it is an “invaluable primer” for understanding our networked world, The Telegraph gives it four stars out of five, and The Financial Times is positive. In the US I haven’t seen reviews in the major papers except for The Boston Globe, which is persuaded by Taylor’s arguments; but on the left, Dissent and Tom Dispatch welcome it, while Kirkus Reviews calls it “a cogent and genuine argument for the true democratization of online culture”.

The thing is, the book is a challenge to those who see themselves as digital progressives, or part of a digital counterculture—the descendants of No Logo, perhaps, who would trace a disruptive, counter-cultural path from the anti-copyright campaigns of the 1990s through Free/Open Source Software to net neutrality campaigns, Creative Commons, Open Data, Pirate Parties, the Arab Spring, Occupy, and Anonymous.

Not that we need to lump these all together of course, but there is a digital-progressive belief that the design of the Internet gives it a unique potential among technological innovations to be democratizing and liberating—and that (despite disenchantment with the advertising giants) this potential has been validated by the ways in which people have used digital technologies to challenge existing power structures.

It’s a “Sympathy for the Digital”, if you like: a willingness to give digital disruptions the benefit of the political doubt—to overlook the Wall Street connections of Bitcoin, or the ways in which open source institutions have aided the NSA’s spying activities—and a readiness to indulge today’s billionaires when they adopt the anti-corporate, counter-cultural language of the 1990s. It’s that feeling that the Pierre Omidyars of the world are somehow on “our” side because they come from the technology world. It’s the reason why the Electronic Frontier Foundation intervened on behalf of Airbnb against the State of New York. It’s where left-leaning people meet libertarians.

Taylor’s sympathy for the digital has run out. It ran out, perhaps, when the documentary she spent two years of her life making was loaded up onto download sites and her requests for a short grace period were rejected because “philosophy is free”. The preciseness of our vocabulary tells us how we look at the world, and reducing cultural creativity to what Taylor calls “that flattening word, content” is a condemnation of the digital world’s indifference to artistic work.

The way she sees today’s digital landscape, “we are witnessing not a levelling of the cultural playing field, but a rearrangement… In the place of Hollywood moguls, for example, we now have Silicon Valley tycoons (or, more precisely, we have Hollywood moguls and Silicon Valley tycoons”. As we look at how the last 15 years have turned out, the big picture that Taylor paints is not one of egalitarian progress, but of a sort of Animal Network, in which the new rulers have taken on the manners and values of the old, while clinging to the rhetoric of rebellion and change to justify their actions.

She takes on a wide range of topics, including equality, openness, the challenges of sustaining creative labour, investigative reporting as a public good, the winner-take-all nature of Web 2.0 platforms, the value of limited copyright, the environmental impact of online culture, gender imbalance in the technology world, the implications of an advertising (and self-promotion) driven culture. She does so with a wide range of reading, and in an accessible style, in a voice that is intelligent and full of conviction. The book is not an academic book or a “big idea” book structured around a populist, easy-to-digest nugget. It’s an essay, in the best sense of that word.

Her broad conclusion is that the digital world has not turned out the way that the enthusiasts and evangelists of the last two decades have claimed it would. In addition to predictable targets like Kevin Kelly, Jeff Jarvis, Don Tapscott and the more libertarian strands of Wired culture, Taylor takes on leading digital progressives such as Lawrence Lessig, Clay Shirky, Yochai Benkler, Steven Johnson, and Tim O’Reilly: people who would think of themselves as egalitarian. She places them, broadly, on the wrong side of current debates about the impact of new technologies on culture and society. The book suggests that it’s time these digital progressives engaged in some serious questioning of their own viewpoints; that they acknowledge that we live in different times now, and that the ideas and arguments of 1994, or even 2004, have different implications in 2014. I don’t know if Taylor would do this, but I’d extend her argument to people like Biella Coleman, whose “Coding Freedom” is a smart example of digital counter-culture thinking, and to the kind of thinking that comes out of the Berkman Center.

Taylor’s book is provocative partly because of her own background. As an independent film maker and Occupy activist, she has a history of frustration with mainstream media; in her own words, she is “a prime candidate… for cheering on the revolution that is purportedly being ushered in by the Internet” (p2). We all cluster in camps of one kind or another, and for digital progressives it is easy to argue that a book like Robert Levine’s /Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back/ comes from a place of entrenched interest and reaction. It is more difficult to paint Taylor as a digital conservative: this is criticism from inside the tent.

This is why I’m so disappointed that there has been no serious defence of digital progressivism in response to The People’s Platform. (Have I missed some? Please leave links if so.) The book deserves to spark a debate, but it takes two to tango, and the digital progressives seem to be sitting this dance out. (I would not expect the Kevin Kellys of the world to respond, but I had higher hopes of others).

Why the lack of retort? Could it be that Taylor does not have the profile to justify a response? That it is easier to ignore The People’s Platform and wait for it to go away? It certainly looks that way from here. Let’s hope I’m proved wrong.

In the absence of a strong response, it’s time to say that digital progressivism has no legitimate claim to the political or counter-cultural legacy of No Logo and the movement that book embodied. Sure, part of that political legacy was the anti-copyright campaigns of the early 2000s. Sure, digital initiatives like Indymedia came out of that movement. But that movement was also a protest against branding, and against the McDonaldization of global culture and the American cultural imperialism that accompanied it. For those of us outside the US, the right of individual countries to set their own rules to sustain their cultural industries and their cultures were part of the struggle. If that’s a struggle that runs counter to what some call the logic of the Internet, well so be it.

No True Airbnb Host…

After months of waiting, Airbnb and the Attorney General of New York finally face each other in court this week to argue over the Attorney General’s subpoena for information on the 15,000 or so Airbnb hosts in New York City (summary at the Guardian, more opinion in the overview by Nitasha Tiku at Valleywag). There’s been a flurry of revealing activity and statements, and lots of commentary. So here’s more.

The court case is about many things. But what makes it interesting for those of us who don’t live in New York is the broader implications of the case, which include:

  • The breadth of the Attorney General’s subpoena and the proportionality of his actions. Does the subpoena blend into the general fear of government access to individual data in the light of the NSA scandals?
  • The illegality of some Airbnb rentals. If the subpoena succeeds and shows that a significant portion of Airbnb’s business is based on illegal rentals, then that’s a problem for a lot of people.
  • If Airbnb rentals are illegal, who is responsible (legally and morally)? Is it the host or Airbnb itself?
  • The validity of the law. Airbnb maintain the law is a bad law, inappropriately applied, and that the Airbnb hosts are a new class of business (“micro-entrepreneurs”) that need new rules. Does new technology render the old laws obsolete?
  • How will this affect the $10B valuation of Airbnb and its prospects for an IPO?
  • How will this affect the future of the sharing economy?

The main players are, obviously, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Airbnb. But other players appear on the stage, including:

  • Airbnb hosts and guests. Hosts have the most to lose if their information is handed over.
  • Democrat Senator Elizabeth Krueger. Her position on the issue (see here and today’s interview by Nancy Scola) is a bit different from that of the Attorney General, but she is broadly on the same side.
  • The technology industries and advocates. The Internet Association and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have both spoken up about the subpoena, placing themselves broadly on the Airbnb side.
  • Neighbours, landlords, tenants, and housing co-ops. These are all affected by individuals renting out apartments through Airbnb.
  • The hotel industry. While Airbnb has painted hotels as one of the villains in the fight, their role seems to me peripheral.

To start with the narrowest issue: it seems pretty clear that about 2/3 of Airbnb rentals in the city are outside the law in New York, which forbids apartment rentals of under 30 days if the owner is not present. The New York Post report is here, and is based on an affidavit by the Attorney General’s office (PDF). That affidavit is, in turn, based on an analysis of Airbnb’s business carried out by consultants Connotate for travel site Skift. Their report is more extensive than, but similar to, the analysis I carried out a while ago here. Airbnb and Peers recognize this by arguing that the law needs to be changed.

For what it’s worth, I find Elizabeth Krueger’s position on illegal rentals more reasonable than either the Attorney General’s or that of advocacy group Peers. The Attorney General gives the impression of (at least potentially, and despite avowals otherwise) going after all the hosts who have made illegal rentals. Given that law enforcement is usually complaint-based and that Airbnb has done little to warn its hosts of their responsibilities, this seems harsh. Krueger (see links above) puts Airbnb as the root of the problem—making a lot of money off hosts and letting the hosts take all the risk—and I agree with her. Airbnb may not be legally responsible, but it seems to me morally culpable.

But what if the law is just a bad, obsolete law that shouldn’t apply to Airbnb hosts anyway, which is what Airbnb has been arguing? Here the onus switches to Airbnb: has it made the case that it can do better than New York’s “bad law”? It needs to do more than say “because Technology” if it’s going to justify a change.

Most of the Airbnb case is made in its public policy blog posts (here and here), in its report on New York (here), and in its new sharing cities initiative (here). What these posts show is a remarkable lack of content, and a reliance on heartwarming words and spin that is, in the end, cheap talk.

Airbnb’s description of its own hosts is at least consistent. They repeatedly describe their “community” as “regular New Yorkers who occasionally rent out their homes”, or “regular New Yorkers just trying to make ends meet”. They emphasize that “87 percent of Airbnb hosts rent out the home they live in”. These are all phrases that invoke the “sharing economy” vision. When anything goes wrong, Airbnb refers to occasional, incredibly rare “bad apples”.

But Airbnb’s homespun language is carefully chosen. The 87% figure is the most obviously economical with the truth. It may be true as a percentage of hosts, but only about 63% of listings are single-listing hosts, and as much as anyone can tell, almost half of actual bookings are from hosts who have multiple listings. It’s not easy to get definitive answers from scraping the public web site, but Airbnb has consistently refused to challenge these numbers, and so it’s a good guess that they are not too far off the truth. They could release their own statistics if they chose, but they don’t.

Instead, they put out “reports” that have no methodology, no definitions of key terms, and about 300 words of actual text. Airbnb makes a lot of the fact that it “supports more than 4,500 jobs” but it never says what “support” means. It claims to have “generated $104 million in economic activity outside of Manhattan”, but it doesn’t say what “generated” means. This may seem like nit-picking, but it isn’t: it’s just asking for facts instead of spin.

But where things get really bad — for Airbnb hosts who drive the company’s revenue as well as for Airbnb’s claim to be a responsible provider of safe and well-managed accommodation — is in Airbnb’s slippery definition of its own “community”.

Airbnb continually claims to speak for its hosts, as in “our hosts want to pay taxes”, and repeatedly characterizes its community of “amazing” hosts as “regular” people. It also describes them as “micro-entrepreneurs”, suggesting that they are independent. But Airbnb hosts, who are asked increasingly to invest in their own property in order to put it on Airbnb’s marketplace, are precariously dependent on Airbnb’s whims in order to make money from their investment, which is not an entrepreneurial role at all. If anything goes wrong, the host gets turfed off the market without appeal. If you’re a host, how do you know if you are a “bad apple” or a “regular New Yorker”?

Most dramatically, this has happened today. After insisting for months that concerns about multiple listings were exaggerated, Airbnb today permanently removed no fewer than 2,000 New York listings from its platform – roughly 10% of the total. They claim the process has been going on for months, and that it demonstrates their responsibility. But the fact that it happened today of all days, the fact that identifying multiple listings is a trivial exercise, and the fact that the criteria for expulsion are still woefully unclear, makes it difficult to take them seriously (Jason Clampet at Skift is excellent on the removals). Here is an excerpt of Airbnb’s explanation:

But when we examined our community in New York, we found that some property managers weren’t providing a quality, local experience to guests. These hosts weren’t making their neighborhood stronger and they weren’t delivering the kind of hospitality our guests expect and deserve. In some cases, they were making communities worse, not better. We took a hard look at our community in New York to identify these hosts and we took action.

Earlier this year, we began notifying these hosts that they and their more than 2,000 listings would be permanently removed from the Airbnb community. While we are allowing these hosts to support their existing  bookings, all are now prohibited from accepting new reservations and if you search for a place to stay in New York, you won’t find these listings.

Imagine you are an Airbnb host in New York reading these words. How would you know if you are living up to Airbnb’s requirements? Are you making your neighbourhood stronger? Are you delivering the kind of hospitality your guests expect? This is a “No True Scotsman” argument: the Airbnb community is trustworthy because if you do anything Airbnb decides is wrong then you are not part of the community. The lack of clarity is remarkable and shows that they are not ready to provide the kind of security and accountability that any replacement for rentals regulation would need.

My skepticism over Airbnb’s sincerity is heightened because, apparently, one blocking point in the negotiations with New York is that (according to Clampet), “Airbnb would not agree to limits on how many listings a person could have in New York City.” It’s clear that a large number of bookings is essential to the venture capital model, and goes against the spirit of the “sharing economy” that Airbnb so consistently invokes. But it looks like they’re going where the money is. That makes them untrustworthy.

Airbnb’s evocative but meaningless cheap talk (for more, see their Shared Cities initiative) is cynical. I fear that, instead of promoting any realistic idea of sharing, Airbnb will pollute the whole idea as a consequence of the high-return venture capital model it has pursued.