What the Sharing Economy Really Delivers: Entitlement
Posted January 27, 2018 7:59 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — Not long ago a friend told me how she had come to end her relationship with WeWork, the entrepreneurial-class fun house that at recent count had been rolled out in 59 cities around the world. A playwright and producer, she had been renting office space at a WeWork location in Brooklyn when one night a little over a year ago, she showed up after a rehearsal to get some rewriting done and found a party in progress.
As she settled down at her desk, she could see that across the hall a couple was getting down to business of the kind that did not involve calculating price-earnings ratios. Things were loud and many people around her, none of whom she knew, were drunk, but she was determined to spend the next hour or so accomplishing something despite the ambient hedonism.
That effort was thwarted when two men who comfortably fit the stereotype of young hustlers on Planet Startup approached her desk, sat on it and began a vaguely menacing flirtation — poking at her computer, reading what was on the screen, poking at her. The next day she decided to render a complaint about the bacchanal she had encountered — if that were what she wanted, she could save $1,000 a month and set up a laptop on a curb in the meatpacking district on a Friday at midnight.
But where or to whom would one deliver a grievance? WeWork makes it easier to speak with a human being than other innovators born of the Silicon Valley ethos that talking on the phone is as crude an anachronism as cleaning your girdle with a washboard, but it is still not a simple matter. When my friend finally reached someone at the company, she was greeted solicitously and told she could have a desk on another part of the floor away from the offending fraternity. But moving a woman around to accommodate male misbehavior felt like a solution Roger Sterling would have come up with during the second season of “Mad Men.” Disillusioned, she left and sought another arrangement.
The co-working revolution has offered as one of its lures the blurred distinction between work life and private life, but it is precisely the obscuring of those boundaries — in Hollywood, in the restaurant industry, in theater and so on — that created the opportunities for harassment and abuse over and over again in the first place: the meetings called in hotel rooms, the research projects conducted at country houses, the bathrobes as uniforms.
WeWork’s website features a page titled “What Is WeWork’s Beer Keg Policy?” an idea that presumably has no analog at Proctor & Gamble. The policy, in fact, allows for kegs to be open on weekdays until approximately 9:30 p.m., but insists that they close on weekends “as they are intended to be a workplace amenity.”
As people become their own brands, in the nonsense argot of the new economy, as work increasingly happens anywhere and everywhere, disaggregated from institutions and hierarchies and protocols that can offer various protections and clear channels of recourse, the policing of harassment will face new challenges. Already many women have chosen to bypass the air-hockey subculture of conventional co-working facilities for all-female alternatives like The Wing in New York or Rise Collaborative in St. Louis. They are tired of men and their predations and inefficiencies.
In so many ways the virtue capitalists who have built the sharing economy on the premise that they are making the world a more just and equitable place, as they generate billions of dollars for themselves, have simply delivered more of the status quo. A report, soon to be released from McGill University’s School of Urban Planning, shows just who is and who is not benefiting from the income streams produced by Airbnb.
Titled “The High Cost of Short-Term Rentals in New York City,” the study is one of several that have examined the impact of Airbnb on affordable housing in various cities over the years. Looking at data covering the period from September 2014 to August of last year, it highlights just how unevenly revenue is distributed among hosts in New York City. Last year the top 10 percent of hosts earned 48 percent of all revenue. This amounted to $318 million. The bottom 80 percent earned just 32 percent, or $209 million.
In response, Christopher Nulty, head of public affairs for Airbnb, said that the study’s methodology was faulty, that the authors maintained “an anti-home-sharing bias'’ (the study was paid for by the hotel industry), and that the company supports legislation that would restrict home sharing by landlords to a single home. The study lands at a moment, though, when a landlord in the Chelsea section of Manhattan has just been hit with a lawsuit by the city for turning a four-story walk-up building into an illegal hotel, using Airbnb, and taking rent-stablized apartments away from tenants.
And in New York, as the debate about congestion pricing has intensified, it has become very clear that the proliferation of ride-hailing apps has, in fact, caused a great deal more traffic. Midtown speeds have slowed to an average 4.7 mph from 6.5 mph five years ago. There are now 103,000 for-hire cars operating in the city, and a report issued late last year found that cars operating as part of ride-hailing services average 11 minutes of unoccupied time between dropping one passenger off and picking up another. The comparable time for yellow taxis is eight minutes. Think about that the next time you want to Uber your way to that no-cash fast-food place with locally grown and sustainable everything.