(Photo by Andrew Zaleski)
Edward Ericson Jr., the bearded, bespectacled Baltimore City Paper staff writer, took the stage just after 5 p.m. during the final session of Friday’s TEDxBaltimore event to pose three questions. When confronted with any problem:
- Do you ignore it?
- Do you try to solve it?
- Or do you exploit it to turn a profit?
When it comes to the tech industry — the Silicon Valley world of buzzwords, startups, apps and venture capital — the answer is seemingly always No. 3, Ericson argued. And nowhere in the myriad realm of innovation is that exploitation carried out better than in the “sharing economy.”
As he told the crowd of hundreds still remaining in the auditorium of Morgan State University’s fine arts center: The sharing economy is “predicated on the idea that there’s always going to be a huge pool of people who are willing to work desperate hours for no pay and no benefits.”
Ericson’s precise beef is with ridesharing services Uber and Lyft, both of which have been available in Baltimore city since 2013. (And, at least in Uber’s case, involved in a protracted war with state regulators.) In a reasoned argument that was both incisive and self-effacing, Ericson’s essential allegation is that technological progress of the kind Uber and Lyft have exploited is really just an upending of the social compact that ensures people can earn a decent salary to get by, have a life, maybe raise a family, and retire comfortably.
“To some people in the tech industry, civilization is an obstacle,” he said. “Innovation is progress, minus the Enlightenment.”
What is the cost of the sharing economy? #TEDxBaltimore
— Kim Robinson (@kimalade) January 30, 2015
Ridesharing services, in this context, are only possible today because their business models have “nothing to do” with workers making a living.
Observe the language employed by ridesharing services, Ericson said: Their “driver-partners” are “micro-entrepreneurs” who are “building businesses.” By the way, we’ll take 20 percent of what you earn, flood the streets with drivers to drive down fares, and provide zero benefits for you.
Ericson argued that this makes Uber and Lyft no better than the taxi companies they routinely criticize. After all, the taxi industry began transforming its drivers from full-time employees into independent contractors beginning in the 1970s, ensuring bigger profits for taxi companies at the direct expense of drivers.
It’s not a wholly new insight for Ericson. He previously outlined this beef in a City Paper piece — “The desperate hustle as a way of life” — that went online in early June. (Indeed, it was the reason he was invited to speak at TEDxBaltimore.) Ericson told the crowd the piece received 60,000 views in a couple of days, a figure amounting to 20 times more traffic than the average City Paper blog post.
Now here was Ericson at a TEDx event — arguably the bastion of chummy, buzzword-laden technological back-slapping — to lay down his argument, in verbal form, at the feet of folks probably more likely than anyone in Baltimore city to hitch a ride in the closest Uber or Lyft vehicle.
As Ericson asked at the end of his talk: “What are the sharing economy people choosing, and what are you going to do about it?”