All hail the micro-entrepreneur?

A ‘sharing economy’ means that we can have it all – but we may miss out on the thrill of the unexpected

Not two years ago, London’s black-cab drivers faced a threat that they knew might ultimately prove existential, and that threat was known by two sinister words: Addison Lee. The private-hire market has always challenged the capital’s more traditional taxis, but the ubiquity of the branded people-carrier made it a more ominous presence than any before. If you ever wanted a soothing rant to ease your passage home after a long night out, all you had to do was mention to a cabbie that you had been about to call an Addy Lee instead. The invective would wash you to your front door.

Addison Lee is still a problem it’s true, but I suspect that cabbies now feel about it roughly as the Amazonian tree ocelot did about coyotes after the first loggers turned up. The Addisonian coyote, after all, is just a part of the circle of life: you might not like it, but you may reluctantly accept that it is an inevitability. But the loggers are another thing entirely. They presage a new world. And for taxi drivers, the loggers, all of a sudden, are Uber.

It’s not just Uber: there’s a plethora of new-ish smartphone apps that will bring a driver to your door in minutes. But Uber is, appropriately enough, the problem’s most extreme expression. Uber connects customers to freelance drivers, who can work as they choose, with tremendous efficiency. And whereas other private-hire cars are held back by regulations which mean that only black cabs get to use a meter instead of quoting a price in advance, Uber has found a (fairly controversial) way round the problem. Uber’s drivers don’t have a meter in the car, exactly, but the company’s server tracks the duration and distance of their journey, and then charges a fee accordingly. Uber, a taxi driver told me last week, is “eating this business alive”.

The cabbies are trying to fight back, and this week they launched private prosecutions against a number of Uber drivers over the meter issue. And who knows? Maybe they’ll win that fight. But Uber’s argument, that the regulation of most taxi markets is based on a model that smartphones have made irrelevant, seems credible. And it’s hard to escape the feeling that whatever bumps might be in the road, Uber is an idea that has fundamentally changed things, and that sooner or later, the black cab as we know it will be extinct.

This is a pretty remarkable upheaval. It’s far from confined to London, or the taxi business. Uber is part of an establishment-shattering class of disruptors, to use an obnoxious term, that rely on the sharing economy, to use another one. There are businesses such as airbnb, which thumbs its nose at the hotel business by connecting tourists to spare rooms, and TaskRabbit, a kind of bespoke personal assistant service that finds someone to do your laundry or type up your notes. They all propose to remove the middle man, but even that’s sort of old hat: eBay and the like have been doing it for years. What’s new is the promise to exploit spare capacity with a structure that means that anyone can be a business – to ensure that the unoccupied seat in the car, or the half hour you’re kicking your heels when you finish work early, do not go to waste. There’s an obnoxious term for this, too: the advent of the micro-entrepreneur.

This is happening; it’s unstoppable. But I’m not sure we’ve really thought enough about what it means yet. And, although I am addicted to all this kind of tech, I’m not sure that its consequences are an unalloyed good.

I guess the sharing economy, or a version of it, became inevitable from the moment that Steve Jobs presented the first iPhone. To state the obvious, the smartphone’s seductive appeal lies in an implicit promise: you can have everything right with you. In whatever terms, the attraction of each new iteration of Apple’s phone or one of its rivals boils down to a simple addendum: it just got even more convenient. And this has psychological consequences as well as practical ones. Every time I’m at dinner and someone looks up the name of an actor that none of us can quite remember, I have the same thought: put together the technology behind Siri, Google Glass, and ultrafast mobile broadband, and in 20 years – or sooner – I will simply be able to say “why do I recognise that guy in Game of Thrones?”, and get an answer in my ear instantaneously. At this point, it becomes hard to tell the difference between your brain and the internet. The phrase “on the tip of my tongue” is an anachronism. Knowledge is merely a party trick.

Immediacy is the crux of the spare capacity that the social economy seeks to exploit: the ability to fill a deficit the second you spot it. The results have a deeply satisfying efficiency to them. If you want, your routine can be built around a sort of cyberpunk version of Wallace and Gromit’s domestic contraptions: your phone will wake you if you ask it politely, your chauffeured car will arrive at the push of a button, and the new favourite album to soundtrack your luxurious commute will be chosen by an algorithm that knows you better than the NME ever did. Thus we are able to live an almost frictionless life, our chores dissolved into games, our problems rewritten as tricks.

All of this sounds terribly dehumanised. And yet, curiously enough, people are at the heart of it: if the social economy really does take over, we’ll all be dealing with each other – that is, with people who aren’t reading out a marketing script – more than ever before. This is surely a good thing. Why, then, do I pre-emptively miss the friction already? Why do I feel that a world where you never have to wait for a cab in the rain is a little less fun? Rain isn’t so great, and neither is waiting.

Except this: both rain and waiting have the capacity to remake your day in ways that you might not have expected – to pull you back inside for another drink, or to push you on to the night bus. I’m reminded, again, of the answer that’s on the tip of your tongue. For as long as it stays there, the conversation continues, and wanders who knows where. When you know it right away, what’s to talk about?

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