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Does anybody still care about the rising of the ‘sharing economy’?

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Things are looking good for Uber.

The ride-hailing company has operated in something of a legal grey zone since its Australian launch in 2012: drivers for its UberX service do not have the accreditation usually required for commercial drivers and, while the laws have not been heavily enforced, they have cast a faint pall over the activities of the American giant.

Last month, however, South Australia brought Uber into the regulatory fold for a small fee of $1 per ride, and on Wednesday a Victorian man successfully appealed a $900 fine for working as an Uber driver, which in effect legitimates the business.

But who are we kidding? Things are always looking good for Uber, and not just in Australia. The company is valued at $62.5 billion and runs drivers in 400 cities around the world. It provides a service that is often superior in many respects (price, convenience, safety) to existing taxis, regulations be damned, and the punters love it.

On the other side of the equation – i.e. the supply side – they have succeeded by making it easier for individuals to sell something they already have (in this case, the use of their car and their ability to drive it). This is the same model that has been hugely successful for eBay (with old clothes and furniture and what-not) and Airbnb (with spare rooms and granny flats and other unused spaces).

The question of why so many people need to sell so much goes unasked. Airbnb advertises with a glowing couple saying, “Our guest room is paying for our wedding”; they don’t mention the people whose guest rooms are paying the mortgage.

Uber may well be good for drivers individually, at least in the short term. Some would argue that Uber even functions as a sort of unemployment insurance scheme. (This is the kind of argument that leads to the whittling away of the welfare state, but people – even former Labor parliamentarians – make it nonetheless.) The broader social costs and effects of large-scale Uber adoption on low-wage employment will probably be huge.

None of this is really new, or really news. I bring it up because, as we struggle on through a dreary election campaign which is itself not much more than a skirmish in our cultural forever war, we can forget that the economic and social topography of the ground we fight on is constantly being reshaped by much larger forces that frequently go unmentioned.

The question of whether this is good or bad never seems to come up. Our politicians don’t really seem up to the scale of the disruption. The ALP says “the sharing economy has come about through people making better use of their spare rooms, the empty seats in their cars and their unused tools”. The Liberals are interested in “a new and more diverse economy – fuelled by innovation, the opening of new markets and more investment in Australian enterprise”.

We have already implicitly agreed that new markets are inherently good, that earning money from our spare rooms is a better use of them. When technology extends new and finer tendrils into our lives, we have no arguments to turn them back. So what if those new markets will bloom in our spare bedrooms, in the passenger seats of our cars, in our ever-scarcer idle moments?

Criticisms of the sharing economy – any criticisms deeper than regulatory tinkering, at least – amount to criticisms of capitalism, and they are unlikely to get much of a run in mainstream conversation any time soon. Uber and Airbnb are the future, along with whoever finds the next social convention to prise open with an app so that we can all feast on the goo inside. One glimmer of good news: finding the next place to do it may not be easy

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.

@MmichaelLlucy

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