Aug. 09–Dispatch from the future in which we increasingly live: Tech companies that build new ways of connecting people, that build up billion-dollar valuations promising never-before-imagined possibilities — including, ahem, eventual profits for investors — are ultimately companies like any other. While their core mission can be admirable and elegant, the laws of men and gravity apply to them, too. And should.
I say this one who damn near fetishizes my device and the slick apps that live on it. I spend too much time on Twitter. I have used Airbnb. I've summoned Ubers and Lyfts, and even tried one or two of those services committed to disrupting wash-and-fold laundry. I'm fairly sure my Amazon Prime habits have single-handedly wounded if not killed a few brick-and-mortar stores.
I part from the sourpusses who claim that companies cynically wrap themselves in the armor of innovation while actually and uniformly leading a race to the bottom, shredding job protections and benefits, helping money-men profit on the backs of the little guy, vacuuming up our personal information and laughing all the way to the bank. As a general rule, I like companies that try to create new models and do big things. I think the ones that thrive do so for a reason, because they strike a chord and add value to people's lives.
But to recognize and even celebrate what people wielding technology have brought us cannot mean giving their companies unfettered license to run roughshod over norms and laws. It's the responsibility of the rest of us at the very least to keep careful track of the eggs that get broken on the way to cooking the omelettes, if not to do more.
New York City this week is tapping the brakes on app-hail vehicles that, at a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 a month, have joined what were already pretty crowded streets. The 80,000 Uber, Lyft, Via and other cars that have fairly suddenly showed up, dwarfing the 13,000 yellow taxis, have been a godsend for New Yorkers who live in parts of the city underserved or unserved by public transit, and typically ignored by street-hail cabs that for generations ruled the roads.
But with the indisputable good has come some undeniable bad: Many cars are cruising empty. Drivers, both of yellow cabs and app-hail cars, are increasingly unable to make ends meet as they claw for customers. Yellow medallion values have plummeted, leaving too many taxi owner-operators holding the bag on huge loans, while overextended immigrants working for Uber and shouldering all the costs themselves have found it tougher and tougher to hack it. Street congestion, especially in Manhattan, is ever-hotter hell.
So a package of bills that passed the City Council will pause the growth — unless the companies want to add wheelchair-accessible vehicles (their fleets as currently comprised have virtually none) — for up to a year, while the city tries to figure out what to do. Ultimately, the regulators might impose a hard overall cap, or a cap on app-hail cars in parts of the city, with limitations lifted elsewhere.
The howls have come: Mayor de Blasio and his progressive Council allies are dangerously overreaching, and screwing the very people they claim to care about. They're just doing the bidding of the yellow cab millionaires. The market can and should figure all this out.
Actually, there's a balance to be struck here, and nobody should go to the barricades arguing that in a dense city of bridges, where public roads are a precious resource, no number of Ubers and Lyfts could possibly be too large.
Balance: Imagine that. The same idea should apply to Airbnb and its ilk, the apps that make it easier than ever to turn your apartment — the one you rent from its owner, I mean, under strict lease terms — into a room for rent by visitors.
Thousands of New Yorkers make millions of dollars on the side opening their apartments to tourists. This seems perfectly healthy to me. When an actress gets a job on a touring company, why shouldn't she be able to sublet her apartment and cover her costs? When a teacher has the summer off, why shouldn't he be able to make enough money to pay for hotel rooms (or Airbnbs) on his European vacation?
But, oops, it's illegal under New York law to rent most apartments for less than 30 days, carrying large fines. It's illegal now even to advertise such listings. And some landlords warehouse apartments and turn them, or even whole buildings, into year-round illegal hotels. In a city with a housing shortage, that's no good. Airbnb says it systematically rooting out the worst actors, but that's debatable.
So the City Council again asked the disruptor to take a deep breath, requiring them to hand over their listings, confidentially, to the government.
I don't want the teacher or actor or business traveler to get huge fines; that may technically be legal, but it's unjust, just as unfairly selective enforcement of criminal laws is. But who can blame the people charged with enforcing the law for trying to enforce the law, and go after people wantonly flouting it, taking precious apartments off the market?
Again, echoing the claim that this is all about entrenched, big-money interests threatened by innovation, opponents howl that the Council is just doing the bidding of the powerful hotel industry and its unions. There's some truth to that, but illegal hotels are an actual problem.
I was going to get to communications disruptors and their public responsibility in an era when poisonous lies spread faster than California wildfires: Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc., have obvious obligations if not to the law, to common decency, as they collect and control more and more of our data and the public conversation.
But I'm nearly 1,000 words into this thing. Though disruptors who replaced print with pixels have made it possible for me to go on and on, nobody, for better or worse, has yet to reinvent the human attention span.