So Sam Biddle never has anything nice to say about anybody. (“Come sit by me!”) But this article calling out Lyft for being an insane, delusional idea that could only work in a start-up fantasy world isn’t sharply worded enough.
Monetizing the sharing economy is a crazy-dangerous idea, and the news about the disasters so far has been mild. When the SF AirBnB apartment-trashing scandal happened, the parts that shocked me were the stupidity and naivete of the girl who rented out an apartment full of treasured personal things to strangers and the lack of business savvy in in the CEOs who did such crappy damage control.
I wasn’t even remotely surprised that her place and others’ had been trashed. I grew up in Manhattan; I was a kid in the ’70s. If it wasn’t nailed down, it was taken; if it was nailed down it was set on fire. People had steel-core doors with police locks and steel gates over every window. Gangs roamed Central Park at night with masonry tools just so they could chip the heads off stone doves at Bethesda Terrace. All strangers were presumed to be berserker cannibals until proven otherwise.
I have carried this worldview across America, first to the Twin Cities where four years as a courtroom artist taught me that bad people are lazy opportunists and you are simply more likely to be robbed, raped and killed if you don’t lock your windows. Then to DC, where private security patrolled Georgetown and Marion Barry, Mayor For Life, had just begun a fourth term on the Crack & Sex Workers Platform. And finally to the Bay Area, where having your car window smashed when you go to a club is referred to as the “SoMa Tax”. I do not believe in human decency as a reliable resource. I think “people are basically good at heart” is only a safe default position if you live in an armored car.
So when I heard that the hot new apps were all about sharing, I cringed. Couchsurfing.com bothered me plenty, but at least it wasn’t driven by profit. There was much less incentive to falsify. When the enterprise stepped in to monetize acts of kindness, it got really scary. People loaning their homes to strangers, getting in a stranger’s car, and going to a stranger’s home for dinner – this could only result in exposure to opportunistic predators. And it would be in the interest of the startups that were monetizing sharing to suppress reports of bad actors in their system.
It would also be in the interests of the startups to avoid consequences for the actions of bad actors in their systems. The article quoted below is by attorney Christopher B. Dolan, part of a two-part series on the risks of ridesharing for both passengers and drivers. It’s clear that the startups have neither parties’ back.
“Read Sidecar’s and Lyft’s terms of service. In my opinion they are detestable. In Sidecar’s terms, in at least four places it says it will bear no responsibility for your injury or death. This is true even if you are attacked or raped by the driver, injured because of defective maintenance, or hurt because the driver is high or drunk.”
There is absolutely no denying San Francisco’s transit situation is broken, and has been since horse-drawn carriages were sliding down Nob Hill. The “subway” is expensive and virtually useless and shuts down at midnight (did I mention I’m from New York?), the unreliability of the buses is legend, and you can’t get a taxi to save your life. But that doesn’t mean you should voluntarily expose yourself to – I’ll say it again – opportunistic predators. Especially so that startup CEOs can profit off your risks.
A person getting into the front seat of a stranger’s personal vehicle, in a situation that has been framed with false intimacy (fist-bump greeting!) is extremely vulnerable. Not just legally, although reading the Lyft and Sidecar TOS will chill your blood. (Short version: you have no rights.) But emotionally. Women particularly are socialized to be friendly and not make waves. When the person in the driver’s seat crosses a social boundary, the passenger who’s already greeted that driver as if they were a friend has very limited recourse.
For many people, breaking the social strictures against confronting a friend or acquaintance for bad behavior is very difficult. The situation has been set up in a way that makes enforcing boundaries harder. And once boundaries have been violated, it’s a slippery slope. Here’s a great article on the risks of ridesharing in the Chronicle.
Let’s also talk about the fact that the driver of the car you’re in is not someone you want to upset. A Larry Niven story from the pre-carjacking ’70s called “The Deadlier Weapon” taught me something very important.
Calling these apps “peer-to-peer rideshare platforms” makes it sound like you’re using Napster. However, the folks you shared files with on Napster didn’t have your address. They didn’t know where you worked. They thought they were your online buddies at most- they didn’t think they were your friends with cars. They never had a chance to hold a knife to your throat.
Please, naive twenty-somethings who’ve just moved to San Francisco from cowtown, don’t take Lyft or Sidecar because it’s cool. Don’t take Lyft or Sidecar without mace and basic self-defense skills (Impact Bay Area is a great program). Better yet, carpool with an actual friend. Sure, most of the time you’re just as safe as in a taxi. But why add to the statistical burden of risk your lifetime bears so a CEO can buy another Tesla?
“But the big risk of Silicon Valley’s good vibes utopia delusion is that the person playing the role of your friend with a car isn’t your friend. You’re not their buddy—you’re a paying hitchhiker with a smartphone. The world as described in a startup elevator pitch, wherein everyone can share everyone’s car or apartment without risk is a fantasy.”
this post originally appeared on the T324 blog.