Parts of this post were written for my Libr 287 – Hyperlinked Library course I took in the Fall of 2013.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, there's been a lot of talk about taxis vs "rideshare" services like Uber or Lyft. Uber and Lyft allow members to download the app, call up a driver, and pay on a donation-based fee structure. The drivers are anyone with a car who work on a contract basis.
I think it relates quite closely to the intriguing conversations we're having about library services, hyperlinked communities, and our future. In particular, I'm talking about the article "From community to technology...and back again" by Dave Grey. Grey's article speaks of the present and future, when "Rather than waiting for a centralized technology to come along—think of railroads, highways, radio and TV—groups can reach out and take advantage of services and resources that allow them more freedom, more flexibility, more connections, more ways to configure their networks." In the Uber sense, it's people being able to both work for and use this service with low barriers.
There are certainly benefits to this system - it's more affordable, anyone with a car can access the work, and it meets people's needs for a quick, cheap ride. It's described and touted as being under the net of sharing and networked communities. However, in an article on Grist, Susie Cagle says "And the techies and 'sharing' boosters point out that ridesharing allows us to 'leverage excess idle capacity' — that is, fill empty seats — and therefore operate more efficiently. But let’s be honest about this 'excess idle capacity' thing. Ridesharing may be a peer-to-peer economy — moderated by middlemen — but this is not really sharing." Cagle goes on to show that these companies are offering a job, in an economy, with a fee-based service, which shows that: "...so far, this part of the “sharing economy” looks less like an altruistic act, and more like a shadow service industry with few consumer or worker protections" (Susie Cagle, Grist). How is earning money from a service an altruistic act?
The next step is about labor as well as the future of the social safety net. Unlike cabbies, who are required to be properly trained, insured, and meet environmental regulations, Uber and Lyft drivers just aren't. Of course their overhead is lower - the risk for Uber and Lyft, because their workers are contracted, temporary, and work on their own hours, is so low. This isn't to say that cab companies are wonderful employers who empower their workers with full benefits and labor rights (not at all), which in this case seems to be part of the problem. Few are willing to fight for the preservation of the cab companies because they haven't made themselves near and dear to particularly many people.
With these app-based, flexible, and temporary ridesharing services, I also wonder about what the future is supposed to look like. Are we simply hoping to replace cabs and buses with ridesharing? If the criticism is that these systems don't work, and the solution is an app from private companies, I wonder about the long-term vision in transportation. I personally would rather have a thriving public transit system with secure and safe jobs for drivers and affordable fares for riders, and I don't think that the competition from these private companies will necessarily help create that solution.
This relates to the library as well. As we seek to be tech savvy, on-trend, and mobile, are we falling into the games of the uneven playing field of information professionals? Gray says "Companies will have to be more responsive to customer needs and demands if they want to survive." And being competitive means cutting costs - perhaps less unions, less full time, more temporary part-time on-call? As we seek to be improve our services, I think it's important to be watchful for mindsets which are destructive to uninvited idea guests that tag along with the good ones. This includes having a long-term vision for our services, not a short-sighted "solutionism." Evgeny Morozov, a tech critic, says “solutionism” is when the technology is seen as a means to an end, and problems seen as only something to fix in the cheapest, fastest, and most profitable way. I think that leads to the roots of those problems being obscured, and with it our citizen’s power to make deep and structural change.
An example in the library might be public safety in and outside. Say a branch is having trouble with young people in a tough neighborhood. One solution might be to call the police, remove and ban the suspected youth, advocate for a youth curfew and install surveillance. Clear problem, clear solution, right? Nope, I would totally disagree. When you look at the research, and see how directly connected public safety issues are to giving young people a place to hang out, be educated, have mentors, and follow their interests, it seems that a different tactic can be taken. By improving library services to youth, connecting with other youth organizations to provide quality school and after-school experiences, decreasing punitive measures and increasing restorative measures, root causes can be dealt with in creative, effective, and long-lasting ways. And, when the library is seen as a positive force worth fighting for (unlike cab companies), the people who use the library will stand by us when those root causes for problems affect us too.
As a public service, that has the opportunity to be a positive force for social change, that offers services for free in a country that most often does no such thing, we have to stand by these ideas and find ways to use technology in an empowering way. Technology shouldn't find simple solutions for us, or replace us or our services - but they can assist us in creating solutions to root problems (or even just help us deal with our to-do lists).
PS. By the way - cab companies are adapting as well...
PPS. Eli Neiburger believes that libraries just need to position themselves to be valuable in the new digital world.
"Anticipating a day when the app-storification of the entire content industry is complete, the library might be the only place left willing to pay real money for content, provided it’s on our terms. When most basic content is distributed at prices below the impulse threshold, library licenses might be the only up-front money available once the speculative advance business finishes flaming out."
"Libraries can diversify their value to their communities, continue to develop circulating collections of physical items that bring unique value to their communities, and aggregate the buying power of the community to keep independent artists producing good stuff for a real, paying audience"