Our plan was to walk toward the National Mall and visit a few museums along the way, but then we saw the scooters. Two of them were standing on the sidewalk a couple of blocks from the Capitol. I thought they looked abandoned, possibly broken, but Charlie, my then-sixteen-year-old son, with whom I was touring colleges, explained that we could rent them through an app, which he promptly began to download on both our phones. When he asked for my credit card, I turned it over despite a flutter of unease. What kind of business scatters motorized scooters around a city while remaining invisible, inaccessible, and conspicuously uninterested in the outcome of the transactions? Even dealing heroin requires more human involvement.
But the scooters looked fun, and I was with my son, a daredevil who loves to ski and surf and break an arm in return for a good story about an attempted backflip or the like. I wanted to prove to him that I was a sport. I also wanted to pay him back for the day before, when he’d gone with me to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation in the mountains, where the third president theorized about freedom while keeping slaves. Monticello’s main hall, with its painted bison-hide robes and mounted elk horns, had seemed to charm Charlie instantly. I watched his face closely during the guided tour, in that way parents do when they travel with their children to faraway spots of cultural import, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with what I saw. Fascination. Discovery. Attachment to our nation and its story, as corny as that sentiment may sound.
It took me a while to feel steady on my scooter, and Charlie, who’d zoomed out ahead, kept looking back at me in the way that I’d looked at him at Monticello, with eyes full of encouragement and hope. He was having a blast. I could see it in his posture. He slalomed between the pedestrians ahead of us with a grace I was having trouble imitating. I could have used a lesson—oh, well. The people at Lime, the scooter company, seemed to operate under the assumption that riding a motorized blade through crowds of tourists on surfaces of widely varying textures, from smooth concrete to pebbly dirt, was a God-given aptitude, something we were all born with. That’s why the company didn’t make users wear helmets. It “required” helmets, sure, in the form of a statement printed on each scooter and, I assumed, in the fine print of the app, but there was no more heft to this injunction than to the warnings on pillows to keep the tags attached. There was less heft, in fact, since the urge to rip off pillow tags isn’t very strong in most of us. Not so with the urge to cruise along boulevards with the wind in one’s hair and the sunshine on one’s face.
In time, and after some close calls with pushcart vendors and other plodders whom I found myself resenting, I mastered my scooter, as far as I could tell. It was a Sunday and the Mall was crowded, with tour buses parked along the nearby streets and row upon row of food tents erected on the grass, their grills sending up plumes of fatty smoke. There were folk dancers, too, and other entertainers, giving the scene a buzzing, medieval quality that might have been interesting to savor if I’d been able to slow down. And where was Charlie, anyway? Was he absorbing the grandeur of the Mall, even to a small degree? I finally spotted him way off in the distance, near the Washington Monument, stopped beside a path. “Let’s go see the White House,” he said when I caught up, and off we cruised, carefree, exhilarated, racking up abstract charges on my credit card in return for a rush of real excitement.
My character continued to devolve, going from parental to adolescent to something less than that. Before the scooters came into play, I’d announced we would visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum and parts of the Smithsonian Institution, but once I was flying I forgot all that. Those dim halls of memory would always be there, but not so the scooters. When the battery on my unit lost its charge, we used the app to locate new rides, but they were far away. We then tried the app for another company, Bird, and had no luck again. That’s when we saw two girls roll past and dismount in front of a Whole Foods. Since my new scooter was full of juice, I convinced Charlie that we should cross the river and visit Arlington National Cemetery, which would have been out of range had we been walking. On the way, I pulled some shameful stunts, including wedging through a slice of daylight between a strolling young couple eating ice cream. They weren’t expecting me, and then there I was, already pulling away, my back to them, the Lincoln Memorial looming before us all. Had I scared them? Well, what could I do about it now?
Disaster, I should have realized, was not far off.
The first time I heard the expression “the sharing economy” used to characterize the innovations of companies such as Uber, Airbnb, and even Facebook, I sensed the presence of a swindle. Capitalism isn’t about giving; its forte, its very reason to be, is taking. That a term had evolved to mask this fact told me something snaky was going on, but observation yielded only hints of what exactly it might be. For instance, I noticed that the sharing companies took a cool, disembodied, recessive approach to business, almost as though they wished not to get caught doing it. They cultivated public images as empowering, near-revolutionary entities, but otherwise they dissolved into their platforms, brokering deals for goods and services that they hadn’t produced but presumed to have enhanced by rendering them more visible or accessible, like the newspaper articles that Facebook took from the publishers who’d paid for them and gave to its users for free, surrounded by new ads. Like the rooms in people’s houses that Airbnb promoted as cozy lodgings and which, on occasion, turned out to smell of aging dog and resound with clanging, hissing pipes. What could a sleepless customer do? Give a bad rating. Better luck next time.
For consumers, the companies offered real savings, and for those they enlisted as providers—the drivers at Uber and Lyft, say—there was often real money to be earned, at least before the city streets filled up with rivals chasing the same fares. The source of these savings and earnings was not the gods but freedom from the standards and regulations that burdened the taxi industry, which was being cloned and superseded. One essential advantage for the lean, mean sharers was their embrace of insecurity. Instead of offering benefits to drivers, ride-sharing companies sadistically warned them that plans were afoot to sweep them from their non-jobs, replacing them with self-driving vehicles. No pretense was made that automation was avoidable, or even bad. The sharing economy had a different ethos. From pain comes gain, and from gain, new pain. Get used to it.
Some people are refusing to get used to it. Michael Lustig’s experience of the sharing economy turned him into an activist. A writer and media impresario, Lustig is concerned about the effect that short-term rentals are having on housing markets and communities, starting with his own. He lives in Malibu, California, on a road where houses worth tens of millions of dollars abut more affordable multifamily buildings. When I rented there a few years ago, I paid around three thousand dollars a month for an apartment on the beach. I’d pay much, much more today for such a place, Lustig tells me, but he doubts I could obtain a long-term lease, since so many apartments now rent by the night.
“After three years of having three Airbnbs in the building next door to me, with the constant coming and going of strangers, I started to go crazy,” Lustig says. So he did a study of what was happening. He counted the properties on a long stretch of Malibu Road and then searched the addresses on a number of short-term-rental platforms. “I realized that every third house on my street was basically becoming a hotel, and so were sixty percent of the apartments.” What bothered him about this shift was not only the upward pressure on the rents of those who managed to hang on—it was the disappearance of neighborhood feeling. “It used to be four o’clock in the afternoon,” he says, “and there would be fifteen people on the beach getting ready for the sunset.”
Through presentations at public forums and meetings with local officials, Lustig is pressing Malibu to rein in the short-term-rental industry. People who rent space in their own homes for extra income aren’t Lustig’s focus; his targets are the commercial operators who buy up houses and buildings expressly for short-term rentals, thus removing them from the residential market.
“What these companies do,” says Lustig, “is delay, confuse, and try to evade regulations until the point they grow to scale. And then they try to dictate terms.” Lustig believes sharing enterprises are attempting to create what a former Apple executive called reality-distortion fields, referring to the way Steve Jobs blurred awareness of problematic truths with blasts of exaggerated, infectious optimism.
On the way to Arlington Cemetery, Charlie noticed his battery was dying. Since we couldn’t ride double on my scooter, we would either need to separate, which would defeat the whole purpose of the day, or get off and walk, which we weren’t inclined to do, having been spoiled by several hours on wheels. The only other option, which we hastily chose, was to try and find a new scooter and see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier another day, or maybe another year, since our schedule had us leaving town that night.
We fired up our apps and headed back toward the Mall on a vector devised to connect us with a spare unit. I doubted it would still be there when we arrived. A couple of times that afternoon, pedestrians had waved at me and asked whether I might be finished with my ride soon—a sign of unmet demand that rather surprised me. It seemed unlike companies such as Lime and Bird, spawned in an age of Silicon Darwinism, to leave a single dollar on the table. Though maybe their business was growing at a rate that they couldn’t keep up with. My daughter, Maisie, who was living for the summer in Santa Monica, had recently mentioned that the scooters were so thick there that she was uncomfortable using the paved walkways that ran along the beach. Until that day, I hadn’t been able to picture what she meant, but now I pitied her. She was contending, I realized, with jerks like me.
Charlie obtained a fresh scooter and on we rode, powered by the peculiar mania that early-stage sharing-economy innovations stimulate in new customers. The Capitol was back within our sights, marking a successful round-trip tour of the Mall, which I’d experienced chiefly as a racecourse rather than as a shrine to our democracy. Yet I didn’t feel guilty. Quite the opposite. At one point near the White House, I’d called out to Charlie, “Freedom! Don’t you love it?” And I wasn’t joking, either. I was expressing genuine affection for our crazy, half-baked country, with its schemes and gizmos and weird amusements. Jefferson may have been on my mind, in fact. At Monticello on a desk he used was a gimmicky, elaborate device for duplicating handwriting. It reminded me that he was a bit of a mad tinkerer, a pursuer of novelty, a proto-techie. He might have enjoyed a nifty scooter.
My crash was the result of a slight swerve made to avoid a family with little kids. My front wheel hit a ridge on the sidewalk and over I went, my arms straight out like posts and my elbows and shoulders locked. I remember my right cheek striking the ground and thinking my face would crack. Then came the pain. It was mostly in my bones, a ten out of ten, as though long spikes had been driven up my arms. People were talking about me in other languages; I could feel them surrounding me, blocking my air, my light. I felt my consciousness dimming and returning, dimming and returning.
Somehow Charlie walked me back to our hotel, where I lay for hours with bags of ice mounded around my hugely swollen arms. I swallowed some pain pills I keep on hand in case of kidney stone attacks and suffered waves of embarrassment and shame for my selfish, stupid, childish behavior. Blaming the scooter company was pointless. I knew the deal the moment I started riding. In the sharing economy, they take the money, and the risks and responsibilities are yours.