Essays on Technology and Culture

The Future of Public Infrastructure in the “Sharing Economy”

In her latest Metafoundry newsletter, Deb Chachra wrote a bit about her, and others, fascination with infrastructure:

“I think it’s in part of a reaction to the atomization of technology. So much of new technology–and certainly media coverage of it–seems to be focused on making individual lives better while our common infrastructure decays. Uber instead of public transit. Airbnb instead of affordable housing. MOOCs instead of publicly-funded higher education. Spending time with infrastructure is reminding myself that it was once possible to work collectively for the shared good, something we need to figure out how to do again (and globally) if we are going to address planetary-scale problems like anthropogenic climate change.”

I’m not an infrastructure fanatic—though as my Twitter followers can attest, I love the subway, or at least complaining about it. I can still sympathize with Deb’s point of view. It nestles nicely with a recent piece in The Atlantic on the real sharing economy. This means organizations like tool lending libraries, Baltimore’s free book store, car sharing instead of “ride sharing,” and—of course—infrastructure. Or, to quote a quote from the Atlantic article: “When I think about the true sharing economy, I see libraries, parks, and common roads.” Exactly the opposite of the stuff getting all the press and VC funding.

People have long complained about technology’s isolating effect on us, especially in the age of the smartphone. I’ve been long skeptical of that attitude, but there is a real isolation problem in technology. It’s narrowed the scope of ideas away from things that benefit everyone to thing that benefit individuals. And not just any individuals—individuals with money, access to personal technology, and the privilege to not worry about the people providing their services. I’m including myself in this group too, by the way.

I don’t think we’re quite heading for a future where Uber is going to rip up the subway lines like what happened to the Los Angeles street car system in the ’40s and 50s. We are in a present, however, where spending money, private and public alike, on things for the common good is passé. Not everything needs to be a profit center after all, and solving problems on a global scale—the ones you can’t solve by another on-demand service startup—aren’t going to make anyone any money.

Maybe I should get into infrastructure tourism. Might as well see it while it lasts.