Will Sharing Apps Make Physical Stuff Obsolete?

A blog about business and economics.
April 17 2012 9:19 AM

Will Sharing Apps Make Physical Stuff Obsolete?

In a world where information is scarce it's often helpful to have lots of physical redundancy. If it's hard to find out the answer to the question "where's the closest X" then it pays off to stockpile as much stuff (cars, bikes, power tools, etc.) as possible in your garage. That way you know the answer is always "it's in the garage" and this information is valuable even though most of the stuff isn't being used at any given time. But as information grows more abundant, there's less and less need for physical redundancy:

The brainchild of co-founders Will Dennis and Jeff Noh, a pair of 20-somethings living in New York City, Spinlister is like peer-to-per car-sharing services such as RelayRides, only for bikes. Bike owners snap photos of their two-wheeled trophies and post them to Spinlister’s online marketplace, along with the type of bike, the price per day, and the pick-up location. For those in search of a rental, it’s as simple as punching in their location, selecting the ride they want, making an online payment/reservation via credit card, and coordinating a meet-up time with the bike owner.
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New York and San Francisco are the right place for this business, since they're expensive cities where bicycle storage is costly but they don't have municipal bike-sharing schemes like DC's Capital Bikeshare, Boston's Hubway, or Minneapolis' Nice Ride. What model will prevail seems like an open question to me. But similar sharing logic is bound to eventually overtake the much more significant automobile market. When cars can be piloted by computer software, it will be incredibly wasteful to have the vast majority of them sitting idle the vast majority of the time. Instead could be used like taxis where the goal is for most of the vehicles to be in use most of the time. You'll call for a pickup with an Uber-like app and your ride will show up. And by the same token, it will be cheap and easy to engage in spot-delivery of any kind of useful-but-rarely used device. Over and above the impact of automation, this should provide a further push toward lower levels of employment in both manufacturing and retailing as society as a whole is able to get by with a lower stock of physical objects per person.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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