This fall saw the completion of my first transcontinental road trip: a two-month jaunt out of San Francisco that took me and my girlfriend along the snaking coastlines of Oregon and Washington and into the sylvan quietude of Vancouver, B.C., then on a cannonball run across the Midwest and the Great Lakes to Philadelphia, D.C., and New York City. From the brilliantly colored, chlorophyll-starved forests of the Northeast, we made our way to the very opposite edge—Halifax, Nova Scotia—and returned through the major cities of Canada, Detroit, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to deliver ourselves back to the Bay. Beyond having had the chance to see how corporate hegemony has homogenized vast swaths of the country—depressing, a little, to drive thousands of miles and encounter the same dead-hearted strip malls and chain stores—the trip was instructive in other respects. After we hit Yellowstone, engine problems with the campervan that we originally set out in forced us to swap it for a small Hyundai—losing our sleeping quarters in the process. We would have to avail ourselves of the sharing economy.
AirBnb, Yelp, and Google made this trip possible. I’ve seen writers mourn the loss of spontaneity and reduced potential for “getting lost” thanks to the ubiquity of GPS and these apps. Yet, on this excursion at least, they actually enabled a much larger span of spontaneous choice than we would have had had we plotted out our course on a paper map. We would roll into a city, driving for as long as we felt like, see and eat on a whim what we decided we wanted to see and eat, all located easily, and find a $30 room to sleep in at our leisure. The whole thing was fairly ad hoc. Driving at night, “You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way,” said E.L. Doctorow.
So I was reminded of the manifestly accomplished state of modern conveniences. We were treated to better and more up-to-the-minute service than any concierge or travel agent could provide. But the whole experience was cut with a fundamental weirdness. What effects might the proliferation of “sharing” services have on our networks of communal bonds, already threadbare in late-capitalist America? Using AirBnb to puddle-jump across the country meant arriving at a stranger’s house—for us, usually in the dead of night—sometimes greeting our hosts, sometimes seeing nothing of them, and entering the province of the nuclear family: the sacred homestead. People claim the right to shoot and kill those who transgress these boundaries. Yet here we were tiptoeing to an upper bedroom, passing whole lives on display. In Minneapolis, we stayed in the home of a Mormon family. The father is a C/B radio hobbyist, and they have two teenaged children. The younger daughter rides horses, and the son plays baseball. I know this not because I talked to them but because I saw the Book of Mormon on the shelves and the radio set in the den and the pictures on the walls. We passed our host parents once in the kitchen on our way out and exchanged quick pleasantries; that was it. We slept in what was clearly once a childhood bedroom.
It was a jarring consensual intrusion, mediated through an app and through, at some level, the priorities of the corporation. We were allowed to enter into this short-term contract by virtue of our high star ratings. Our options were certainly expanded, too, by the lily-white faces in our profile pictures. Contraposed with the nights we stayed with friends, our AirBnb experiences were a strange intersection of social norms—the intimate leavened with the alienating. Friends gave us a bed or a couch based on mutual trust. The quid quo pro of AirBnb more resembled the mutually interested, transactional interactions of a job fair or networking event.
We entered, as when we trundled into a suburban home on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, under the aegis of a corporate, data-facilitated service architecture. I am not a service worker; I am a new agent of this dispossessed “gig economy” landscape. I am a service customer. Greeting the hosts at the door is, in a subterranean way, a weird and hollow facsimile of greeting a friend as you arrive. We recognize each other’s profile pictures and haltingly test out each other’s names. There is the implicit acknowledgment of the circumstances of our appearance. We’re paying you 40-odd dollars, cleaning and service fees pre-factored. We’re staying for one night only, if that—more like a seven-hour stretch.
I think about the night we spent in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the house of a Laotian immigrant who cared for her baby daughter as strangers tramped in and out through her kitchen. Our visit was certainly helping her in some way: a little extra cash for her family, minus the company’s cut, of course. I wanted to reach out and talk to her for longer than we did, to learn about her experience in the Twin Cities, so removed from her home country. But since we weren’t visiting as friends or family, or for any reason other than practicality, the air felt stilted. I regret to say that I also abjectly failed to befriend our hosts on the other occasions when they were present; our schedule and my own inwardness precluded opportunities for engagement. And perhaps it was only the nature of our fast burn across the continent and the quick and pragmatic necessity behind our bookings, but all our stays had a distinct finality. When we walked out the door of a strange man’s strange home in small-town Nebraska, we knew we would never, ever return.
As profit snakes its way into all our enclaves of the personal, we become consumers moving through dehumanized spaces instead of participants in the reverie of communality.
What services will our hosts provide? Some are mandated by AirBnb in advance: towels, soap, fresh linens, a certain window of response time on the app. In the service economy we feel more than accustomed to—entitled to, really—deferential treatment from uniformed workers. But there is something deeper, something more ridden with despair, about seeing the linens and soaps laid out for you by a person who is only half-phased into your awareness—there and not there, their hope for a high rating reified in these offerings of comfort, however meager and mandatory. In stripping the exchange of humanity, its humanity is somehow laid bare. We too strove to leave everything as it should be, or better, fussing over the pillows, taking extra care—both for the sake of consideration and decency and with our star rating in mind. To please the metrics of corporate architecture, all gestures are more glaringly cut with obsequiousness, all motives if not suspect then at least playing out in a context altered by the transactional. A society armed with the means of quantified rebuke is a polite society, perhaps, but a cold and nervous one.
It might seem that this experience is not all that distinct from renting a hotel room—systematized, impersonal. And it isn’t, except that the depersonalized mode of the hotel is transplanted into private homes and the affairs of individuals. Unless both guests and hosts are invested in returning a human touch to the interaction (by engaging in conversation beyond the barest of pleasantries, during activities like, say a meal), then the private sphere of the home will have its terms dictated by the financialized priorities of a massive corporation.
What are the historical precedents for responding to a more-or-less anonymous posting, capitulating to a predetermined financial arrangement, meeting at, often (though not always) someone’s home and private space, where they have cooked, slept, had sex, raised children, worked and commuted, wept and cursed, fought, hugged, screamed, laughed, scrubbed and cleaned, entertained, lived vicariously, died slowly? You see the residue and detritus of a life collected. The house has surely seen its share of “service”: the plumbers and exterminators and housekeepers that have been invited in under the aegis of a for-profit enterprise, with implicit trust consequently conferred upon them. But those arrangements were a goal-directed quid quo pro, with predefined social boundaries and expected behaviors. In the ersatz hotel, the transgression of private space is part of the goal. You are not the first outsider that has slept in this bed and pissed in this toilet. But you are, maybe, at least one of the first few to have entered this constellation of memories and unwritten records on the invitation of an external and alien entity: the blank-faced corporation.
Private spaces—homes, cars—have been interpolated by the sharing economy’s business model. Of course, this model isn’t about “sharing” at all, but is instead symptomatic of the metastisization of capital: corporations provide the interface through which we monetize our private holdings, if we have them. As profit snakes its way into all our enclaves of the personal, we become consumers moving through dehumanized spaces instead of participants in the reverie of communality. So the whole process leaves a bland, if not bad, taste in the mouth. If you do meet your host, there’s an underlying sense that the two of you are just parties to some larger process that hovers in the ether, suffusing the dwelling. All the trappings of bonhomie and organic private life are denuded, rendered as little more than marketing objects to attract more clicks. The intimacy of sleeping on a family’s bed and touching their possessions, but with the grounding emotional context adumbrated and replaced with the data machinations of a distant server.
On AirBnb-hosted nights, social metrics of familiarity were outsourced. Just as Google Maps has become substitute for our proprioception, our sense of direction and place, social “capital” (for lack of a better term) is now attained and processed remotely. Strained through a UX framework and quantified. The decentralized interface that facilitates payment, collects (and mines) data about experiences, and mitigates disputes while discouraging organic communication is a far cry from the traditional B&B, where these transactions necessitate at least some level of face-to-face guest-to-host interaction.
All this, of course, is only the latest culmination of our long trends in social commodification. The preponderance of corporate priorities in our cultural messaging has engendered a deep atomization, a world of circumscribed aloneness. Like the expanding universe, we are not growing “into” any outer territory—it is only that the space between each individual node that deepens. Capitalism is profoundly skilled at generating a problem and selling a solution. “Sharing economy” services like AirBnb and Uber are monetizing our societal dissolution, positioning themselves as the patches for our tattered social fabric to turn a profit. The decline of American community networks, as documented in Robert Putnam’s seminal Bowling Alone, has opened up lacunae wherein corporations might take up residence in order to transactionalize the formerly organic. “Sharing,” after all, is quite the euphemism. AirBnb is more like a colonization of the family home by market interests.
Is AirBnb a winning proposition for renter, guest, and corporation alike? Or do its mechanisms on a broader level make up a zero-sum game, where, even as individual consumers and profiteers win, something larger is lost? Some inscrutable externality hedging against the prospect of a better world? The conversion of housing stock into short-term rental spaces, the increasing prevalence of the pieds-à-terres of the rich, and the corresponding rent crises, felt particularly acutely in my native Bay Area, would indicate as such. On more insular emotional terrain, it remains to be seen what effects might be felt as a result of the unsettling shifts that commodification inscribes into our lives. But this much is clear: subjugating an ever-increasing percentage of our affairs to market logic creates a kind of affective erosion. A renegotiation of terms, a financialization of social contracts. We might throw up our hands in the face of the market’s titanic scale and reach, and the grinding logic of capital might further its territorial gains. Or we might locate, within ourselves and each other, sites within which to reclaim something of our commonality, our unmotivated generosity, and the warmth that underlies the offer to a stranger of a good night’s rest. ♦
Tyler Walicek is the co-editor-in-chief of Protean Magazine.