One sunny day this past summer I noticed my teen daughter and her friends, while relaxing poolside in our suburban backyard, placing food delivery orders via their smartphones. I assumed they were just calling in a to-go order and that one of them would go pick it up.
I was surprised to see, however, less than an hour later a rather unkempt vehicle pull into my driveway and a smiling, but hurried, young African-American woman walk up with a Door Dash hot-bag to deliver the food to the much-younger-than-her kids in my backyard.
I felt uncomfortable with the whole scene and thought about it on and off for months afterwards , trying to understand what specifically about the event made me uneasy. I had to give it that length of time because I knew if I said — or posted — anything immediately, it would likely get misconstrued by my friends, neighbors and family as elitist or even racist.
Rest assured, my issue was not about my perception of a beat-up old Honda driven by a black woman showing up in my admittedly privileged gated community. In fact, it is quite the contrary.
The issue is about socio-economics and class-ism, very much like what I saw and grew up around in Mumbai, India, as a child.
American venture capitalists and their host of sideline cheerleaders — from investors to media, to the very startups themselves — beat a steady drum of how all such endeavors are a sign of entrepreneurialism and innovation. They convince us that this is “technology” at its finest, and our young college graduates are being hired to engineer “global solutions” — that this is the type of “disruption” that is good.
When it comes to many aspects of the “sharing” or “peer-to-peer” economies — the euphemisms applied by esteemed analysts and investors — this sort of enterprise is really nothing new. The apps and digital tools that support it may be new, and the new generation of American users may be new to the concept, but anyone who has spent time in countries with massive wage disparity will tell you these services are not innovative . And in fact, are the signs of emerging oppression and growing social stratification.
These app-based services are virtual canaries in the coal mine of a country that is floundering and struggling to make meaningful work for its young persons.
Forty years ago in India, there were no apps, yet you could have just about any food or service at your doorstep in under a few minutes. A whistle from the apartment balcony, a quick shout to your home-servant, a hand gesture to the man with a basket on his head, and you had anything from a hot lunch, car service, shave or even currency exchange at your door.
This sort of personalized service still exists in India today in fact — a reason why many app-based similars haven’t taken off in India — and is far more efficient and integral to Indian society than the novelty it provides currently in the U.S. But there are no corporate behemoths or T-shirt-wearing Sandhill billionaires with their hands in the pockets of the on-the-ground workers. It is self-employment and small-business at its most fundamental level: It is survival.
Countries like India, China, the Philippines and many others in the East have always had that elusive “scale” VCs are constantly chirping about when it comes to the sharing economy. The reason is simple : The haves can afford to pay the have-nots for the convenience of having their haircut or ear wax removed on their porch. Yes, those are real and actual services. With a market size in the billions, scale happens quickly.
Chirag Asaravala is a management consultant and avid naturalist. He is a consultant for Marin Biologic Laboratories in Novato.