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J. Harry Caufield

Remember Napster? How about Kazaa? Do you remember how popular they were and how blatantly illegal they were? The illegality was blatant but revolutionary. It was emblematic of a myopic but resolute spirit still actively pervasive among new companies, especially those providing new mechanisms for old grey markets.

The ongoing fracas about Uber and Lyft always brings that spirit to mind. Some folks in my city are excited about its possibilities. I'm conflicted about it, honestly. Just as Napster, Kazaa, and all the other early file-sharing methods rendered music sharing painless, these new companies are simplifying ride sharing. People could and did share music before the internet made it easy and they certainly still do so. They also continue to share cars, even on an unofficial paid basis.

Here's why I'm conflicted, though:

  1. Taxis are terrible but I'm glad they're regulated. I'm generally in favor of regulating services: there's always some liability issue should something go wrong during a business transaction. Uber and Lyft really need some very specific safety regulations before I'm convinced they should supplant the existing taxi system.
  2. I'm increasingly worried about the distancing effect of turning human interactions into apps. Is that old-fashioned?*
  3. Uber and Lyft frame their business concepts as creative destruction. I don't see anything terribly creative about it. They're organizing existing systems in a patently illegal way and discarding every logical reason why the laws exist. If that's the only way this system can be improved, then I suppose I'll get used to it. In the meantime, I'll continue to be suspicious. 

*I do really like knowing how much a taxi ride will cost up-front, though. That's a clear advantage of these new services and it's obscene that the old taxi companies couldn't provide it.