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The Dark Side of Frictionless Digital Sharing

The general principle behind why services like Uber are so successful is that they commoditize things. Getting someone to drive you around used to be hard because only a few parties could do it. Uber allows pretty much anyone to do it; Uber drivers are interchangeable. The system just has a simple formula:

X passengers + Y start + Z end = $

The system doesn’t care how that equation gets balanced. Right now Uber is using independent drivers. Soon they’ll use driverless vehicles. Someday they might use toll zip-lines. Whatever. The success comes from the scale of allowing every possible solution to connect to every possible customer.

So, that’s cool, but the tool itself is amoral. The uses that people put it to can just as easily be wrong, or unethical, or at least off-putting as they can be heroic or pedestrian (so to speak).

And example of the more questionable activity enabled by platforms like this is that sites devoted to “tutoring” make it easy to connect people who want to cheat with people who will do the cheating. By commoditizing the purchase of temporary expert knowledge the system can’t help but attract cheaters. The interchangeability is enabled by the testing platformsΒ themselves which don’t care how the problems get answered, only that somebody answers them. So students can just hand over their login/password and have a hired gun do the work for them.

These platforms can produce a lot of value because they eliminate uncertainty and friction, but in so doing they also have to give up security. Verifying that rules and standards are being adhered to is inherently intrusive and slows things down. For example, when the Uber-for-packages services get established there’s no way they’re going to be able to care what’s actually inside the packages.

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