The App Economy is the Jerk Economy
San Francisco’s stock is still maintaining a largely steady rise. Tech 2.0 is seemingly doing well and it might be a bubble but it is a bubble that does not show any signs of bursting soon. Housing is being built at a very rapid clip but not rapidly enough. Tech 2.0 is also leading to an embarrassment of riches when it comes to restaurants, bars, coffeeshops, stores, and other assorted businesses that make cities fun places to be. There are two very first world problems with this though: 1. Parking is an absolute pain, and 2. it is nearly impossible to get a restaurant reservation in town.
I don’t use my car unless I am leaving SF for the most part or know I am going to an area with a parking lot or that is on the outskirts so the parking problem does not hurt me. The restaurant issue is annoying though in a very first world kind of way. Many restaurants are fully booked for a month or two in advance for a variety of reasons. One of the big problems is that most reservations are done via Open Table. Techies have been known to create bots that make multiple reservations for them and then not cancel reservations (1).
Two companies have stepped forward to find ways to “solve” the parking and restaurant reservation problem. Monkey Parking is an app the allows people to auction off their parking spots when done (2). Timothy finds a parking space on Valenica on a busy Saturday and uses it for two hours instead of pulling away and leaving the space to the next comer, Timothy can use Parking Money to advertise that his public street space is available and auction it off to the highest bidder among other Parking Monkey users. The winner still needs to pay the meter by the way. Reservation Hop uses bots to make reservations at restaurants in advance and then scalps them for “as little as 5 dollars.” (3).
I admit that both of these are symptoms or byproducts of all the problems facing San Francisco but it is often the symptoms or byproducts that have a way of being the straws that break the camels back and showing people that things are truly fucked up.
The Parking App is the more unethical act because sidewalk parking is public property. If people want to rent out their garage spaces or private sidewalk parking that is fine because that is their property. The idea of making a profit off of public sidewalk parking just seems like a cartoon version of Ayn Rand philosophy. The Restaurant App is basically being a scalper and makes it hard if not impossible for regular people to get their own reservations. Some restaurants are using captchas but those are useless. Other restaurants don’t take reservations at all and just serve customers on a first come, first serve basis more or less (accounting for differences in part size). The later approach sometimes means waiting an hour or two for a table at a restaurant but it is archly democratic and fair. Many restaurant owners also dislike Reservation Hop because they think it will lead to nights where they are technically booked but no one or very few people show up and this means no profit for many nights and restaurants run on very tight margins. So reservation hop could be self-defeating.
One of the big issues many people have with Tech 2.0 is that it is seemingly very incestuous and not as innovative as it makes itself out to be. Most of the hot new apps seem geared to solving the problems of affluent teens to thrity-somethings who live in major cities and probably work in tech or something close to tech. This all operates in a feed back loop where they are seemingly unaware and/or unconcerned with anything that does not concern their circle. Everyone they know has drunken the kool-aid of “disruption” and the idea that money left on the table is bad.
The problem is that I don’t think either app is really very free market. Rather it seems like techies are entering their reniter/scalper phase and using their skills to game the market. I am annoyed at missing out on parking spaces but except it as a rule of life if someone was first in line, spotted it quicker, or had more agile driving skills. I might be disappointed if I can’t get a reservation to a popular restaurant because other people got to it before me but they are also just booking as people call or make reservations online. There is something distinctly unfair to losing out to bots who are constantly working and making reservations under false names at the same time for the same party.
These are small potatoes as life’s indignities go but it does provide a huge dent into tech’s image to the outside world. The optics matter here as they say in politics.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with asking yourself with a business idea is unethical or immoral even if it might be legal and if the answer is yes refraining from engaging in that mode of behavior. This might be why I am not in business or tech though. Is there anyway to defend this kind of scalping behavior on ethical and/or moral grounds?