A Season to Share




It has many names.





Some call it “collaborative consumption.” To others it’s a “peer-to-peer” economy. People who deem it the enlightened financial foundation of tomorrow’s Global Village like to think of it as a “Peoples’ Economy.” Call it what you will, it’s a hot and heavy marriage of convenience between the ancient concept of communal resource management and the awesome connective power of smart-phone technology, with cyber-switchboards like Airbnb, Uber and TaskRabbit officiating.

Benita Matofska, “Chief Sharer” down at “The People Who Share”, describes it as “…a socio-economic ecosystem built around the sharing of human and physical resources” that includes “the shared creation, production, distribution, trade and consumption of goods and services by different people and organizations.”

iNeedyouHavePut into shorter words, it’s them what ain’t gots putting the touch on them what gots. Car on the fritz? A neighbor will be happy to drive you. Not up for another night at the Airport Hilton? Sack out in somebody’s spare bedroom. Too busy to pick up the dry cleaning? There’s a peer out there who’ll grab your garbardines and snag your supper while they’re at it. Need a gas-powered shingle froe but don’t want to buy one just to froe, like, two shingles? It’s a safe bet there’s a guy nearby who’ll let you use his.


“The Sharing Economy encompasses the following aspects,” Matofska intones. “Swapping, exchanging, collective purchasing, collaborative consumption, shared ownership, shared value, co-operatives, co-creation, recycling, upcycling, re-distribution, trading used goods, renting, borrowing, lending, subscription based models, peer-to-peer, collaborative economy, circular economy, pay-as-you-use economy, wikinomics, peer-to-peer lending, micro-financing, micro-entrepreneurship, social media, the Mesh, social enterprise, futurology, crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, cradle-to-cradle, open source, open data, and user generated content.”


Anyway, the Sharing Economy is all about private citizens doing for other private citizens. But one thing it’s absolutely not about is sharing. It’s about money, and lots of it.

Largely untaxed and unregulated, the Sharing Economy is gloves-off laissez-faire capitalism for the Age of Aquarius, a Libertarian’s free-market feast served on a bed of crisp collectivist ideology. Because if that Lyft driver will get you home from the recycling center for less than Yellow Cab can, he’s sure not going to do it for nothing. And while that privately-owned one-bedroom loft only blocks from dining and entertainment is a steal at just $125 a night, it’s, um, $125 a night.

sharing-new-shoppingThe completely reasonable theory behind the Sharing Economy is that folks with unused, or under-utilized, resources such as cars, beds and gas-powered shingle froes can make them available to folks who need them, thereby maximizing economic efficiency for all. Whatever their political perspectives, most people will agree that letting the Little Guy put his assets to work without a lot of fuss and flack from Uncle Sam is a good thing. The thing is, the bridges connecting the resource-full with the resource-less are a growing number of online “platforms”, essentially passive brokers that take a generous slice of every peer-to-peer transaction that flashes across their out-stretched electronic palms.

How generous? In the 10 years since the peer-to-peer (P2P, in the lingo) economy started moving beyond eBay and into areas of commerce from lodging to lending and from dry goods to desk space, no fewer than 17 self-styled Sharing Economy platforms have grown into billion-dollar businesses on the strength of a 10- to 30-percent piece of the action . True, there are a handful of peer-to-peer exchanges that don’t charge for introductions, but they represent a drop in the collaborative bucket alongside cash-flush companies like $1 billion FundingCircle, $2 billion Instacart, $4 billion Airbnb, and transportation giant Uber, which does business in more than 100 cities in 35 countries and was lately valued at a whopping $40 billion for doing exactly what Metro Taxi does, except not actually doing it. Fact is, in many cases the only people not getting rich off of the Peoples’ Economy are the people directly involved in it.

whats-mine-is-yoursUber drivers, for example, are essentially freelance laborers who must conform to the company’s equipment requirements, often requiring a substantial capital investment, and do all of their own maintenance. They have to charge Uber-approved fares that are considerably less than those charged by conventional taxi services, meaning they consistently earn less per mile than traditional hacks. And as independent “entrepreneurs” they get none of the corporate driver’s benefits and wage-security while bearing all of the job’s attendant risks.

“It’s true that, in many ways, sharing-economy jobs can offer more autonomy than traditional employer-employee relationships,” writes Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell. “But there’s a dark side to these work arrangements that gets considerably less press: the shifting of risk off corporate balance sheets and onto the shoulders of individual Americans, who may not even realize what kinds of liabilities they’re taking on.”

For that matter, the wholesale replacement of middle-class transportation jobs with lower-paying Uber and Lyft drivers is a sure-fire short-cut to crashing tax revenues and rising individual economic instability. But it would be unfair to pick on P2P transportation companies without exploring the unintended consequences of the Sharing Economy’s thriving hospitality trade. It would be perfectly fair, on the other hand, to pick on San Francisco’s recent experiences, seeing as how the City by the Bay is widely recognized at the cradle of collaborative consumption as we now know it.

In concept, platforms like Airbnb, FlipKey and Roomorama connect private citizens seeking an inexpensive place to flop with private citizens willing to rent out a spare bedroom or temporarily unoccupied personal living space on a short-term basis. It’s all very informal, of course, and completely non-commercial, and guests enjoy a cheap and perhaps interesting accommodation while John and Jane Q. Property-Owner are spared the burdensome regulation and taxes to which professional innkeepers are subject. Thing is, there’s a loophole there big enough to swallow the Orchard Hotel, pool, parlor and penthouse. By listing a long-term rental on Airbnb instead of “trivago”, many a penny-pinching apartment, condo and house owner are happily and profitably leasing their dedicated income property under the table, as it were, and John and Jane Q. Everbody-Else are paying for it with crippling housing shortages and soaring rents.

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“The (San Francisco Chronicle) found nearly 5,000 apartments, houses and rooms listed for rent (on Airbnb) during one random day in May,” writes Dara Kerr of CNET. “Of these short-term rentals, nearly two-thirds were entire houses or apartments, and 160 of these were rented full time.”

Presumably thanks in no small part to the Sharing Economy, the average two-bedroom flat in San Francisco currently rents for about $3,500. Airbnb, on the other hand, would not so presume.

“The overwhelming majority of Airbnb hosts in San Francisco share only the home in which they live,” Kerr quotes a company spokeswoman as saying, “and use the additional income they earn to pay their rents or mortgages and pursue their dreams.”

hotelpillowcqx-largeDespite the naysayers who insist the Sharing Economy is killing middle-class jobs and putting countless essential skilled workers behind the wheel instead of behind a desk, the concept is sound and getting louder all the time. At last count, something like 250,000 Uber drivers are hauling something like 1 million fares every day, and both numbers are predicted to double before Christmas. Airbnb lists more than 1.5 million rental properties – including 1,400 castles – and with more than 40 million mints on 40 million pillows and counting, the service recently surpassed both InterContinental Hotels Group and Hilton Worldwide to become the planet’s biggest hotelier. And that, says Matofska, is only the beginning.

“Whilst the Sharing Economy is currently in its infancy,known most notably as a series of services and start-ups which enable P2P exchanges through technology, this is only the beginning,” intones the Sharer in Chief. “In its entirety and potential it is a new and alternative socio-economic system which embeds sharing and collaboration at its heart and across all aspects of social and economic life.”


In any case, journalist Susie Cagle has her own name for Matofska’s “new and alternative socio-economic system.”

london-match-seller-greenwich-1884_l130116“The Sharing Economy’s success is inextricably tied to the recent recession, making new American poverty palatable,” Cagle writes. “It’s disaster capitalism.”


The Path Not Taken

When Tom Hornbein takes the podium at the Rocky Mountain Literary Festival on Oct. 17, he’ll be standing on familiar ground.


As a professor and chairman of the department of anesthesiology at the University of Washington in Seattle, the energetic 84-year-old has addressed many a capacity audience. As a dedicated researcher in the field of high-altitude physiology and performance he’s delivered many a scholarly paper to many a scholarly panel. And as a celebrated mountaineer and author of “Everest: The West Ridge” he’s recounted one of the most remarkable stories in the history of human endeavor more times than he’d care to count.



And yet, looking ahead to his engagement at Mount Vernon Country Club next month, Hornbein has no idea what he’s going to say. And that’s just the way he likes it.

“I don’t really prepare anything,” explains Hornbein, sitting comfortably in the sun room of his Estes Park home. Moss-rock covers the interior walls. A spotting scope standing within easy reach is trained on the summit of Longs Peak. Outside, an enormous herd of imported Wyoming goats is busily shaving the front yard. “I like a little bit of uncertainty.”

Uncertainty – the lure of it, the pursuit of it, the conquest of it – has been a bedrock principle guiding Hornbein’s life since long before he ever recognized that fact. And the consequences and lessons of a lifetime of deliberate uncertainty have certainly given Hornbein plenty to talk about.

If asked, he might talk about growing up in Saint Louis, and about how he used to spend every summer at Camp Cheley in Devil’s Gulch outside of Estes Park, first as a camper and later as a counselor, glorying in the majesty and mystery of the high Rocky Mountains. He loved mountaineering literature, inhaling early Himalayan classics such as “High Conquest” and “Kingdom of Adventure – Everest” like a man gulping oxygen at 28,000 feet.

“They were just fantasies to a kid like me,” Hornbein smiles. “I never really thought I’d ever go to that part of the world.”

Hornbein studied geology at the University of Colorado in Boulder for a time, worked as a naturalist in Rocky Mountain National Park, and volunteered with mountain rescue teams. And when the sedate observation of rocks began to seem too rigid a discipline compared with the perpetual unknowns presented by the never-ending duel between Man and Nature, he changed course toward medicine and found himself working in a Navy hospital in San Diego.

In 1962 the Cold War was at its frostiest. No American, nor any Soviet, had yet planted a flag atop the “Goddess Mother of the World” and there was considerable interest in powerful quarters that the Stars and Stripes got there before the Hammer and Sickle. A prominent mountaineer named Norman Dyhrenfurth was putting together an expedition to do exactly that, and he invited an old climbing companion to come along. Given the opportunity to make his childhood fantasies real, Hornbein didn’t take too much persuading.

“I wanted to do something that I didn’t know whether it could be done,” says Hornbein. “I guess I needed that uncertainty.”

In fact, uncertainty played an essential role in Hornbein’s now-legendary1963 assault on Everest. In order to secure sufficient funding for the expedition – and to give it a politically benign gloss of respectability – certain researches were to be conducted on the mountain, including studies into what Hornbein’s friend and fellow mountaineer, sociologist Dick Emerson, called the “Uncertainty Principle.”

“His thesis was that motivation is maximized when the outcome is uncertain,” Hornbein explains. “When we climbed Everest there was definitely enough uncertainty.”

westridgeIn Hornbein’s case, as it turned out, there was nothing but. While the expedition’s major press was to be against Everest’s well-charted South Col, a handful of climbers including Hornbein lobbied hard for a second front along the mountain’s untried and insanely perilous West Ridge. Most members of the expedition gave Hornbein’s proposal exactly no chance for success. Hornbein and his companions deemed it barely possible, and that was enough.




Spoiler Alert – On May 22, 1963, Hornbein and three companions endured appalling dangers and unimaginable hardships to become the first mountaineers to reach Mount Everest’s summit by the West Ridge. A particularly difficult feature of their route now bears the name “Hornbein Couloir” And by descending Everest via the South Col, the party also became the first to accomplish a traverse of the Earth’s highest peak.

In the long years since 1963 some 60 expeditions have dared the West Ridge. A scant six have succeeded, placing 14 climbers on top of the world at a cost of 16 lives. In his book “Into Thin Air” author and mountaineer Jon Krakauer writes that Hornbein’s ascent “was, and continues to be, deservedly hailed as one of the great feats in the annals of mountaineering.”

Back home, Hornbein and his comrades were feted as conquering heroes and invited to breathe the rarified atmospheres of elite salons from the Explorers Club to the White House. For his part, Hornbein did his best to avoid the spotlight.

“When we were climbing I didn’t know or care how it would be viewed by the world. Afterward, I just wanted to get back to my life.”

Still, he considered certain aspects of the experience worthy of record. The expedition’s restrained and responsive leadership, for example, the mature and respectful temperaments of its hand-picked rank and file, and its uniquely democratic organization – he wrote about all of that and more in “Everest: The West Ridge.”

“I thought about calling it ‘Everest: The World’s Highest Metaphor’” he says, only half joking. “It would have given me open season to say whatever I wanted.”

What Hornbein ended up saying in The West Ridge has ever since been acclaimed as among the finest works of mountaineering literature ever penned. Rich in imagery, high in drama, immensely readable, The West Ridge he put a human face on that most extreme of sports, focusing on the character of the men who endured those hardships together and the relationships they forged along the way.

“To me, what was so unique about the expedition was the diversity of talents and the interaction of the people involved. I wanted to convey that the reality and the humanity of climbing a mountain is not really so different from how you succeed at anything else in your life, from your marriage, to your profession, to raising your kids.”

Hornbein conveyed that thought with powerful clarity, and then he went back to his life. While he never lost his passion for the mountains, the great reach of Hornbein’s life after the West Ridge has been grounded in medicine. And, having once been made aware of it, he’s come to see the powerful force of uncertainty at work everywhere around him.

“I found out I love research – the uncertainty of the hypothesis, and trying to prove the outcome. In science, different views increase uncertainty, and uncertainty leads to more thoughtful problem-solving.”

Even his decision in 2006 to leave Seattle for his boyhood haunts seems to validate Emerson’s theory.

“It’s the Uncertainty Principle again,” Hornbein smiles. “After I retired I needed to find new challenges.”

When the author of “Everest: The West Ridge” takes the podium at the Rocky Mountain Literary Festival on Oct. 17, it’s dead-certain he’ll say something worth hearing. Just don’t bother asking him what it will be.

“It’s better if there’s a little uncertainty.”