Time has come to start disrupting the ‘disruptors’

The residents of Temple Bar are a battle-hardened bunch of people. Some might well question their sanity for moving into the area in the first place.

Time has come to start disrupting the ‘disruptors’

Over the past quarter century, they have had to put up with crowds of partying youths spilling across the street in various states of physical and emotional undress, many of them completely devoid of any sense of civic spirit.

A group of residents led by former Irish Times environmental correspondent, Frank McDonald, have just scored a rare victory in their ongoing struggle against the barbarian hordes, having persuaded An Bord Pleanála to crack down on the use of apartments in the area for short-term lets under the Airbnb banner.

The move has been described as a “major shot in the bow of Airbnb”.

In reality, this is just one short skirmish in an ongoing battle that is under way across the globe between so-called ‘disruptors’ and the people who find themselves at the sharp end of activity — much of which is borderline illegal, if not downright immoral.

The Millennium era disruptors — companies like Uber, Amazon, and Airbnb — have become household names and financial behemoths in gig time.

Facebook is gobbling up the traditional media advertising pie like a bulimic gorilla. Google seems to be gorging on just about everything else.

We all know that these companies have amassed wealth beyond the dreams of avarice and that their rise and rise threatens the traditional news gathering activity to which people, over generations, have become accustomed.

But, at least one can escape from all this hectic wired activity with a good book to a place of peace — that is until one discovers that one’s neighbour’s house has been acquired by a bunch of investors who have discovered that one can get very rich indeed through the sort of short term lets that Airbnb can facilitate so effectively.

Neighbourhoods in sought after areas are being transformed overnight and not always for the better.

In Los Angeles, Airbnb amassed income of $43m from various short-term lets in 2014.

In some cases, the city authorities have responded by filing charges against apartment owners for illegally converting them to short-term lets.

Long-term tenants, some in situ for decades, paying between $1,500 and $2,500 a month have been given notice by landlords who have been able to charge up to $500 a night to visitors.

The city’s mayor has created a whistleblower programme to help the authorities root out illegal short-term letting activity.

Elderly residents of some districts complain that they no longer have any real neighbours any more. This get rich quick activity has a whiff of the Californian goldrush about it.

Some of the big winners are the lawyers and lobbyists who have been engaged by residents, city authorities, landlords and companies like Airbnb.

In some cases, the digital gold diggers from San Francisco have succeeded: the city of Portland, Oregon, permits unrestricted ability to arrange short-term lettings.

In New York, however, the boot has been very much on the other foot. In recent times, Airbnb’s business has expanded dramatically. It lists almost 50,000 houses and apartments.

There, Governor Andrew Cuomo is preparing to sign a bill which could call time on the Airbnb home sharing business in New York City. Hosts advertising short-term accommodation through Airbnb could face fines of up to $7,500.

Airbnb has sought to reshape the legislation, offering to introduce a mandatory host registration system to allow the city authorities to track the renters.

City lawmakers have hit back at these efforts, arguing that “the law breaker should not get to make the law”.

The concept of home sharing online is in many ways fine in principles. Hotels in our big cities are often bursting at the seams.

The online share economy meets a need for affordable accommodation for travellers, but all too often it is coming at the expense of long-term housing affordability in a ‘grey market’ situation where large amounts of quick money can be made effectively tax free.

All too often the digital entrepreneurs are colluding in practices which are ultimately corrosive.

In recent weeks, the travails of those contracted to work under the Uber platform have been highlighted. Amazon has certainly disrupted retailing, pushing many firms off the high street.

It has been a boon to consumers, but all too often brings little but misery to producers.

Amazon has a reputation as a tough employer. It is busy working on plans to replace many of its workers with Kiva robots, of whom it now has 30,000 in place around its warehouses.

Fears grow for the jobs of America’s 855,000 strong army of warehouse workers.

There has been much gushing talk about the sharing economy and about the so-called ‘disruptor’ entrepreneurs.

These people cannot be stopped, but their energies can be harnessed and they must be brought to realise that they owe duties, too, to the societies which they are transforming.

In the late 19th century, a new wave of monopolies grew up on the back of a great revolution in transport and manufacturing.

The US Federal Government passed legislation to combat their activities and eventually, the great monopolies were broken up.

Last month, for the first time, the five largest companies by market capitalisation in the US were software makers: Apple, Google’s owner Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook.

These have been the great battering ram disruptors but they are now morphing into the Standard Oils of their era.

The disruptors are gobbling up smaller rivals, monopolists in the making.

The time has come to start disrupting the ‘disruptors’ before they turn into the Great Controllers.

A small skirmish in Temple Bar could be part of a wider international phenomenon as the fight back against an all-powerful new form of capitalism gathers momentum.

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