Airbnb vs Amazon: A Dualistic Approach to the Future of Employment

It’s no secret that the giant minds of the world are thinking themselves silly over what to do about the future of employment. Will AI replace all humans in their jobs? Will new industries and services rise up to create new jobs uniquely manageable by humans only?

Steve Jobs spoke about the computer and technology as a “bicycle of the mind,” that they are nothing but tools to allow humankind to reach greater heights and achieve more. But try telling that to people in sectors long supplanted by machinery. They’d probably tell you to keep the bike.

Now we see this sort of dispute finally bubble to the political sphere. Those on the left argue for a new economic system based on sharing and universal income to tide against the unemployment yet to come. Those on the right yearn for a return to the past, to prevent that uncertain future and stick with what we already have.

Though mankind has no doubt been through this sort of painful transition with every technological advancement, that doesn’t dull the pains and anxiety that those in the present fear.

“There will be new jobs after”

“New needs will arise when the old ones are cared for”

All true. All statements to address the worry. All completely non-reassuring.

And how could they be? No one can know for sure after all. Every earthquake seems world-ending until it passes… or until it really is.

But I think that those changes and those jobs are already here. I’m a huge fan of Airbnb, and during a mental product exercise where I was envisioning their next evolution(modular trips!)— their business model got me thinking.

Airbnb is an aggregator. Their business is making private custom hosting possible: by gathering the millions of private listings available the world over and centralizing the supply so that demand can find them.

For some hosts, Airbnb just marked the appearance of a tool to better let them do what they were already doing, for a much larger swath of the population however— it represented the first real opportunity to make money from unused space (contrasted to Craigslist, where since supply was decentralized/segmented by city— imposed artificial restrictions on both supply and demand).

Now that’s only for people who already own property. My economics professors would describe it as “the birth of rent-generating opportunities,” basically chances only available to people who already have capital and assets.

That’s completely changed with Experiences— where locals can create and sell a custom experience of their own (anything from tours to woodworking or cooking). People can offer up themselves as a service for an incredibly unique, human-curated, hyper-local experience. It doesn’t require any certificate, any land, or any sort of crazy investment. It just needs that person to know very deeply about one thing they are interested in: something that they are competent enough to teach others in.

It can be a fashion tour through Shibuya, a hunt for the Lochness Monster, or even pointing out odd bricks in the Great Wall.

And that’s sort of the same model for Etsy. Or for Fiverr.

Credits to Ben Thompson and Mary Meeker @ Code Conference
Number of businesses online are increasing– more stores and entrepreneurs than ever!

These are uniquely human creations that cannot be replicated by software or machines (at least not until general AI becomes human), and are labor-intensive activities. They’re too specific, too niche, too cumbersome and non-uniform to summate into an algorithm. In short, they’re the things that will not be replaced or manufactured.

In that vein, even though Airbnb bought and may start becoming a hotel of sorts in its own right— it can never do that for its Experiences. Capital is one thing— it is faceless and uniform, but the new age of labor is another. Ironically, were Airbnb to have world dominating plans to become a hotel, those most in danger would be its capital-holding hosts. Not its local experience producers.

Furthermore, the company would never do that. It would go against its very mission of “Belong Anywhere:” a company everywhere, belongs nowhere.

But that brings into account a very interesting company in another realm.

There are tons of aggregators, and the one we’re most familiar with is Amazon. Yes, like Airbnb they have undoubtedly created hundreds of thousands if not more personal businesses and jobs. Whether in AWS or their marketplace, the same sort of analogous opportunity is afforded.

Yet Amazon is different. And we don’t naturally think of them the way we do Airbnb for job creation (at least not the marketplace). Not as friendly. Not as humane.  

Why is that? It seems our only image of them is of a conglomerate bent on domination.

Just a casual protest on a nice normal sunny SF day

For brevity: that is the reason. It is not that they are malevolent— many businesses would not have even been possible without them— but a simple difference in market pursuit and philosophy.

Jeff Bezos put it best when he said “Your margin is my opportunity.” In one sentence, he encapsulated the Amazon spirit (also summed up greatly in PolyMatter’s Grand Theory of Amazon). And that is to find the most uniform pieces of friction in all walks (ie. server hosting or shopping) and eliminate them.

Amazon deals in bulk. Their mission is almost software incarnate: find something that can be simplified and then do it so well and so many times that the cost can be lowered and sold to others at profit.

This is the same reason why we do not see Amazon in the same light as Airbnb. If any item sells very well on Amazon, we can expect the company to begin to manufacture and sell their own in a manner all too soon. That is not something that a small business can handle or would be okay to risk. To some, it may even feel like being punished for success.

Which is why Amazon almost seems to be a paragon of contradiction. On one hand it has lowered the costs and barriers to business to levels never seen before, on the other it almost seems to ruthlessly crush down whatever rises too profitable to neglect.

While part of the reason is the philosophy reflected in the earlier quote, another is simply the form-factor. At the end of the day, physical goods can be standardized. And to survive and flourish as a small business, its manufacturing must either be difficult enough or its market small enough that it is not worth copying (why being a successful vendor in Etsy is such a challenging space!).

Airbnb on the other hand espouses the charm of locality. And that by definition means small-scale. There can be no Airbnb tours of the Statue of Liberty— no matter how popular it is on the website. The tour needs to be done by a local, to bring true its flavor and share it with the travelers.

This is the same for Etsy and Fiverr, where the seller is very much a part of the product. Because that’s what makes replication impossible, and the item or service unique.

At the end though, the future is not one or the other. Both Amazon and Airbnb will survive and be great pillars moving forward. As with the Amazon example, no one specific approach will dominate all walks— instead it will have to come down to the nature and form of each industry.

Philosophers thought that machines would come to free us of all the dirty, poor, mindless tasks and jobs that we had. They were both right and wrong.

Yes, we’ll no longer have to sweep, plug numbers into a spreadsheet all day, or even create our own websites. But instead, we have to wrestle with the complexities in our own physical and mental backyards —ones too dirty to compact into an algorithm —and make a service worthwhile to others. To find the value uniquely ours that others treasure.

And that I think. Is beautiful.

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