Skip to content

Welcome to the Zero Cost Marginal Society

I was in Ottawa a while back to celebrate Christmas with our employees at Conceptshare Inc. and found myself face to face with the new and rapidly expanding “sharing economy.
Michael Atkins, President, Northern Ontario Business,

I was in Ottawa a while back to celebrate Christmas with our employees at Conceptshare Inc. and found myself face to face with the new and rapidly expanding “sharing economy.”

Or was it my first encounter with the collaborative commons, and the Zero Cost Marginal Society which, as we speak, is eclipsing modern capitalism?

I’m not sure. It was late at night, some beverages had been consumed, and we found ourselves at a pool hall on Merrivale Road, a long way away from my downtown hotel.

It was time to go and one of the staff offered to call me a cab. Calling a cab for them means calling Uber. Uber, if you have been living in a small fishing village without internet or regular mail, is an app on your cell phone that allows you to call someone out there in cyberspace to come pick you up and drive you to where you want to go. Basically it bypasses taxis and puts you in direct touch with someone who wants to make some money driving their car for money. You pay Uber.

Uber pays them. Basically, collaborative software. They are rocketing around the world with a current valuation of some $40 billion. Welcome to zero cost marginal profit.

I watched her cell phone as Uberman approached the hall telling us just how many minutes away he was. I was dumbfounded. It made too much sense. Is this really possible?

The Uberman arrived and I hopped in the car. He was from Ethiopia and didn’t speak much English. It was so cold, neither did I.

Ten minutes in he pulled over to the side of the road. He said my order had been cancelled. I said no. Here I am and I still want to go to my hotel. He stared at his phone and said again, it is cancelled. I said, somewhat agitatedly, it is not!!! He didn’t know what to do. We were there for five minutes. I said I would pay cash — just don’t throw me out of the car. This isn’t Addis Ababa (joke warm).

We finally got a hold of my business partner. Apparently, I had got into the wrong car. It was supposed to be for my helper who had also ordered a car for herself.

When she didn’t see me or another car she cancelled the order for me that was on her phone. I no longer existed, even though I was in the car and on the road.

Eventually Mr. Addis Ababa took me to my hotel. He refused payment. He is not allowed to be paid. The Uber software is how you pay, or you never work for them again.

This “internet of things” is disrupting the economy around the world. When I travel, I often use Airbnb, which is exactly the same thing as Uber except it trades in “bedrooms and basements with Wi-Fi” offered by homeowners instead of car owners who would like to make a little extra money. It’s actually often more fun than staying in a hotel and half the price. Therein lies the joy and the pain.

It is revolutionary and disruptive.

Who am I kidding? I’m in the middle of it. I’m in the newspaper business. I used to have a weekly newspaper. Now I have a weekly newspaper and a 24/7 news website. If I didn’t have the latter, many of you would abandon me. My competition is no longer other media; it is a blogger in the basement with 20,000 Twitter followers and a full-time job at the bank. I have employees, leasehold improvements and taxes to pay.

Like all revolutions, there are winners and losers. Adapt or die.

These changes are so profound we need to find ways to consider them at the local, national and global community levels. Google and Facebook are so big, they dwarf countries. They have become monopolies. And who will govern their behaviour — about security, about fairness (what stays on Google and what goes), about taxes, about integrity (what’s an ad and what is a news story), and about Big Data, which is us.

All this came home to me the other day. I was meeting with an economic development group. They were asking all the wrong questions and oblivious to this tsunami which is changing our world, innovating convenience and destroying jobs.

We need to understand where this is going and quick.

If you want to learn more, read Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society, and weep or rejoice depending on your vantage point.