Before the Great Depression, there were 84,000 taxi drivers in America. By 1932, there were 150,000 as the unemployed and under-employed piled into the business. The oversupply of taxis and drivers got out of control, causing congestion, rate cutting and dangerous driving. By 1937, it was regulated. According to Capital New York, “Cities instituted strict licensure requirements, they regulated fares, insurance coverage, vehicle quality. Increasingly, taxi service was seen as something akin to a public utility.”

About 80 years later, following the Great Recession, we have the hugely controversial Uber, which helps the unemployed and under-employed pile into the business. It’s all part of the new sharing economy, yet another disruptive technology platform. It’s also disrupting the political scene. As Nicholas Riccardi of the Associated Press notes,

The debate over ride-hailing firm Uber is laying bare divides in the Democratic Party and on the left about how to handle the new “sharing’’ economy. Republicans are hungry to exploit that ambivalence and make inroads into a wealthy sector of the tech industry.

It’s laying bare divides in my own family as well; I thought Uber was a wonderful use of technology that put drivers in touch with passengers, that provided cleaner, better cars and direct feedback. My son thinks that it's a return to “every man for himself” and that as it becomes more popular and even more drivers pile on, the prices will drop and abuse will increase. That’s why workers form unions and why governments regulate taxis.

In the Guardian, Frank Pasquale and Siva Vaidhyanathan go much further, accusing the sharing economy giants of what they call “corporate nullification.”

Nullification is a wilful flouting of regulation, based on some nebulous idea of a higher good only scofflaws can deliver….when companies such as Uber, Airbnb, and Google engage in a nullification effort, it’s a libertarian-inspired attempt to establish their services as popular well before regulators can get around to confronting them. Then, when officials push back, they can appeal to their consumer-following to push regulators to surrender.

The authors use the strongest language I've seen yet.

Civil disobedience by citizens can be an important challenge to corrupt or immoral politicians, but when corporate leaders themselves start breaking the law in their own narrow interests, societal order breaks down.

And I thought we were just talking about an app. Read more in the Guardian.

gig economy drawing Is this the future of work? (Photo: Susie Cagle)

And if that is too intense, read Susie Cagle’s The Case Against Sharing. She writes (and draws):

The sharing economy’s success is inextricably tied to the economic recession, making new American poverty palatable. It’s disaster capitalism. “Sharing” companies are not embarrassed by this  —  it appears to be a point of pride.

Perhaps we all should give this more thought. It's a seriously contentious issue everywhere, and Uber picked a soft target; it's hard to defend the taxi industry. But the principle is much bigger. Everything is being pitched as "The Uber of ..." Is this a wonderful new gig economy or will we all end up doing piecework again? Please click here for a poll.

Related in MNN:

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Is the sharing economy just about cool apps or is it 'the breakdown of societal order?'
Some perhaps extreme views about the dangers of Uber and the gig economy.