Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Cynical Argument for the Liberal Arts: Part Sixteen

Previously: Part Zero ... Part Fifteen

The "Cynical Business Award" goes to ReservationHop, which I read about in CBC News here. Quote:
A San Francisco startup that sells restaurant reservations it has made under assumed names is raising the ire of Silicon Valley critics.  
ReservationHop, as it's called, is a web app with a searchable database of reservations made at "top SF restaurants." The business model is summed up in the website's tagline: "We make reservations at the hottest restaurants in advance so you don't have to."  
Users can buy the reservations, starting at $5 apiece, and assume the fake identity ReservationHop used to book the table. "After payment, we'll give you the name to use when you arrive at the restaurant," the website says. 
 The "coin of the realm" in this case is the trust between diner and restaurant that is engaged when a reservation is placed. This is an informal social contract that assures the diner a table and assures the restaurant a customer. Sometimes these agreements are broken in either direction, but the system is valuable and ubiquitous. The ReservationHop model is to take advantage of the anonymity of phone calls to falsely gain the trust of the restaurant and essentially sell it at $5 a pop. This erodes trust, debasing the aforementioned coin of the realm. Maybe the long term goal of the company is to become the Ticketmaster of restaurant reservations.

One can imagine monetizing all the informal trust systems in society in this way. Here's a business model, free of charge: you know all those commercial parking lots that give you a time stamped ticket when you drive in? It's easy to subvert that with a little forethought. Imagine an app that you use when you are ready to leave. With it, you meet up with someone who is just entering the parking lot and exchange tickets with them. You get to leave by paying for almost no time in the lot. If they do the same, so can they, ad infinitum. Call it ParkingHop.

One can argue that these disruptive innovations lead to improvements. In both the cases above, the debasement of the trust-coin is due to anonymity, which nowadays can be easily fixed. The restaurant can just ask for cell-phone number to verify the customer by instead of a name, for example, and check it by calling the phone. This isn't perfect, but the generally the fixing of personal identity to actions creates more responsible acts. The widely-quoted faking of book reviews, for example, is greatly facilitated by paid-for "sock puppet" reviewers taking on many identities. So anonymity can be a power multiplier, the way money is in politics.  The natural "improvement," if we want to call it that, is better record keeping and personal registration of transactions. This is what the perennial struggle to get an intrusive "cybersecurity" law passed is all about (so kids can't download movies without paying for them), and the NSA's vacuuming up of all the data it can. We move from "trust," to "trust but verify," to "verify."

These are liberal artsy ideas about what it is to be human and what it is to be a society. The humanities are dangerous. How many millions have died because of religion or ideology? I've been wondering lately how we put that tension in the classroom. Imagine a history class with a real trigger warning: Don't take this class if you have a weak disposition. If you aren't genuinely terrified by the end of a class, I haven't done my job.

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