HERE’S something I didn’t know. The young Frenchman told me about it, the one who came after the man from Ukraine and before the Australian.
Breakfast time and I have burnt the toast a little. I offer to do another slice, but our guest Gallic-shrugs off the idea. “It’s okay,” he says, before breaking the over-done toast into shards and dipping them into his black coffee.
His actions seem eccentric, but revive old memories of childhood breakfasts on holiday in France. Milky coffee in a bowl, with bread or croissants on the side, and dunking allowed.
Our Frenchman, like the others, came to us through Airbnb. What he tells me, between coffee sips and nibbles of dipped toast, is that something similar exists for sharing lifts. It’s called Bla-Bla-Car.
The set-up is similar in that you register with the internet middleman. The service plays broker between driver and new-style ‘hitcher’. The driver lists where they are going and people wanting a lift leave messages on their account. It’s then up to the driver to accept or decline their would-be passenger.
Our Frenchman says he gets lots of interest in France, less so in Britain. Someone wanted a lift to Doncaster but he wasn’t keen. Not far enough, not enough company, he says.
I tell our guest that I used to hitch-hike everywhere when I was a student thanks only to my thumb. He nods and smiles, while no doubt thinking that he could stay at home and listen to his dad telling him old stories like that.
At the age of 22, our guest was certainly enterprising. Not only was he driving from Aviemore to Vannes in Brittany after a second six-month secondment in Scotland, he was also a qualified pilot who’d been flying since he was 16. Our three, aged 21 to 27, don’t have a driving licence between them.
Bla-Bla-Car… Where will all this innovation end? Before you know it someone will come up with something called Nudg-Nudg-Fancy-A-Shag. Oh, hang on the minute, that’s happened already and has led to all sort of unpleasantness through Ashley Maddison, the “extramarital affairs site”. From newspaper reports, that site seemed to prey on foolish male fantasies, with some of the available women being prostitutes rather than, er, free-thinking real women.
Airbnb, Bla-Bla-Car and the like are part of a new-style e-economy. Such services match someone with a need to someone who has a surplus: a spare room, a seat on a journey, a sexual itch… This is all part of the many ways in which the internet has upended our lives. Sometimes the new ways harm the old. Owners of B&Bs probably don’t much like Airbnb, in the same way that traditional taxi-drivers dislike Uber, the service which allows you to book a taxi or cab from your mobile phone. I’ve never used Uber, but our daughter reckons it works well in Newcastle.
The internet has freed up or possibly devastated the old ways of providing news and entertainment. It’s a marvel that a smartphone can convey all the news you need on one small screen, but this has harmed old-style newspapers (and those who work on them), while also opening fresh news-providing opportunities, as well as blogs such as this one. Then there is Facebook – all-conquering and fun, once you accept the friendly tyranny of it all.
The internet remains a huge experiment. It can’t be undone, and some of the results are unknowable. The potential for good and bad exist alongside each other.
The Independent reports today that hundreds of small businesses and minor celebrities have been targeted by a sophisticated blackmail scam orchestrated by “rogue editors” at Wikipedia. The victims were faced with demands to “protect” their entries on Wikipedia pages, and included a wedding photographer in Dorset and an upmarket jewellers in East London. Also targeted was a former contestant on Britain’s Got Talent, so it’s not all bad.
For every democratising step forward offered by the internet, someone lurking in the wings will be dreaming up a scam. In which case life before and after the internet are in some ways not that different.