According to most general definitions that are widely available online, the sharing economy leverages information technology to empower individuals or organisations to distribute, share and re-use excess capacity in goods and services.Let me translate. Institutions emerge to conserve on transaction costs. Strip away the business jargon and psycho-babble, however, and leaven the environment with an anti-capitalist ethos, and troubles begin.
Perhaps sharing really is fast becoming a counter-cultural movement that can help us to value relationships more than things, and offer us the possibility of re-imagining politics and constructing a more participative democracy, which could ultimately pose a challenge to the global capitalist/consumerist model of development that is built on private interests and debt at the cost of shared interests and true wealth.Compare the common swimming pool in a wealthy gated community or a sundown suburb with a common swimming pool in a city with a shrinking tax base, and then visualize the tension between "better world" and "equal society". Then throw in the profit opportunities from providing time-shares or car-shares or rent-a-bikes or what have you. The commercially sustainable parts of the counter-culture get bought off.
On the other hand, critics are right to point out that the sharing economy in its present form is hardly a threat to existing power structures or a movement that represents the kind of radical changes we need to make the world a better place. Far from reorienting the economy towards greater equity and a better quality of life, as proposed by writers such as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Tim Jackson, Herman Daly and John Cobb, it is arguable that most forms of sharing via peer-to-peer networks are at risk of being subverted by conventional business practices. There is a perverse irony in trying to imagine the logical conclusion of these trends: new models of collaborative consumption and co-production that are co-opted by private interests and venture capitalists, and increasingly geared towards affluent middle-class types or so-called bourgeois bohemians (the ‘bobos’), to the exclusion of those on low incomes and therefore to the detriment of a more equal society. Or new sharing technology platforms that enable governments and corporations to collaborate in pursuing more intrusive controls over and greater surveillance of citizens. Or new social relationships based on sharing in the context of increasingly privatised and enclosed public spaces, such as gated communities within which private facilities and resources are shared.
Sven Eberlein's "Sharing for Profit" offers a similar lament.
I know that making money and clever marketing is the holy grail of capitalism, and one could argue that rebranding rentals as shares might ultimately help to bring a more collaborative attitude into the mainstream, just as driving a hybrid may lead to a deeper ecological understanding or buying a yoga mat could be the gateway into spirituality.No. But hectoring people isn't going to, either.
But is this rising tide of popularity and commercialization really going to lift all the smaller boats that carry the more sublime meaning of sharing? Will it make us more generous and compassionate? Inspire us to listen to each other more intently? Come together in the town square more frequently? Commit random acts of kindness?