Posted by: Dr Churchill | August 21, 2014

The Shared Economy

The reach of the shared economy has been overhyped to the point where the word “sharing” becomes virtually meaningless, even content less.

Social media sites like Facebook urge us to “share” information, data, locations, birthdays, our moods and most recent purchases, with an expanding crowd of “friends,” but more significantly with Facebook (or Google, or Twitter…) itself.

The “Big Data” these internet behemoths amass through “sharing” is worth big money. But that’s not all: information also equals power. Yet above all else information is wealth. Information is GOLD in their pockets and not in yours…

Or so the argument goes…

By sharing your information with these companies you are allowing them to track, collect information on, and even anticipate your movements, choices, and social interactions. Now, hey — some people find this pretty convenient! Others of us find it chilling, even dystopian. My point here is to ask: why call it “sharing?” This is the point where the bottom-up dream of a sharing economy is translated into the top-down code of a marketing algorithm. It doesn’t help that a number of “sharing economy” sites –such as Lyft (see above) and Yerdle — rely on Facebook’s built-in surveillance system to identify and track users. One meaning of “sharing” blends into the other, and the verb itself becomes intransitive, without object or content, just a vague call to “share.”

So what’s wrong with this?

Sharewashing does more than just misrepresent things like renting, working, and surveilling as “sharing.” It does more than just stretch and contort the meaning of the word “sharing” until it practically loses all meaning. It also disables the very promise of an economy based on sharing by stealing the very language we use to talk about it, turning a crucial response to our impending ecological crisis into another label for the very same economic logic which got us into that crisis in the first place.

What has driven our economy of overconsumption so far? The need for growth, based on the need for investors to make a profit. So for over a hundred years it has been all about growth — find new markets, develop new products, find new ways to get people to consume. That economy’s gotta grow, baby. And all the for-profit sharewashing companies listed above are also growing big time. They don’t counteract the growth juggernaut of the mainstream economy — they add to it , because they share that economy’s market logic of never ending growth for profit. Those spare rooms, empty car seats, and idle hands can be translated into money, once they are brought to market. Social relations which might have been characterized by real sharing are brought back under the aegis of monetary calculation and the logic of growth.

What we need is not more of the same old problem. What we need is less conspicuous consumption, less consumerism in general, and more fulfilling of real human needs in an equitable way.

We need sharing, and we also seriously need a clear idea of what sharing is and isn’t. That is if we are to move beyond a doomed economic model in which money is the measure of all things.

The goal of a sharing economy gives us a chance to do that.

Greenwashing has been around for years now. Corporations were not slow to realize that re-branding their products as “green” was a quicker, and much cheaper way to hold on to consumer loyalties than going the arduous, more expensive route of actually making their products better for the environment. Yet perhaps the allure of greenwashing has started to fade — entrepreneurs and marketing types are flocking to adopt the new buzzword “sharing” for their products, regardless of whether these involve any actual sharing per se.

The idea of a “sharing economy” is an important one, and urgently needed today. Rampant consumption and the imperative of economic growth are among the main causes for the environmental crisis we are now facing. Sharing resources we already have means cutting back on needless consumption; and sharing itself , the non-monetary movement of goods and services between friends and within communities, provides a long-overdue correction to the profit-driven expansion of our economic system.

So it’s important to be clear that the sharing economy as a whole is not involved in “sharewashing.” Below, I list three different ways that the term “sharing” has been roped into a sharewashing agenda.

The key difference between the promise of the actual sharing economy, and the flood of sharewashing companies seeking to hide under its mantle, is that the latter inescapably involve monetary exchange, for profit, in stark contrast to any definition of “sharing” your mother, presumably, once taught you.

Some people have kind, lovable landlords. Others aren’t so lucky. But all of us who rent our homes can be thankful that our landlords have chosen to share them with us — as long as we pay the rent, of course!

What? That doesn’t sound like “sharing” to you? You must not have heard how AirBnB — which facilitates short-term room subletting via the internet — has been touted as one of the premier examples of the “sharing economy.” Now, I have used and enjoyed AirBnB, as have many people I know. But is it a form of sharing?

Definitely and emphatically it is NOT.
It’s ridiculous to equate the AirBnB with a real sharing system like Couchsurfing and yet the AirBnB was spawned by Couchsurfing’s ideas. Only it was commercialized and it is a good example that in an economy there is space for both…

And AirBnB is not alone. Chegg lets students rent textbooks instead of buying them; Getable is an app that helps you rent tools. Both of these are quite reasonable, useful enterprises — yet both Getable and Chegg have jumped on the “sharing economy” bandwagon as if it’s “manna” from heaven.

At best, using “sharing” when you really mean “renting” degrades the meaning of the word and introduces confusion, potentially disenchanting those who would otherwise be attracted to the sharing economy. At worst, this is a cover for seeking out occasions when people are already sharing and turning these back into monetary exchanges, the very opposite of sharing.

There is is an even more flabbergasting, and frankly frightening, development of working being demeaned into sharing. Take the examples of Sidecar and Lyft. These are apps which allow you to drive your car around town, picking up passengers and taking them where they want to go, for money.

Sound like a taxi? No way! This is “ridesharing.” It’s not like a taxi in that you don’t need a taxi license or medallion, and you get paid via a “suggested donation” rather than a legally established fare…

It is like a taxi in that you get paid for driving people where they want to go, and because Lyft or Sidecar, or whichever competing service you use, takes a percentage of your income, just like a Taxi company does…

What do Lyft and Sidecar drivers share that taxi drivers don’t share? That would be much of the risk of doing business — in fact, the companies give the drivers all the risk, they’re that generous! “Ridesharing” drivers drive their own cars, use their own fuel, and pay their own insurance. And they are also the ones on the line when their pseudo-taxis get busted or when their insurance is denied after an accident because they were operating as an unlicensed taxicab.

And the taxi/ridesharing companies are not even the most extreme example of this. Consider TaskRabbit.

A TaskRabbit is an everyday person, just like a Sidecar or Lyft driver, but willing to do almost any task or chore that you have a need for. What’s even better, TaskRabbits will bid against each other to do the job, so you can pick the cheapest! Goodbye minimum wage laws! No more driving down to sketchy neighborhoods to hire desperate immigrants off the street corners. TaskRabbit brings all this to you — and takes a percentage, of course!

What is behind this urge to call working — and not just any kind of work, but difficult, low-paying, and often dangerous work — “sharing?” Simply put, TaskRabbit, Sidecar, Lyft and similar companies are at the forefront of the impoverishment of the US workforce. Taking people out of the Middle Class and getting them into a more and more uncertain and poverty stricken situation without worker’s rights is not an answer to chronic unemployment but a devolution of society to Serfdom.

Remember how many workers used to have unions, pensions, health insurance?

And now they don’t?

The erosion of worker power and their removal of the Middle Class status is an erosion of Democracy and Liberty. And it doesn’t stop there.

Because the loss of worker’s rights at the flexible digital marketplace where everyone is a nobody, has some self serving limitations.

Previously precious workers now lack job security, and long term career prospects. The uncertainty factor and the lack of civil protections like worker’s comp, unemployment benefits, health insurance, and even minimum wage laws — makes their collective standing untenable as anything but modern serfs…

Consequently am afraid that I see the serfs sharpening the pitchforks and coming for You as my friend Nick Hanauer heartily suggests…



The real questions here are squared at the companies who benefit from this trend. Where is the long term Vision, the Clarity and the Business Ethics?

The reason why sharewashing is so unpalatable is because it lacks vision, and instead it is unethical and unclear as a business model.

So the companies exploiting this new “digital proletariat” to sharewash their products are just that. Ephemeral mirages without any long term value to speak of.

To the question: Why don’t your workers make a living wage? they answer glumly:

Oh, they aren’t working … they’re “sharing”

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