“Sharing,” My Ass!

Written late October 2014 for Grist; they decided not to run it and sent it to Shareable; they also declined. So here we are.

Have you shared lately?  I don’t mean “share” in the sense that most of us use the word — the sense that we’re taught in preschool and kindergarten, the sense that commonly implies “wait your turn” and “be considerate of others” — but rather in the Silicon Valley definition of the term, with the rather less-common meaning of “use an app to hire a stranger to perform a service for you.”

Wait, what?

As the battles over Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, and their ilk become ever-more pitched (this week saw Uber drivers protest in multiple cities across the country, and the company’s PR attempts at LA Weekly backfiring badly), it’s worth wondering how the heck these companies ever came to adopt the feel-good collective moniker of the “sharing economy.”  As originally conceived, the phrase was a rebellion against consumption, rather than a new and deregulated form of it; it was coined by thinkers operating outside the boundaries of traditional capitalism, and looking to redefine our concept of ownership and need.  Even before it had a name, the sharing economy had exemplars — Couchsurfing.org, for example, has existed for years as a worldwide hub for travelers, regulated only by social norms and community reputations (think of it as exactly as thorough and safe as Airbnb, except free).  Ridesharing was found not only in company-organized carpools but bulletin boards (whether at a coffeeshop or on Craigslist) and civic-led designated carpooling pick-up spots, not to mention, of course, the longstanding, grande dame of ridesharing: public transportation.

Neither Uber nor Lyft look anything like real ridesharing, so it’s strange that they’ve co-opted the term while focusing their attention on killing the real industry that they mimic: taxis.  Read Uber’s corporate press and you’ll hear a lot about “taxi cartels,” as if cabbies are nothing more than organized millionaire thugs who happen to sometimes drive people places.  The app companies are doing a public service, they claim, by “disrupting” this inefficient service, and while it’s true that taxi rules could be improved in many cities, this could just as easily be accomplished by disruption’s gentler cousin, reform — a process in which all stakeholders could participate, that might even resemble actual sharing.

The appeal of the “sharing economy” is obvious: public transportation is painfully unsexy, but dialing up a black car on your smart phone feels a little like being on an episode of “Gossip Girl.”  Couchsurfing is a hobby of vagrants and dirty hippies, but renting a couch (or a room, or a treehouse) somehow becomes aspirational.  One of the great lies of consumer capitalism is that value only exists as financial value, and so a service like Airbnb seems safer and more secure than the trust-reliant Couchsurfing.  I get it — when I traveled throughout South America in 2011, renting a room for three weeks via Airbnb felt vastly more proper and adult than arranging accommodations via Couchsurfing, but when my Airbnb host was a no-show and I was left stranded in Buenos Aires, it was the Couchsurfing emergency list that came to my rescue, no fee involved.

And therein lies the fundamental problem with the “sharing economy”: however much it co-opts the language of cooperation and collaboration, the “disruption” these apps promise most is the monetization of previously unvalued (financially, at least) interactions.  This sounds great on paper, particularly in a recession — hey, make some money doing the kinds of things you do anyway! — but as numerous studies have shown, introducing financial incentive into gift exchanges breeds distrust and destroys relationships.  You’re much more likely to become friends with your Couchsurfing host than your Airbnb landlord, and to be chummy with your carpool organizer or bus buddy than your Lyft driver.  The promise of human connection secured by money will always be false.

What’s not false, though, is the money these companies are making, and the anger their practices are generating.  Uber has been banned in Germany, and activists in places like New York and San Francisco are working to rein in Airbnb, which offers profit margins so far above long-term rental rates that mass evictions and conversions of buildings into exclusive Airbnb listings are leaving locals in a lurch.  The halo of “sharing” still offers these companies a comfortable veneer of anti-establishment do-goodery, even as Uber drivers run the numbers and realize their earnings fall below minimum wage, and even as the originators of the “sharing economy” concept have quietly abandoned the phrase — visit the websites of Shareable.net or the Sustainable Economies Law Center, which promote efforts like co-ops, b-corps, and community gardens, and you’ll read about the “new economy” or, more formally, the “social and sustainable economy”, or SSE.

In the interest of fairness, I think we should follow their quest for better labeling and call the “sharing economy” what it really is: the App-enabled Sub-minimum-wage Service Economy.  That’s a bit of a mouthful, so we can just go with an abridged acronym — the ASS economy.  Because only an ass could think it has anything to do with sharing.

Still true.

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