Putting things in context is not to let just anything happen. It is also being clear that the “hype” that’s being built with a number of lies that will inevitably lead to disappointment. These are, in my judgement, the five big ones.
Talking about the collaborative world these days is as dangerous as walking on shifting sands. Under the “sharing” and the “co-whatever,” there hides a wide minefield of concepts and phenomena mixed together. To be immersed in the world of the collaborative economy today is, often times, contradictory and surprising.
Of course, there are classifications and dictionaries that give it all order and help us explore, and neither should we forget that all this forms part of a much broader process, of which “sharing” consumption and access to resources is only one very small and superficial part, within very powerful changes and perspectives.
But putting things in context is not to let just anything happen. It is also being clear that the “hype” that’s being built with a number of lies that will inevitably lead to disappointment. These are, in my judgement, the five big ones:
- Platforms are communities. That’s a lie. Whatever definition of community we use, Airbnb, Uber, Zipcar, Blablacar, and the many clones of all of them are not communities. Adhering to conditions of use doesn’t even point towards “community standards.” Let’s be honest, the large majority of collaborative consumption platforms are markets. Barter markets in some cases, non-profit markets in others, traditional labor markets in still others, and even markets of restoration… but, markets: places where transactions are made, even if some are relatively cheap and others even at zero price. They’re still markets. And a market is something completely different from a community, and the two provide experiences that are nothing alike. Or do we really think the start-up world could be expected anything other than bid us “Welcome to the Jungle?”
- The “sharing economy” creates conscious consumption. That’s a lie. We’re told that it’s better to reuse than to be compulsive buyers, and that it’s time to be conscious of our consumption. And that’s true. But if the boom in the sharing economy coincides with the longest economic crisis in the history of capitalism, it’s not by chance. With the middle class seeing its buying power reduced, sharing has grown because it offers to maintain something like the standard of living of the “good years.” Travel, but stay in a stranger’s room or in a little tourist hotel outside of State regulation. Go out to eat, but to the apartment of a chef who organizes the meal, rather than to a restaurant. Go by taxi, but pay less, because the taxi driver works under the table and the car is private. Now everything’s OK again! But the argument is a fallacy. I don’t believe that consumption is more conscious if it takes advantage of people’s precariousness and the shortcuts that so many people have had to take to survive the crisis.Sure, they’ve painted it with a little amnesia, and they’ve put new labels on it to make sure it’s still cool. One of the many examples is vintage fashion, because sharing clothes with your brothers/sisters is not the same as buying it second-hand. If your jacket was once your cousin’s, you weren’t in fashion. But now, second-hand clothes and accessories have gone from being looked down on to being cool, and you can bet someone will ask you for the address or website of the store you shop at, so they can go get stuff like yours. It’s not that the obsession with buying, the famous consumerism, has disappeared. It’s simply been adapted and started valuing things that used to be seen as being “for the poor.” The longstanding flea market that people used to want to relocate now becomes an obligatory Sunday stroll. Stores that were once on hidden streets now reappear in maps of exclusive sites and are the creme de la creme.
- The “sharing economy” is a new mode of production. That’s a lie. To present the P2P production as part of the “sharing economy” is to confuse things by equating ways of creating wealth that are very different and erasing what P2P really represents.P2P production is centered on the creation of the commons. That’s what transforms the nature of capital and the market. But is that the way it really is in the thousands of “Ubers” that enter the risk-capital market? Does Airbnb create anything resembling a commons? Obviously not. And to confuse things only leads to the things that matter most losing meaning. Quoting Natalia:
Collaborative consumption is not part of the transition towards a P2P mode of production if isn’t in the framework of the development of the commons and P2P production, in the same way that consumer cooperativism does not create democracy in an economy if it is not in the framework of a cooperative industrial community.
- The businesses of the “sharing economy” promote economic activity that displaces capitalism and promotes a new use of the city. That’s a lie. If we study the “Airbnb effect” in a city like Barcelona, we’ll see that it moves us farther away — a lot farther — from the “sharing city.” The difference between Airbnb and Hilton is not not even the difference between a business of the direct economy and a large, inefficient corporation with the strength of over-scaling. Airbnb, Uber, Blablacar and others are not behind the substitution of independent SMEs for the industrial fabric of big businesses whose decomposition is gutting the productivity of cities. In fact, as Bruce Sterling pointed out, by promoting highly centralized models, these business fit into and promote the worst of “smart cities,” deepening precariousness and taking sovereignty from people and the city as a whole. As Sterling asked, “do you think San Francisco or any big American city would let its new taxi system be run by a business located in Barcelona?”
- The activity of the businesses of the “sharing economy” strengthens community bonds and helps resist the social effects of the crisis. That’s a lie. The type of human relations built by the best-known “sharing” platforms are far from creating community or establishing links that strengthen social cohesion. On the demand side, they support the economy of precariousness, shortcuts, and “anything goes,” while on the demand side, they eliminate the need for collaboration and real human relationships, replacing it with interaction through a platform. That is why, as Caro said not long ago in a chat:
[It’s not even] enough to develop independence from centralized platforms. The simple solution to our problems of access to goods or services through sharing does not create the type of interrelationships and responsibilities that characterize the commons. Just the opposite, generally — the use of platforms in exchange exempts us from the responsibility for building relationships, for observing community needs and organizing to respond to them.
So, is the “sharing economy” bad?
No. Absolutely not. It’s just that we must distinguish, and not accept the lies of the “hype” uncritically or in all cases. There are models of couch-surfing that really are communal, and do not create the disasters of Airbnb. There are models of car sharing that don’t try to sell themselves as an alternative mode of production and that were able to evolve from the commons to a business, and from there, be integrated into public services, helping to reduce traffic. Because in reality, the main contribution of the “sharing economy” is to transmit a culture of efficient use of durable consumer goods.
So, I think it is necessary to put the “sharing economy” in context, not to lose the critical view of the talk about their businesses, and above all, not forget that if they contribute to changes of real importance, it won’t be because they tried to be more than they really are, but by taking on a deeper perspective.