Sharing and Caring

Tom Slee: “A new wave of technology companies claims to be expanding the possibilities of sharing and collaboration, and is clashing with established industries such as hospitality and transit. These companies make up what is being called the “sharing economy”: they provide web sites and applications through which individual residents or drivers can offer to “share” their apartment or car with a guest, for a price.
The industries they threaten have long been subject to city-level consumer protection and zoning regulations, but sharing economy advocates claim that these rules are rendered obsolete by the Internet. Battle lines are being drawn between the new companies and city governments. Where’s a good leftist to stand in all of this?
To figure this out, we need to look at the nature of the sharing economy. Some would say it fits squarely into an ideology of unregulated free markets, as described recently by David Golumbia here in Jacobin. Others note that the people involved in American technology industries lean liberal. There’s also a clear Euro/American split in the sharing economy: while the Americans are entrepreneurial and commercial in the way they drive the initiative, the Europeans focus more on the civic, the collaborative, and the non-commercial.
The sharing economy invokes values familiar to many on the Left: decentralization, sustainability, community-level connectedness, and opposition to hierarchical and rigid regulatory regimes, seen mostly clearly in the movement’s bible What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers. It’s the language of co-operatives and of civic groups.
There’s a definite green slant to the movement, too: ideas of “sharing rather than owning” make appeals to sustainability, and the language of sharing also appeals to anti-consumerist sentiments popular on the Left: property and consumption do not make us happy, and we should put aside the pursuit of possessions in favour of connections and experiences. All of which leads us to ideas of community: the sharing economy invokes images of neighbourhoods, villages, and “human-scale” interactions. Instead of buying from a mega-store, we get to share with neighbours.
These ideals have been around for centuries, but the Internet has given them a new slant. An influential line of thought emphasizes that the web lowers the “transaction costs” of group formation and collaboration. The key text is Yochai Benkler’s 2006 book The Wealth of Networks, which argues that the Internet brings with it an alternative style of economic production: networked rather than managed, self-organized rather than ordered. It’s a language associated strongly with both the Left (who see it as an alternative to monopoly capital), and the free-market libertarian right (who see it as an alternative to the state).
Clay Shirky’s 2008 book Here Comes Everybody popularized the ideas further, and in 2012 Steven Johnson announced the appearance of the “Peer Progressive” in his book Future Perfect. The idea of internet-enabled collaboration in the “real” world is a next step from online collaboration in the form of open source software, open government data, and Wikipedia, and the sharing economy is its manifestation.
As with all things technological, there’s an additional angle: the involvement of capital…”