Try to think back to a North Atlantic country 20 years ago. It is 1995. Browser-interfaced internet is just beginning its diffusion. Otherwise, this is the heyday of retail capitalism resourcing suburban living. Imagine someone saying back then that in 20 years’ time, giving or getting car lifts to strangers, and hosting or enjoying short stays in spare bedrooms of people you do not know, will be a mainstream activity. You would probably laugh. ‘The sharing economy’ feels like an excessive claim, on the one hand because sharing suggests something old, that we have always been doing at least to some extent – in families, between friends, through government and with infrastructures; and on the other hand, the phrase seems to overreach, applying to such a diversity of practices, many of which are so commercial that they betray the ‘spirit’ of sharing. However, as Juliet Schor’s research has shown, the sharing economy is today a ‘thing’. While still economically marginal in the overall scheme, it is nevertheless widespread.
To a futurist, this phenomenon should feel significant precisely because it is generating so much variation and ‘talk’. Things carry forward when they are multiple: open to a range of motivations and innovations. So you could ask, why did forecasters in the 1990s miss the (re)rise of sharing? The answer should lie in what underlies the sharing economy, but it could also tell us something about futures studies in general, and how to read the future of sharing in particular. To some extent you could argue that futurists did not miss sharing. Visionaries of the internet, as it was arriving into domestic homes, hailed an economy of information sharing. And mappers of future scenarios imagined values like sustainability and communitarianism perhaps becoming influential. But both examples do not chime with how the sharing economy currently manifests. There is a quantum leap between sharing digital files and sharing physical goods and environments – because the latter are rivalrous goods, designed for one use at a time, whereas the simultaneous use of the former in no way reduces the quality of what is being shared.
Yet more significant is the fact that early digi-technoutopians were thinking about an anonymous peer-to-peer system. Today’s information sharing (pictures, news, etc.) occurs primarily on proprietary platforms centered around ‘true identity’. This is what seems to have provided the biggest impetus for the leap from sharing non-rivalrous goods, like files, to the sharing economy. Sharing platforms facilitate finding real, local people to exchange goods and services with, and offer the assurance that those people are re-findable should something go wrong and the products and environments shared lose their quality. There is much written about the sharing economy being a sign of a return of ‘generalised trust’ to our cosmopolitan cities. But this somewhat unanticipated version of an internet predicated on identifiability should in fact be understood as a way of reducing the need for trust when it comes to interactions like sharing.
Trust is an act of faith. You have reason to believe that your faith is justified, but it is only trust if there is still openness to the risk of betrayal. Digital sharing systems, acting as third-party connectors of record, allow transactions to occur without needing significantly greater trust. For the same reason, participation in the sharing economy does not require strong commitments to sustainability or communitarianism for example. As Schor has noted, sharing is done for a wide variety of sometimes competing reasons. Social software was not a technological innovation. The real difference was more of a sociotechnical co-evolution, people adopting the sociality afforded by mobile connectivity. Those new practices resulted from maturing system interface designs, allowing interactions between semi-strangers (‘friends’) to cross over to the ‘real life’ of the sharing economy. We are not used to thinking about design being what makes the difference to futures.
But do not misunderstand. What I am arguing can sound rather like the argument that runs, ‘The most likely futures will be the ones that design manages to make the most convenient.’ While the sharing economy is a future that was not evident in the 1990s – because design for interaction was under-acknowledged – people are not just sharing because it is more convenient. Do not think that people only do what is more convenient. One of the interesting things about particular practices within the sharing economy is that they tend to have an irreducible face-to-face character – and I mean this as deliberately different from the more abstract notion of peer-to-peer. When I get a lift from a stranger in their car, when I stay at someone’s house or apartment, my encounters with them are quite ambiguous. In one respect, they are just a service-providing micro-entrepreneur. But they nevertheless are in no way an employee performing an alienated role as part of a salary-paying job. No matter how commercial our interaction or how mediated the arrangement has been by a third-party corporate platform, it is evident that this is a person engaging me with more autonomy than capitalist employment usually allows.
This makes each act of sharing somewhat socially awkward – no matter how frictionless the designed before-and-after of the transaction. This suggests that the burgeoning sharing economy is not merely a matter of convenience, over and above values for instance. Participants are opting for ways of satisfying needs that are not necessarily the most convenient. People are accepting certain social costs as part of economic transactions. From the perspective of Karl Polanyi, who argued in The Great Transformation that the history of capitalism is the disembedding of economic interactions from social relations, this is very significant.
There are indicators that part of the reason for this shift is the variability that the sharing economy allows. Sharers are able to be ‘slash-slash’ people: a writer who is also a waiter and a Lyft driver; a social entrepreneur subsidised by Airbnb hosting and some TaskRabbit contracts; a musician who is mobile because they are less encumbered by possessions and able to find cheap accommodation easily; a teacher by day and a caterer by night because of a shared commercial kitchen and ride-sharing. In that case, the future of the sharing economy is less about post-materialist values and more about practices that go beyond singular identity-defining employment. More important than this is the conclusion that futurists should pay more attention to evolving transitions in sociotechnical behaviour – rather than to abstract values or reified technological innovations.
Cameron Tonkinwise is Director of Design Studies at Carnegie Mellon University
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