On the same day I put my spare room on Airbnb I also had my first cabshare experience, courtesy of Uber. When I mentioned this to a young friend of mine, he patted me on the back and said, ‘Welcome to the sharing economy!’
The sharing economy is one of those buzz terms that everyone uses these days — but what exactly is it? Apparently, it refers to a whole range of online goods and services that instead of buying and owning, we can borrow, rent or have access to — sometimes free, usually for a price. Likewise, we can be the ones providing these goods or services, and make a profit. Share a taxi ride, borrow a dog for an afternoon or rent out your flat for the weekend and you’re part of the sharing economy.
But you’re also part of a brighter and better future — at least according to sharing economy evangelists. They claim it’s a grassroots movement that’s going to radically change capitalism and consumerism as we know it. As my young friend put it, ‘No more yours and mine. In the future everyone will be sharing everything.’
It was then that it suddenly hit me: this sharing future was something I’d already experienced in the past. It was called the 1960s! Of course, we didn’t have the internet and apps back then — but we had the vision and the values that underpin today’s sharing economy. Property was theft and profit was evil, we said. Consumerism was bad for you and bad for the planet. We were going to create an alternative society with an economy based on sharing — and sharing every-thing: your property, your car, your tools, your body, your mind, even your spouse.
That was called free love. Free lovers were against marriage, monogamy and exclusive sexual relationships of any kind. It was the era of orgies, one-night stands and open marriages (my bohemian parents had one of those). This was called ‘alternative lifestyle experimentation’. I called it being a selfish slag.
In today’s sharing economy you still have free love; but now it’s called Tinder and it offers sex with thousands of people at a mere swipe. We had to spend three days in mud at a rock festival to meet that many potential sexual partners. The 1960s notion of instant intimacy leading to quick sex was summed up perfectly by the Doors song that went, ‘Hello I love you, won’t you tell me your name?’ In the age of Tinder it’s more, ‘Hello. Let’s shag.’
In the 1960s, stripping off and sharing your naked body with the world was promoted as a means of personal liberation. In those pre-smartphone times, we did not have the ability to send pics of our private parts to strangers, like today’s exhibitionists; but we had the underground press and porn magazines for hippies. Germaine Greer, among many, shared her vagina in Suck magazine in 1969. As a teenager I came across a photo of my naked dad in that same publication; nearly 50 years later, my therapist says I’m making good progress on that one.
At the forefront of the sharing economy is Uber, an app to share a ride. We didn’t need this; back then, you just stuck out your thumb and after about six hours in the pouring rain a car or truck would stop and pick you up. Then there is Airbnb, which allows you to travel around the world and stay not at some soulless, corporate hotel chain for tourists, but at someone’s actual home. We had a form of this in the 1960s too — it was called the crash pad. You didn’t need to stay at a hotel; you could ‘crash’ at someone’s pad who was a friend or a complete stranger. (It was Airbnb without the clean towels and sheets.) There were people who travelled for years all over the world crashing at people’s pads — and leaving their pubic hair on your soap. We called them freeloaders; today they’re called ‘the nomads of the sharing economy’.
One of those international crash pads was my parents’ house. As good bohemians, they welcomed everyone regardless of race, colour or personal hygiene to come and crash for a few days. I can remember arriving home late one night with my girlfriend and finding a large bearded man with long greasy hair sleeping in my bed with his ‘old lady’. When I asked for my bed back, instead of an apology I got a long lecture about what was mine was his, and what was his was mine. ‘Man, you need to learn to share!’ he said.
You often heard the share mantra in the 1960s, usually from people who had nothing to share. To be fair, he did offer to move over and share my bed with me and my girlfriend.
Today’s sharing economy isn’t just about goods and services — it’s also about sharing your self: what you think, want, believe and like. There’s no aspect of your life, however brilliant or banal, that you’re not encouraged to share on social media.
Mark Zuckerberg may have created Facebook in 2004, but its underlying concept — that everyone is interesting and should share their story with everyone else — comes from the 1960s. (I blame Joni Mitchell. She put it into people’s heads that they were golden and full of stardust.) Traditional notions of the private self and the value of reticence (as expressed in the idea of the stiff upper lip) began to be undermined by the 1960s ethos that to experience personal liberation you must ‘let it all hang out’.
The only thing we don’t share in today’s sharing economy is the profit we make from sharing. That’s the deceptive thing about the utopian idealism of it all; it lets people feel all alternative and radical and that they’re riding the wave of history into a better future. Sorry, but I’ve been there, borrowed the T-shirt and sold it on eBay.