Technology businesses have a genius for inflicting indignities on us and spinning them as virtues. When they don’t want to respect copyright, they talk about the ‘democratisation of content’. When they want to truffle through our contact lists and browsing histories, they talk about ‘openness’ and ‘personalisation’. A hundred years ago, when a widow had to take in lodgers to pay the bills, it was called misfortune. Today, when an underemployed photographer has to rent out a room in his house or turn his car into a taxi, it’s called the ‘sharing economy’. First Google took his job. Now Airbnb wants his house. Next they’ll be after his pets.
In fact, they already are. Businesses are now emerging which offer you the chance to turn those hairy, underutilised masses snoring on the kitchen floor into cold hard cash. The theory goes that cities are full of animal lovers who want a brief fling with your golden retriever without the commitment of long-term ownership. The pet owner gets paid and brings a smile to the emotionally stunted urban professional who takes Fido for the weekend. The world is a better place. But you do wonder where it all stops. Since we’re talking about renting out dear family members, there’s always Granny, sitting underutilised in the corner. Why not monetise her spare time by renting her out to homesick travellers? They get to spend a relaxing few hours with a kind-hearted pensioner on a Sunday afternoon. She gets cash. Build an app to match lonely travellers with grannies in their area, create a granny rating system… get me a venture capitalist!
The potential absurdities of the sharing economy stem from the fact that it has little to do with sharing at all. In a genuine sharing economy, we would all be lending and borrowing based on trust. What we call the sharing economy is in fact a transactional economy, one in which everything is commoditised. I don’t simply lend you my lawnmower. I pay to join a service which matches lenders and borrowers of lawnmowers, and each time a lawnmower is lent or borrowed, a price is paid and a commission ka-chunks into the accounts of the matching service. The banner companies of the sharing economy, Uber and Airbnb, do exactly this. They don’t own cars or apartments. They have created a platform where passengers find drivers and renters find property owners. Nothing gets shared. Everything is paid for. This is efficiency under the virtuous guise of sharing.
The origins of the sharing economy lie in a set of ideas and economic forces with good and bad implications. There is the peer-to-peer economy, in which rent-taking intermediaries are stripped out of the process — a good thing. I have a home to sell, you want to buy it. Let’s do the transaction without paying the useless estate agent. Then there is the idea of collaborative consumption, which arose from the sense that rather than all of us consuming more, we should consume what we have more efficiently. You have a car which you only use on weekends, perhaps I pay some of the costs and use it during the week. It’s cheaper than paying car rental companies, means we both use one car instead of buying two, and maybe we help the environment by all having less stuff. This becomes especially important as more people move into cities. As we all pile into tighter spaces, we can’t all have what we’d like, so it makes more sense to share. Again, all good.
But then it gets murky. In theory, the more we share through technology, the more data is gathered, the better services we receive. The more data we share about our health, the more medical researchers will have to work with, the better our treatment. The more we all share our musical tastes with Pandora or Spotify, the more appealing their streams. Until of course these companies start to act intrusively, bombarding us with marketing, abusing their pricing power and trading our most personal details as if they were crates of bananas. Uber has been especially shoddy about this. Last December when an Islamist terrorist took hostages at a café in central Sydney, Uber’s prices surged as people clamoured for taxis to get them out of the area. The company apologised, blaming its algorithm for kicking in without understanding the reasons for the unexpected demand. Even the best-intentioned companies — and given all the criticism, Uber doesn’t appear to be one of them — cannot guarantee that their algorithms won’t yank us all around in the end.
It is no coincidence that the sharing economy has thrived since the global economy tanked. It has provided a way for many to stay afloat and stay in place. As the expense of living in cities like New York and London far outpaces average incomes, the ability to rent out a room or pick up a driving gig has been a lifesaver. All those rooms for rent in nice parts of Manhattan and London aren’t being offered up by the top 1 per cent of earners. The activity on Airbnb reflects the strangulated cries of the economic middle classes trying to cling on to the last of what they have. It’s not sharing, but financial desperation. All these newly minted landlords are stealthily turning once-settled communities into tourist zones, where no one stays for more than a few days.
Sharing is also part of the evolution of the gig economy, in which people with once-steady jobs try to piece together a living from scraps. The optimistic view of this is that by making a market of everything, technology has made it possible for real value to shine. No one can hide any longer behind regulations, job titles or middlemen. It’s what you produce that counts, the ratings you receive, the delight of your customers. Uber drivers are rated on a scale of one to five, and if they fall below 4.6 for too long, they risk being bumped off the platform. Hurrah for economic efficiency!
The grim view is that we are facing the Uberisation of everything. Every minute of your working life will soon be subject to the tools and habits emerging from the sharing economy. Secure jobs will be replaced by an endless series of gigs, in which you are measured and rated at every step, and if you slip even for a moment, you’re out because there are no barriers any more to becoming a landlord or a taxi driver and the community doesn’t want losers. Any joys derived from a flexible, collaborative, sharing economy are wiped out by ceaseless competition and the constant terror of public humiliation. The creators of the new sharing platforms are already becoming stupendously rich. Uber’s most recent round of investment valued it at more than £27 billion. And that is never going to be shared with the pipsqueak sharers.