During a recent conversation with my friend Pete Sims about my upcoming Kaos Pilots course, ‘The Good Life and Sustaining Life,’ we spent some time discussing the case of Airbnb. Airbnb came to mind because I had recently written a post about a certain category mistake: those companies which urge us to take part in the ‘sharing’ economy are mistaking ‘agree to exchange A for B’ for ‘sharing A.’ Two people who make and eat food together are sharing it while one person who pays another to make him food is making an agreement with him; both are agreeing that a certain exchange (money for service) is fair and reasonable. Airbnb and its ilk are therefore not involving in a sharing economy at all; the whole thing, as I argued, is mere fakery.
This argument led Pete to speak about something he recently heard. Airbnb, he said, is now considering getting into meals in order (I suspect) to ‘disrupt’ the restaurant industry. I imagine the idea would be for hosts to make dinner for guests at their homes and for guests to be able to reserve seats and make payments via an online platform. Both Pete and I thought this sounded eerie and horrid. Why did we respond in this way?
I take it the neoliberalization of our present economic life has extended so far as to include material needs: food, shelter, transportation, and clothing. In this post, my thesis will be that we may noticing the shift from various more recognizable social understandings such as onus and hospitality to ‘operational’ and ‘optimizational’ understandings of a rather novel kind. Let me elaborate.
Consider, as Pete pointed out, the case of subletting your apartment. People still sublet their apartments on the assumption that were they not to do so it could soon prove to be a financial burden for them. The further assumption is that no one wants a stranger to be subletting his apartment, and yet he feels that it’s necessary in light of his present economic situation. Suppose he is a writer living for six months in Portugal. How, given his meager savings, can he live in Portugal at the same time that he pays the rent in order to maintain his apartment in Brooklyn?
The one for whom subletting would alleviate a financial burden represents an old, though still very present way of thinking. No one is confused about what the writer is up to when he makes this arrangement. Now, however, we need to imagine a very different case: someone is away visiting family for two to four weeks. In the past, he would have thought nothing of leaving his apartment be as is or of offering it to a friend. In the economic world we have begun to enter, however, he may ask an entirely novel question of his apartment: How can it be used to its utmost in my absence? By asking this question, he transforms his apartment into a place of exchange.
I believe this way of thinking involves two related movements. One involves operationalizing something that before was ‘merely inert’: I put my ‘dead’ or ‘dormant’ apartment ‘into use.’ The other is to seek to optimize the use of my apartment: what can be done with it and for how much? How can I get the most out of it?
I find this logic striking since it can easily migrate to all other things that one owns and that are not currently ‘in use’: a car, an appliance, a wardrobe, a pool, a back porch, a meditation room, a bed where a weary traveler can rest for two hours, etc. Once ‘dead’ or ‘quiet,’ all could be put into circulation. Granting various risks, questions of trust, matters of insurance, possibilities of dispute and disagreement, the operatationalizer may place his bet. Yet in doing so, this fledgling optimizer will most surely lose the ability to grant favors, offer gifts, invite friends over, and prepare common meals not because he can no longer perform these acts but because he would be, all the while, spending his time calculating opportunity costs.
Being neighborly, chipping in, doing favors, making requests, relishing the present moment, giving a gift, offering a hand of support: all potentially lost. This is why Airbnb-like moves in home meals are eerie as well as horrid.