My doubts about the ‘sharing’ economy

On Twitter, my friend Dougald Hine brought Susie Cagle’s comic-laced article, ‘The Case Against Sharing: On Access, Scarcity, and Trust,’ to my attention. In this post, Cagle argues that the ‘sharing’ economy is only nominally so. The economic and historical conditions that make possible this ‘sharing’ economy cannot, she thinks, be lost sight of. She writes, ‘The sharing economy’s success is inextricably tied to the economic recession, making new American poverty palatable. It’s disaster capitalism.’

This is incontrovertibly, manifestly true, and it is for this reason that she has cause to put ‘sharing’ within quotes throughout most of the piece. Still, one has to spell out further the economic and historical conditions only alluded to therein, and I think my friend Dougald does a fine job of this in his Dalarna talk about the rise of the precariat class. It seems prudent, then, to point you there and to leave that task up to him.

The question that Cagle wants to ask is different from the one I wish to ask. Her leftist-inspired question, ‘Who is left out of the equation, and what power interests underlie the so-called sharing economy?,’ is, to be sure, a fine and legitimate one about justice (where justice is conceived of as equality). My philosophical question, though, is more basic. Is this not a category mistake in which one sort of economic arrangement–an exchange together with an agreement–is mistakenly called another sort–an act of sharing? For it is manifestly not the case that any of these services are acts of sharing. To say that it is is to say what is mere sophistry. As a young boy, I knew what it meant to observe my older sisters sharing the eldest’s favorite sweater. I also know that sharing is not swapping and have no trouble distinguishing the former from the latter. But I don’t see how AirBnb, Lyft, etc. is setting up an economic arena in which one person is actually sharing something (food, water, shelter, clothing, etc.) with another. No, no: this is simply an LA-style (so to speak) form of exchange. In LA, faux-friendship is the veneer of transacting. Shall we say–in a word–that the ‘sharing’ economy of the sort pushed by AirBnb and its peers is simply a fake?

Let me round this post off. In need of being reclaimed are various concepts as well as their attendant, friendly relationships: hospitality, invitation, sharing, giving, requesting, offering, and the like. These concepts will only have a home, I want to argue, in the right sort of life. What, then, is the good life, and what does it mean to justly and consonantly sustain a life that is excellent? These are the sort of things I will be considering in my fall course, ‘The Good Life and Sustaining Life,’ to be held at Kaos Pilots in Denmark.

On not owning a couch

The best thing that fairly well-to-do parents can do today would be to refuse the temptation to buy their children their first couch. A few recent tweets tell something of the story about the American precariat:

‘Student Debt Slows Growth as Young Spend Less’  (More news about status of American #precariat)

‘The Idled Young Americans’: on the precariat.  ‘26.2 percent of Americans between ages 25 & 34 were not working.’

‘Suicide Rates Rise Sharply in U.S.’ 

Prudent 20- and 30-somethings will need to learn to live without beds when sleeping bags will do just fine. Places one might live should be already furnished; rent is to be avoided at all costs; leases are conceptual mistakes. Parents should buy their children a decent laptop and a good backpack and then let them be.

Unlike their parents, young adults will need to regard the unforeseen as a surprise, not as a sign of terror. They will have to cultivate courage and patience, openness and attention. They will have to replace ‘knowing’ with ‘not knowing, thus going and finding out for themselves.’ Most of all, they will have to pare down their inventory of items to only the basic essentials.

Early on, they might find in The Daodejing an excellent example of traveling through the world like a sparrow undistracted. They will have to settle down or settle in, of course, but settling for them will look like a very different thing. They will have to figure out how to be at home in a new world, one yet to be revealed.