The most significant examples of what used to be called the ‘sharing economy’ are giant corporations pursuing monopoly power – what exactly is being shared?
‘Sharing” is one of the most rhetorically abused virtues of the age. First we had the euphemism “file-sharing”, for duplicating and uploading copies of albums or films to the internet. Well, you can’t share what isn’t yours in the first place. (If I pilfer money from a bank and give it to my friends, I might plead that I was just “money-sharing”, but I am more likely to be convicted of robbery.) And now we supposedly have a “sharing economy”, the most-often cited two examples of which – Uber and Airbnb – are giant corporations pursuing monopoly power and fighting governments the world over. What exactly is being shared here, and in whose interest?
The first “sharing economy” organisations allowed members to timeshare things such as cars or power tools, rather than owning one each and leaving it idle most of the time. In their purest form such groups were “peer-to-peer”: self-organising, with no central authority. Once a for-profit company is set up to handle the logistics – such as Zipcar – however, the notion of “sharing” is arguably already out of the window. Still, there remained the kernel of a communitarian idea in the origin of Airbnb, founded by two tech workers who rented out airbeds in their spare rooms for a conference, and thought there might be a market.