The Sharing Economy Won’t Triumph over Capitalism

The sharing economy makes us more flexible but is no substitute for a true social community.

When my Airbnb host introduced me to his children I was slightly bemused. The elder one of the two boys was Bruce and the baby – you guessed it – Lee. A young family who bolstered their mortgage payments with income from Airbnb. In my trip review I didn’t write that I had to ask for the sheets to be changed and that I was worried about waking the children. Their rating said that I, as an open and friendly person, was always welcome.

The ideal internet personality is mediocre: friendly, reliable, reluctant, open-minded but not intrusive. It’s important that host and guest take to each other. The relationship that arises may look like closeness, but in truth it’s only supply, demand and necessity. A week’s lease via Airbnb pays for the whole month – although the host may have to move out for days or weeks, and entire neighborhoods are affected by the inflated rents.

Work has become jobs and jobs are now gigs. The gig economy conveys small jobs to freelancers at short notice, like one-time performances by musicians. Online platforms specify the conditions and process the fee, claiming its employees are flexible workers freed of bureaucracy or fixed schedules. In fact, they earn less, lose insurance benefits and safety provisions but have to pay taxes nonetheless. Outsourcing platforms turn employees into precarious freelancers, relocate local production and increase competition through lower barriers to entry. To offer my service online, my reputation is critical and the reliability on display part of the business model. The entire person is judged. How do we deal with the pressure of being evaluated by everyone, of having to rate everyone and everything?

The entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley are seen as world changers who make the impossible possible. They start up with a cool app and then sell it at the best price. Is this economy, also called “collaborative consumption,” able to make capitalism better? Does it really preference community and sharing over ownership?

In a time of increasing social mobility, the perception of ownership has changed. In western cities a car has given way to participation in a car-sharing service as proof of ecological, sustainable values. But these models are not based on cooperative collective ownership, but on private property: it’s not about sharing, it’s about exchange and information. The online exchanges mean you can temporarily own things that don‘t belong to you.

But the sharing economy won’t triumph over capitalism. The new economy won’t make a more social world community. Everything that was previously removed from the economic cycle is increasingly being capitalized –including talents and personal traits.

The idea of time-sharing an apartment as well as a car or the memory capacity in the cloud is nothing to complain about. As long as we are aware that the sharing economy is an enhancement of consumption options and the increasing commercialization of our living together.

We have to stop attributing a private and apparently transparent aura to the business we do online.

Currently we are seeing a number of digital players with intelligent voice assistants, so-called echo products. Communication through computer will increasingly determine everyday life; we will be confronted with the autonomous actions of machines and programs – in the ideal case within the limits that we set for them. Computer screens and displays disappear in favor of these invisible data centers, which we access with our voices and which are supposed to make our lives easier. The once horror scenario of an chip implanted under the skin that controls a human being, has become a minimalist speaker.

With the echo products the last remaining barrier between consumers and programs vanishes, between us and the apps that use algorithms to categorize and direct our personal buying behavior. But how do we differentiate between influences and implementations on the one hand and our own needs and desires on the other?

How do we prevent consumption from determining who we are?

Angelika Reitzer
Angelika Reitzer, author of novels and plays, lives in Vienna. Her recent book Obwohl es kalt ist draußen (Although it‘s cold outside) was published in March 2018.

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