Mine, Ours, or Mr Burns’?

Last year, I was staying at the house of a friend who is a self-described anglophile, and one afternoon she gave me a cup of coffee in a mug with a joke on it. It was the classic british “Keep calm and carry on” insignia but with the crown inverted and the words changed to “Now panic and freak out.” I laughed—out loud, even—as it seemed a perfect expression of our shared east coast neuroticism but in the form of the mother country’s cultural superiority.

But not long after visiting her, I saw that image somewhere on facebook, and soon after that I saw about one hundred different adaptations of it in a hundred different places. Within the course of probably weeks, but certainly months, something I encountered went from seeming unique, personal and appealing to ubiquitous and cliche. This is the nature of contemporary culture. Nothing lasts very long.

If we add to this fast-paced cultural language two more aspects of modern life, the planned obsolescence of technology, and environmental awareness, it does not seem too surprising that the idea of a sharing economy might emerge. Things go out of style quickly, and they actually stop being usable as well. Given that, buying them just means you will have to throw them away before they wear out, which is wasteful.

One solution is to fight the trend—go back to old-fashioned, longer lasting methods, avoid getting material things when it’s not necessary, and generally opt out of the modern economy. But an easier method, especially provided the capacity to organize which information technology can provide, is to just share access. Instead of each of us buying an item that will be obsolete or out of style, we can buy access to a collection and constantly trade in for something we haven’t used yet. We can create a public library of power tools, clothes, furniture and electronics. For transport, there’s zipcar; for hotels, airbnb—both to cut costs and to increase convenience the dream of this sharing economy appeals to many.

But it has skeptics as well. The two most common forms of criticism are from different angles, but boil down to the same issue: there are business people who say it won’t be possible to make money, and there are idealists who say that it is nothing but a cover for squeezing pennies from the consumer for every use.

The worry, then, is that it must be something capitalists are just going to exploit, and this is proven by capitalists worrying over whether they’ll be able to exploit it. The outcome of understanding this so-called sharing as basically a form of micro-renting reveals that it can take away the lower class’s power by denying them ownership. Given this, the business world is perfectly happy to embrace what is essentially a new form of feudalism.

So is anything changing? Certainly the spread of information is far greater than in the past. Additionally, travel and movement is becoming more common, if not to the same degree in different social circles. These factors mean that there may be a shift in the importance placed on ownership. While at one time, the idea of property was rather directly identified with the owner (think of how the word is also used to refer to qualities), in a world so full of duplicates, what we are concerned with now is access.

When I leave my house, I make sure I have my phone, my wallet and my keys—all items that allow access to other things. Very little of it is unique property. If I lost these things, the annoyance would be getting my access back—new pieces of plastic or metal that could once again allow me have or provide various information. A shared economy seems a natural enough extension of that. Rather than carry a bike around, the modern consumer expects to have a card in the wallet or an app on the phone that allows access to bikes as needed.

Clearly most of us are not so nomadic as to be able to just create a new home every night, but at the same time the deepest roots will probably be where the most social activity takes place, and if that is through texts and posts as much as in living rooms, it may become easy to feel at home if one can get to facebook or twitter, with less need for a physical space that represents community. Perhaps what matters is who has got control of those domains. The classic concerns that public ownership is incompetent while private is too greedy and self-centered persist, and it is clear that the idea of a sharing economy isn’t going to erase the issues that come with property. But the relationships might be changing nonetheless.

  1. Nice post. Are you going to dive into specifics on how this idea would work? I understand the “big idea,” but I’m left wondering how this big idea would actually work specifically.

  2. The big idea isn’t really one idea, since it will make such a difference how ownership ultimately is handled. The way the sharing economy is currently being promoted, local non-profit libraries are seen as having commonality with major business enterprises that could be seen as aimed at the reduction of working class ownership. There’s a reason for this, since both are given traffic by a shift in demand toward short term or noncommittal exchanges. Nonetheless, it will make a difference who is actually holding the reins.

    But the key thing is that the shift from personal collection to access is already taking place. Plenty of young people have never “owned” music at all, and have no need to – if any song, book, or image is available when it’s wanted, the idea of purchasing and carrying around individual copies of every one that you like starts to seem anachronistic. We’ve done this in the form of services before when a caretaker like a cabdriver could handle the access. Now we can do that through technology – a code or electronic key – and skip the middleman. Currently these kinds of programs can result in a fair amount of theft and vandalism, but, people used to be worse about littering, too. My next question would be whether this would ever extend outside of cities, or if it would just be another divide between urban and rural areas…

  3. Steve Merrick

    I’ll stick with individual ownership because I don’t trust *them* not to withhold stuff from me, or increase the cost of access. How will that be overcome, I wonder?

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