I recently read ‘What’s yours is mine’ by Tom Slee and I have to say… what a bloody eye opener. I was skeptical when I first picked up the book from my local library because the subtitle is ‘A case against the sharing economy’, which means against Uber, against AirBnb and the likes. And I mean….I love AirBnb and I use Uber. Or better said, loved and used.
First things first, the book describes the sharing economy as a social movement. It states that it is about building a better future that solves some of humanity’s problems with a neighbour to neighbour approach. In theory, the social economy should help build a community, should drive down materialistic consumerism, and should support people towards becoming micro-entrepreneurs. In theory, it’s based on an egalitarian vision that’s built on openness, empowerment and peer to peer exchanges. In theory, it should be a sustainable alternative to mainstream commerce.
The book however removed those rose coloured glasses and painted a very compelling pictured of the sharing economy as a deregulated free-market that is negatively affecting previously protected areas of our lives.
My main A-Ha moments are around the following points and ideas:
1. The companies mentioned in the book (Uber and Airbnb being the icons we all know but there’s plenty others), are now multinationals – the very thing they were built against at the onset.
2. Those who actually work in the sharing economy are low paid and don’t have the protections & assurances that took decades of struggle to obtain – no insurances, no worker protection, no accountability, no superannuation, to name only a few. Customers are not protected anymore either – do you know when is the last time your Uber driver checked their brakes? Or if they can afford to do so? A taxi company has laws imposed on it to check the brakes of their vehicles every 6 months; this law does not apply to Uber, which has managed to classify itself as a technology company, the provider of a platform – taking all the benefits and profits, but dodging all of the responsibility and liability.
From an employment perspective, Uber drivers are not Uber employees, they’re ‘micro-entrepreneurs’, contractors. Another separation. Most often they earn below minimum wage while working over 60 hour weeks; they don’t benefit from annual holiday, nor worker compensation, no insurances or protections; while also being responsible for their own vehicles, their own safety and everything else.
It is an injustice and a modern form of slavery – it is basically the exploitation of a category of people for the benefit of a few privileged individuals who are in a position of power to call the shots. It is shameful and it infiltrated our privileged, entitled lives because we’ve been presented with a distorted view on what the service actually is.
3. The sharing economy is shaped by our behaviour as consumers, our behaviour as citizens and our behaviour as workers. Can we honestly and wholeheartedly trust that multinational COMPANIES, driven by shareholder profit as an incentive, can take over functions previously provided by governments such as guaranteeing a safe consumer experience, fair and dignified employment, shaping cities to be liveable and sustainable? My answer is a clear cut NO. Private companies owned by shareholders and investors are driven by monetary incentives. Monetary incentives clash with community welfare/wellbeing 99% of the time. Period. The sharing economy cannot ensure equality, sustainability and community development, and there are plenty of examples in the book of whole communities banning these companies altogether (Hi Paris!).
4. The sharing economy was developed and is owned predominantly by a small number of Silicon Valley technology firms backed by large amounts of venture capital. A handful of people calling all the shots, influencing laws and regulations all over the world, that sounds equitable and sustainable for humanity, right? No. Any sharing or community aspects that a small company might have at the start are shed when the company’s finances move to new heights.
My favorite quote is ‘Intimacy scaled up is no longer intimacy.’
5. What the sharing economy ended up being is a movement towards deregulation in a negative way (by removing responsibility and accountability where it is definitely needed) and negatively reshaping cities in the interest of venture capitalists. You have to read all the examples from all over the world to truly understand some of the devastating impacts – locals unable to afford to live in their own cities, entire neighborhoods becoming ghost areas, patrimony and culture destroyed etc.
6. Sharing economy advocates seek to recapture the egalitarian, sustainable and community focus that initially inspired the movement. Since reading the book, I’ve been paying attention to the adds Uber and AirBnb promote and they are so far from reality and from their impact as corporations, that it makes me cringe.
Truth is that with the involvement of (venture) capital, all sorts of problems arise within a company, including alienation of its original motives and members/community, as well as the erosion and distortion of the commons which it seeks to serve or capitalize. These problems only sharpen as the scale of financial involvement and free markets grows, leading to a lot of broken promises and a sense of betrayal.
What started as an appeal to community, person to person connection, neighbour to neighbour help, sustainability and sharing, has become the playground of billionaires.
The book concludes that new form of capitalism is being thrust upon us, one sprinkled with shit deregulation, new forms of entitled consumerism and privileged consumption (we want delivery and we want it NOW), and the forces that are at play are increasingly leading to precarious work and an increasing separation of risk from reward.
I’m curious, is this a book you’re keen to read? Let me know in comments.