What passes for sharing these days

The "sharing economy" has nothing at all to do with sharing.

By Mike Loukides
March 14, 2016
"Market Scene," by Pieter Aertsen, 1569. "Market Scene," by Pieter Aertsen, 1569. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

I’m tired of hearing pundits talk about the “sharing economy.” The “sharing economy” has nothing at all to do with sharing. I don’t have a fundamental problem with the business models or with the idea of part-time, ad-hoc businesses, but let’s not call this sharing.

If I give you a ride home from work, that’s sharing a ride. If I give you the keys and let you borrow my car for a day, that’s sharing the car. Paying Uber or Lyft for a ride is a commercial transaction that’s fundamentally no different from buying a carrot at a grocery store. You’d never say that Safeway is “sharing” its vegetables. Likewise, paying Airbnb for the short-term use of a home is no different from any other travel rental. It’s not like letting a friend stay in your home while you’re traveling. It’s a business deal.

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Sharing comes out of a community of shared concern, in which there’s already information about who and what to trust.

As business deals, these transactions need fundamentally different oversight and regulation. If I offer friends a ride, they presumably don’t need to know about my criminal record or driving history. If they don’t know me well enough to trust me, they shouldn’t accept the offer. (And yes, we all know that occasionally these legitimate cases of “sharing” go awry.) If I get a ride from Uber, Lyft, or a traditional taxi service, I’m trusting them to do the research: to check criminal records, and so on.

If I offer to let you use my house while I’m away, you’ve probably been there, know where it’s located, know how clean (or dirty) it’s likely to be, whether the neighborhood is quiet or not, etc. You won’t care if I haven’t vacuumed (unless I promised to), and you won’t have a big party and trash the house (or we won’t be friends any more). That’s essential to sharing: sharing comes out of a community of shared concern, in which there’s already information about who and what to trust.

My biggest problem with the “sharing economy,” though, is that it blinds us to bigger issues and more important kinds of sharing. Civil society is a kind of sharing where resources flow to serve the greater group. Do you want to know what a sharing economy really is? Fixing the water pipes in Flint, Michigan. Unfortunately, that’s the sort of sharing investment nobody is willing to make. Repairing nationwide water infrastructure—just water infrastructure, not highways or anything—will cost on the order of a trillion dollars. Most (though not all) of that is for water systems in poor cities with largely minority populations. Flint is certainly not the first city to face a water crisis, nor will it be the last. Want some sharing? That’s where to start.

Post topics: Next Economy
Post tags: Commentary

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