Haves and have nots in the sharing economy

By Francisco Dao , written on May 7, 2013

From The News Desk

The sharing economy is almost universally portrayed as a good thing. A move toward a less materialistic culture and a way of living a “smaller,” more sustainable lifestyle. Who could argue with maximizing something’s utility value, whether that be a car, a house, a lawn mower, or anything else? For true believers, the concept of “ownership” is a thing of the past, a concept almost bordering on being shameful.

While I love the altruistic belief system that underlies the sharing economy, I think it’s based on a misperception that all of the participants are part of some kind of global kibbutz where ownership is communal. But this simply isn’t true. Ultimately, somebody still owns the items being shared. Sometimes it’s a private person, as is the case with most of AirBnB, but other times it’s a corporation such as Avis (ZipCar). When a company owns the resources being “shared,” it isn’t really a sharing situation at all so much as just a new way for you to rent something. And lumping it all together under the guise of the sharing economy is just marketing spin to make you think you’re not being a typical consumer.

Even in the situations with private owners, there is still a dichotomy between the owners of the resources and the renters. I’ve heard of several cases of people using AirBnB to rent out multiple properties on a repeated short term basis, using the platform to fill so many properties that they’re essentially running virtual hotels. While there isn’t anything shady or wrong about this, is it really in the spirit of what most people consider the sharing economy?

From what I gather, the roots of the sharing economy can be traced to a combination of difficult finances faced by much of the millennial generation, combined with an awareness of our environmental impact. Once people figured out they could use the Internet to facilitate the exchanges, the sharing economy was born.

As I mentioned above, this spirit of sharing is the altruism that underlies the movement, but somewhere during its maturation, the sharing economy took on a different role. It became less about borrowing something you needed and more about giving people access to things they couldn’t afford. The sharing economy lets you rent anything for a day, sometimes even an hour. Everyone can taste luxury or style for a reasonable price.

When the sharing economy evolved into the access economy, it took on a similar role as credit plays in fooling poor people into thinking they’re still living it up. As long as people can rent something and still experience it for however short a period of time, they feel they’re not missing out. And just as easy credit distracted the declining middle class from their dwindling net worth by allowing them to continue buying toys, it seems at least part of the sharing economy inadvertently serves to distract the non-owners, the people who lack possessions, from their lack of resources by giving them access to things they couldn’t otherwise afford.

As a whole, I still think the sharing economy is a positive development. But the question of who ultimately owns the goods and the dichotomy between the “landlords” and the “renters” in the global sharing community is kind of a dirty secret that nobody wants to acknowledge. It’s important to remember that despite all the talk about ownership being a thing of the past, at the end of the day somebody still owns all of this stuff, and often, that somebody is just another company.

I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to give up on sharing, but keep in mind that if you don’t own anything in this ecosystem, wrapping it up in the pretty package of the sharing economy doesn’t change the fact that you are just a short term borrower of someone else’s property.