there are sharing economies, and then there are “sharing” economies

The factories are empty or outsourced! Automation and globalization have lifted our economy from the fetters of industry decades ago; but what will production consist of, if not in “making things” (or at least material things).

Indeed! The tautology is unraveled! America is no longer “a nation of makers” (the insistence of Jack Donaghy and various car commercials notwithstanding); yet our GDP indicates that things of value are, nonetheless, made.

Cue the dawn of the virtual economy! Cue the dawn of the sharing economy! Cue the dawn of the bubble economy!

We have Airbnb, the Uber of the hospitality industry; we have iCracked, the Uber of the iphone repair industry; we have Uber…the, well, Uber of the transportation services industry. Truly– cyberspace is so dense with innovation, one can hardly remember what it was like ten years ago. Seriously, our sense of time and place in relation to the science fictional world we occupy now is all but lost. Silicon Valley has comfortingly stepped in to actualize the thrill and possibility of our new economic frontier as marginally more convenient access to servants. It makes one stop and wonder: What was cyberspace like ten years ago?

Couchsurfing and Craigslist; Linux and Wikipedia; possibly BitTorrent and its predecessors; youtube, Facebook, and Reddit–I guess it already was a sharing economy. You didn’t pay for these, but isn’t that what “sharing” means?

Despite Uber’s absence in Portland, the sharing economy here is giving way to the “sharing” economy with marked enthusiasm. And certainly, snark notwithstanding, there is nothing wrong with that! As anyone acquainted with the Principles of Basic Economics knows, one drives for Uber because it is better than available alternatives. The destitute choose servitude over starvation, or some such maxim. One does not blame the precondition on the result.

But what if the result cements the precondition? What if innovation becomes mimicry; sharing becomes serving; efficiency becomes sabotage; freedom becomes coercion; ignorance becomes strength (oops!) and the resulting hodge-podge of language sans language is too sticky and amorphous to allow us any further movement?

As Adam Smith cautioned us: “[Businessmen] have generally an interest to deceive and even oppress the public.” That Smith himself has become such an oft-wielded instrument of the deceit he cautioned against is one of the sad ironies of history. Yet here we stand, deceived as to basic implements of language! The innovative early outcroppings of the internet are monetized and mimicked, and then resold to the public as “innovative.” The polarization of wealth on which the “sharing” economy rests is at odds with actual sharing: low-rent venues that facilitate virtual or IRL sharing economies (net-neutrality, free boxes, community warehouses) are pushed out by the simultaneous breakthroughs of the innovative class. Tech workers with “more money than [they] know what to do with” are less likely to peruse the craigslist rideshare section, and more likely to hire would-be companions as servants who will not share their destination. Fortuitous encounters with prospective friends becomes sycophantism calculated to safeguard a precarious position.

Though, once again, this is all non-judgmental sardonicism. Keep on “sharing”! After all, sometimes we don’t want to meet someone new. Sometimes the institutional anonymity of a Marriott or whatever is far more relaxing than a new set of social possibilities. Sometimes the use of money to subordinate strangers is far more fun than sharing with them. I am not being facetious.

So what’s all the fuss about? It’s because Uber and its equivalents sell more than a simple product or service–they offer a brand. It’s the latest development in a long trend of market dematerialization: as economic activity moves from the circulation of basic commodities, products are less themselves and more the attitude they represent. Is Uber really so convenient that it warrants all its hype? Or does it signal a subscription to a broader worldview–where single-unit enterprises, liberated into the free market by their technocratic overlords, herald a utopic world to come? The conception of this organization as a “sharing economy” allows us to imagine that we really are operating at a new sphere of human existence, one defined by caring and sociality, but which is not limiting to the individual.

In this time of economic desperation–when pundits point to relative US wage gains decreasing to the point where domestic industry can compete with China again as something to celebrate–the entrapment and decline of the greater portion of our nation is interpreted as a sign of possibility and hope. The US is plunging into a servant economy, but the reality of desperation is reimagined as a fantasy of liberation. The technologies that have freed such swaths of our economic activity from mere material production have not been paired with commensurate social and political innovations. With wondrous economic means, but a ridiculous economic organization, the possibility of liberation becomes the reality of subordination, and in stubbornness or loyalty, we confuse these categories until sharing becomes “sharing,” and our world seems to make sense once again.

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