THE TYRANNIES OF COLLABORATIVE CONSUMPTION

THE TYRANNIES OF COLLABORATIVE CONSUMPTION

Michael O’Regan, Institute for Tourism Studies, Macau

We are told we are undergoing a rapid explosion in sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting and swapping, scaled up in ways never possible before because of new social technologies and economic and environmental imperatives. These are manifested through food, energy and resource scarcity, falling public investment in infrastructure, increasing oil and food prices, unemployment, a credit squeeze and decreased trust in institutions of government. We are told of a new model that is so economically, socially and environmentally revolutionary, that it’s moving society away from hyper-consumption, and is potentially as important as the industrial revolution.

Collectively termed ‘Collaborative Consumption’ (CC), it presents itself to us in multiple, shifting forms. It is attracting a new breed of entrepreneurs, the public sector, venture capitalists and start-up corporations who believe the ‘entitled, self-interested consumer’ (Botsman and Rogers, 2010: 216) has come to develop consistent and specific motivations. Such consumers seek to leverage their assets and resources and to realise their real value by capitalising on their liquid and economic value through renting (or sharing) them out.

Advocates, like TIME magazine (which marked it as one of the 10 ideas that will change the world‘) argue that CC platforms, structured by how we live today, increase access to wealth and employment, while strengthening the social fabric.  Their economics of scope functions in an increasingly decentralized world. As people share their assets and resources, such as their car, bike, tools, apartment, clothes, skills through collaborative consumption communities (CCC) to people who can’t afford such assets or simply do not want to own them outright, access is valued over ownership and experience is valued over material possessions.

Adept, at promoting ‘socio-ideological motifs’ (ecology and social solidarity), as also noted by Slavoj Zizek, Botsman and Rogers (2010: 216) argue in their book ‘What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption,’ that CC is a ‘systems change,’ because it converts hyper-consumption into ‘fewer products, more efficient usage, less material consumed, reduced waste and more social capital’ as well as providing, ‘environmental benefits by increasing use efficiency, reducing waste, encouraging the development of better products, and mopping up the surplus created by overproduction and consumption’ (ibid, xvi).

Botsman and Rogers divide CC platforms into three areas: product-service systems that facilitate the sharing or renting of a product (i.e., zipcar – car renting); redistribution markets, which enable the re-ownership of a product (i.e., ebay); and collaborative lifestyles in which assets and skills can be shared (i.e., TaskRabbit – get strangers to do your chores).

A new explosion in speculative capital has given rise to a host of CC platforms such as RentTheRunway (access designer clothing), socialflights (offers access to private flights), Qraft (share luxury recreational vehicles), ReFashioner (swap designer clothes), Gigwalk (on demand mobile work force), EventUp (loan out your property for an event), Loosecubes (share your office), campinmygarden (loan your garden) and ParkAtMyHouse (rent your driveway). These CC platforms largely meet market-exchangeable needs, with participants acting on economic-oriented motivations such saving money and time (Hamari and Ukkonen, 2013).

Advocates of CC encourage those who have financially over extended themselves to look again to the market for salvation. In a time of joblessness and high debt levels, people are encouraged to extract value or productivity from their assets so as to not only make debt repayable, but to turn them back into active consumers. Shelby Clark, founder of RelayRides, argues that, ‘Some users are making enough on RelayRides that it’s offsetting their entire car payment. They’re basically getting a free car’. However, by integrating market capitalism into all aspects of social life, the income gained through the CC platforms merely gives an illusion of affluence. The illusion of affluence is often temporary, and only lasts as long as the car is shared with those outside one’s immediate network for money. Any poor review of your car may have you without users.

Seeing one’s ‘self’ as a resource, has enabled CC to enter people’s homes and lives, as they see their parking spaces, living rooms, their clothes, their bodies, their relationships and time as depreciating assets. As CC platforms put depreciating assets and resources to work, the very notion of what can be shared, bought and rented in the global marketplace has bound people to various types of ‘productive’ activities. As people leverage their skills and knowledge through CC platforms at a time of high unemployment, new platforms such as Airtasker and Taskher offer temporary, insecure tasks to a global economy of freelancers.

Supporting themselves with tasks rather than jobs, they compete ferociously for low sums, reputation, long hours, all while paying for their own health care and retirement in this new economy. They exist in world without taxes, anti-discrimination laws, unions, health and safety regulations and minimum wages. When challenged, Gary Swart, the chief executive of oDesk, answers, “You’re the one doing the hiring. We’re merely the ones giving you the platform”. Maybe, the same can be said, for myfreecams.com, where women ‘model’ on webcam for tokens (which can be exchanged for money).

CC platforms do not promote trust between people, between citizens or between strangers. CC is held together by reputation capital, which CC advocates hope will aggregate across multiple forms of collaborative consumption. While social sharers are likely to trust each other, and accept risks and make sacrifices on each other’s behalf without expecting any return, reputation is often about control and discipline. The person whose reputation is damaged on a platform faces demotion and an immediate fall in income.  At Lyft, users must have background checks, credit cards, Facebook accounts, GPS capabilities on their phone and good ratings. Trust, indeed!

CC is promoted by its advocates as a means to disrupt out-dated modes and ownership, spawning a new generation of businesses that have, by and large, delivered market-sourced income to asset owners. They have also facilitated an informal economy and tax avoidance. Indeed, these platforms are prone to lobby lawmakers to deregulate what they see as excessive state regulation, embracing the egalitarian and anti-hierarchical rhetoric of the counterculture and presenting themselves ‘as a successful libertarian revolt against the oppressive social organizations’ (Žižek, in his book, ‘First as tragedy, then as farce’, 2009: 56) characteristic of entrenched business models and big government. CC platforms intentionally blur their market endeavours with claims of disconnection from the sphere of profit. Their claims of reducing pollution and poverty by lowering transaction costs by and large unproven.

Advocates argue that CC platforms will make participants more receptive to other kinds of collective or community-based solutions, re-establishing community relationships. However, any claims that the social relations arranged around CC platforms can potentially replace rooted communities should be viewed with suspicion. Community ties, built on trust, intimacy and reciprocity are quite different from market ties, which tend to be impersonal and temporary.

While some CC platforms are anchored in social-sharing, without market signals or managerial commands, the majority are mediated by companies who are anchored in enclosure and commerce. Many non-profit or civil society platforms have been swallowed up, threatening the very source of culture from which they emerged, and the social and psychological needs they met. The takeover of the taxi business, part of civic infrastructure in many cities, by Uber which secures nearby drivers has seen claims of price gouging.

Authors such as Jeremy Rifkin, Slavoj Zizek and John Holloway address what they believe is a new stage of commodification that does not change the basic rules of capitalism. Using the phrase ‘Cultural capitalism’ to describe a world where one seeks authentic experiences to render life meaningful, Holloway argues we are no longer buying products we want to own, but life-experiences.  Assets, such as material objects serve merely as props for such experiences, seducing us into buying the true ‘experiential commodity’ such as a luxury dress or vehicle. Car Sharing platforms, long used by advocates as a key instance of CC, for example, merely caters to a younger demographic in urban locales, the low transaction costs associated with the market transactions ensuring CC merely opens up a new class of urbanite consumer.

Ford, for example, through its alignment with Zipcar, has repositioned itself as a purveyor of mobility. William Clay Ford Jr, the Chairman, noted, that ‘The day will come when the notion of car ownership becomes antiquated. If you live in a city, you don’t need to own a car’. Car manufacturers have little to lose in the access-oriented environment. As vehicles are made available to people as and when they need access to transport, they secure user lifetime value.

CC may be a more efficient means to distribute and consume, and may, through unintended effects, create some positive social and environmental benefits. However, CC will not end the financial crisis, climate change, peak oil, inequality, resource scarcity, unemployment or the loss of democratic accountability. It is not the new Industrial revolution. It will not contribute, to any great degree, to a more sustainable world, or more sustainable transport systems. Despite claims from many, CC is, by and large, administered by for-profit companies for the commercial exploitation of the consumer, through monetizing them, their skills, assets and belongings. Turning them into experiences, while enabling more efficiency, does not break with the pursuit of profit; the companies are still beholden to owners, shareholders and investors. CC is still consumption, and does not provide against consumerist excess; since the ‘consumer society is not defined by what it buys, but instead by what it wastes’.

As the lines between public and private, community and the market, commercial and intimate life, market and non-market, economic value and personal life become more permeable and harder to discern the market has become a presence in the ways we work, play, and interact. The question is whether we can simultaneously live in non-market worlds where social norms prevail and a world where market norms make the rules. As money transactions become more integral to our social interactions and activities, CC may simply be reinforcing the values of consumer capitalist society by providing a more efficient means to satisfy every want and desire.

 

Michael O’ Regan, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Tourism Studies in Macau, China and is interested in how collaborative consumption platforms influences our interactions with others as we travel for tourism and leisure.  Follow: https://twitter.com/michealoregan

2 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    March 04, 2014

    Very interesting article.

    I agree collaborative consumption is as capitalist as any business. In fact the more capitalist approach with which it is addressed better the adoption will be. But it does achieve some of the altruist goals of reducing waste and increasing affordability. I also agree the consumption of the service is subject to the rules of commercial transaction rather than a social one, to that extent if the value is not delivered consistently the provider will be punished.

    While there may exist wastage in a society, the decision is always based on the utility value. Even with wide spread adoption collaborative consumption wastage’s are not eliminated but significantly reduced.

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