So here I am for American Adventure 2.0. I’m a 24 year old British guy living my love of the USA a second time round, spending two months in the Bay Area exploring the sharing economy and soaking up the California sun; what could be better?
I’ll be working with Shareable until mid-July, and writing about shareable living first hand, so if you’d welcome a visitor on your couch/in your spare room please get in touch.
In August 2011, after finishing my undergrad in the UK, I was lucky enough to go on a scholarship to study in Cambridge, MA. It was my first chance to experience the USA and I most certainly drank the Kool-Aid: I shopped the weirdest classes, I partied with the undergrads, I went to see every famous speaker I could, I went to the Harvard-Yale game, and…I tried car sharing.
I tried car sharing, and I was hooked. Ever since I’d seen Apple launch the iPhone and demo the Zipcar app I’d been itching to get behind that touch screen and remotely sound that horn. As a self-professed technophile – the kind that stubbornly follows the GPS even if he knows it’s not taking him the best way – I loved the gimmick of remote unlocking, but I also loved the idea of having access to great car whenever I wanted. It just made so much sense. Car sharing had been kicking off in the UK too, but outside the big cities coverage was patchy and I hadn’t had a chance to try it out.
I realised fairly quickly that it was more than convenience that got me excited, especially when I’d spent 30 minutes wandering the streets in the rain, playing hide and seek with a friendly white Honda who clearly wasn’t in the mood. Sure saving money was part of the package, but as I explored the world of sharing more, I began to understand the two real reasons why I think that this is a model for the future.
Firstly, it just makes sense. In a world of finite and rapidly decreasing natural resources, it seems obvious that we should be trying to squeeze as much utility as possible out of the resources we’ve already exploited before we use up more of what’s left. Using simple communications technologies to match people in need of a product or service to an existing resource that is underutilized shows just how much potential there is for us to be using the world’s resources better and more effectively. Shocking usage statistics of those things we’ve always been told we need to own for ourselves abound: Rachel Botsman’s What’s Mine Is Yours is filled with curiously specific stats on the average length of time that a power drill is used, or on how much storage space Americans, and people from the developed world more generally, rent to store the stuff they own that they aren’t even using. Whatever your feelings about climate change or cost-incentives for resource exploitation, it seems to me that there is no excuse for unnecessary waste. Before the ‘radical connectivity’ (see The End of Big by Nicco Mele) that we’re experiencing today, you could make the case that inefficiencies were unavoidable. But now they seem increasingly inexcusable. The sharing economy is based on the premise that we should get as much value out of as little as we can, and whether it’s transport, housing, food, or pretty much any other material resource, there is so much potential for improvement.
Secondly, and this goes beyond the material, the sharing economy is at its heart defined by human relationships and communities. Modernisation, and the push and pull of globalisation, is rightly blamed for the destruction of traditional local communities: manufacturing centres in the West were slowly undercut by low labor costs in the developing world, increasing urbanisation has pulled people away from rural areas to try and make it big in the city, and digital technologies have seemingly undermined traditional face-to-face interactions. But the sharing economy is an inspiring example of how modern technologies can be used to build new communities both virtual and real world (check out AFK, a documentary on The Pirate Bay that asks if there’s really a difference anymore). When I meet someone to collect the keys of their car, or knock on the door of my AirBnB or CouchSurfing host, or any number of other interactions that result from the sharing economy, I build new bonds with people I may never otherwise have met, and create sometimes strong and lasting relationships on the basis of sharing. What it shows is that new technologies don’t by their nature destroy established norms and values: sharing has been at the heart of human civilization since pre-history, and thanks to the internet we can share more broadly and with many more people than ever before.
And as sharing becomes ever easier, it begins to pose a more compelling alternative to the prevailing consumerist currents that dominate our societies. We are always being told, subliminally or expressly, that we should want to own more stuff, that we need more stuff, that the clothes we wore last year are just ‘so last year’, that we shouldn’t fix our broken watch, we should just buy a new one. The sad fact is that our entire economy in the developed West is based on excessive consumption; for now the sharing economy poses no real threat, but its growing success undermines our very way of life.
I came to work at Shareable so I could better inform myself on where the sharing economy is going. As advocates for an alternative system to the one that currently governs our societies we have a duty to provide a compelling vision for a shareable world. We need to claim sharing for everyone, not just die hard believers in collectivised living; we need to understand how we can maintain employment and high living standards even as we censure the wasteful consumption that is at the heart of how we have been encouraged to live. Over the next few weeks I will be blogging about my sharing experiences, the European sharing landscape, and will try and develop my own thinking on where I believe sharing should be going. I look forward to hearing from anyone who can help me in that meander.