(Not) Sharing in the “Sharing Economy”

I was recently chatting with a friend who has lived in San Francisco since we both graduated from college in the early 2000s. I asked her how she thought the city has changed with the recent tech upsurge. While she agreed that the city has changed immensely and said that she’s heard many longterm residents, from taxi drivers to neighborhood denizen, say the same, she struggled to pinpoint precisely the word to describe how it’s now different here in the city by the bay.

At some point in our discussion, she brought up the video from last year showing tech employees arguing with neighborhood locals over use of a soccer field in the Mission. The video essentially brought to life the struggles between tech workers and longtime residents: that tech workers — represented as white, male and entitled — are pushing locals out of the neighborhoods in which they were born, grew up and have always lived. After discussing our respective opinions on the exchange, my friend said something that I thought was interesting and kind of obvious. She said, “Near the end of the video, as a viewer, you just start hoping that someone will say, ‘Let’s all play together.’” While you see one of the neighborhood kids start to suggest this in the middle of the video, the tech workers never broach this solution and the situation plays out like mandated bullying.

In a previous blog post, I brought up the concept of sharing in the present day. My premise was that smartphones — used as telephone, entertainment center and, basically, personal sidekick — allow us to operate completely separately and that we never really have to share moments with one another if we don’t want to. That post was an offshoot of some of the thinking I had been doing since reading an opinion piece on the fallacy of the phrase the “sharing economy.”

My original musings centered on the meaning of the word “share.” While there are lots of definitions, the one that feels the most familiar is: “to divide (something) into parts and each take or use a part; to let someone else have or use a part of (something that belongs to you).” This is the classic definition of “share” that most of us learned as children. However, even this definition lacks a certain nuance that I was hoping to find (but couldn’t locate in any of the online dictionaries I consulted) — and that is: the idea of sacrifice. Implied in the act of sharing is the idea that you are giving up something that you could otherwise fully enjoy because you recognize that it will increase the happiness of someone else. Sharing demonstrates empathy — that you thought about the feelings of another person. Furthermore, you share not expecting anything in return; it is a completely selfless gesture.

That said, the phrase “sharing economy” bothers me because no form of “sharing” actually exists when you rent a room in someone’s house or get a ride in someone’s private car. When you pay for something, thus exchanging money for a product or service, that’s a transaction, and a transaction has nothing to do with sacrifice or compromise in the context of a tough situation. It’s swapping one thing equally for something else and that’s not sharing. If we truly had a sharing economy that involved automobiles, it would basically be a network of hitchhiking. It would be people offering to give other people a ride out of generosity and a selfless desire to make others happy. And a sharing economy that involved accommodations would look a lot more likecouchsurfing.com. I appreciate the existence of things like Airbnb, Lyft and Uber, but “sharing economy” seems to be a complete misnomer for these types of services.

Another nuance in the definition of “share” involves a sense of coexistence or a homeostasis despite discomfort — like when you share a room or when you’re forced to share an item because there aren’t enough for each person to have their own. You recognize that it’s not ideal but you make the best of it and you exercise patience, because there’s really nothing you can do. This aspect of sharing also seems in short supply here in the Bay Area. The growth of the tech industry has taxed limited resources and contributed to socioeconomic tensions. Just as we aren’t playing nice on soccer fields, we aren’t playing nice with one another really anywhere. A man was recently arrested for anti-Chinese graffiti throughout SF. The influx of tech workers has led to rising rents and thus gentrification. There are tensions over where tech buses should be allowed to pick up riders. Cyclists and drivers frequently clash (and sometimes crash) on the roads of San Francisco. There is always talk about a tech bubble, a reference to a potential financial crash of our industry-dependent economy, but there is also a social bubble that feels about ready to burst. Like college roommates who have resorted to running a line down the middle of their dorm room, different factions seem to hate one another and are resorting to rigid distinctions of “all of this is mine, all of that is yours — now stay on your side.”

I’m not trying to advocate a kumbaya-let’s-all-just-love-one-another mindset that defined San Francisco in the ’60s and ’70s. We’ll never again be gentle people with flowers in [our] hair. And I recognize that as a tech worker myself, I’m probably part of the problem, while also feeling that the push-pull that is happening in communities, though sad, is the expected outcome when the distribution of wealth becomes so extreme, and supply and demand become so warped.

It’s just strange to have such antithetical conceptions of “sharing” coexisting in the SF Bay Area. Where we extol the thriving “sharing economy,” our sense of entitlement and unrelenting desire to get the things we want, often at a cost to others and with no effort at compromise, conveys the opposite intention. There’s an uncomfortable irony at play when our actions and behaviors belie our enthusiastic self proclamations.

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