The Case Against Sharing

On access, scarcity, and trust

Susie Cagle
May 27, 2014 · 5 min read
Image for post
Image for post

With the rise of the “sharing economy,” many have asked the same question, though perhaps not with the same excitement. But this was , a conference meant to “catalyze the sharing economy,” organized by sharing economy lobbying group and capitalism-for-good boosters , sponsored by Airbnb, Lyft, eBay, and attended by about 500 investors, entrepreneurs, and advocates.

Image for post
Image for post

For the past few years, the “sharing economy” has characterized itself as a revolution: Renting a room on Airbnb or catching an Uber is an act of civil disobedience in the service of a righteous return to human society’s true nature of trust and village-building that will save the planet and our souls. A higher form of enlightened capitalism.

Image for post
Image for post

But this economy is still young and discovering itself. So far it looks, at worst, like neoliberal solutionism — and at best, a little confused.

Image for post
Image for post

This cognitive dissonance might be cute were it not backed by millions of dollars in capital investment and a steamroller approach to laws and regulations that protect workers and consumers.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

It‘s no accident that this wild moment would coalesce in the West. While , California has attempted to codify new “sharing” business models with new regulations. While San Francisco has recently cracked down on some particularly high-volume Airbnb renter-hosts, Chiu and other “sharing” advocates are trying to pass legislation to make the practice legal. In its defense, Airbnb says San Francisco residents need their service so they can afford to pay their rent — ignoring that San Francisco housing costs have been pushed so high in part because of the influx of exceptionally well-paid tech employees who work at places like Airbnb, currently valued at $10 billion.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

Across the U.S., high costs of living are driving more of the employed toward “side hustles,” i.e. unprotected freelance work, the kind . Where workers don’t have the start-up investments necessary to participate — the cars, homes, kitchens to rent — then they can just . is aimed at encouraging non-car owners to drive for the company, giving them a lease option on impractical “custom” “premium” Ford Explorers.

The sharing economy’s success is inextricably tied to the economic recession, making new American poverty palatable. It’s disaster capitalism. “Sharing” companies are not embarrassed by this — it appears to be a point of pride.

Image for post
Image for post

But sharing businesses aren’t just creating new income streams from nothing. In “disrupting” even troubled markets — the taxi industry has had this coming for a long time — the glory of the peer economy comes at the expense of other workers’ livelihoods.

Image for post
Image for post

When labor researcher and attorney Veena Dubal presented her findings at Share, she says, “I thought they were going to throw tomatoes at me.”

Image for post
Image for post

Share represented the full gamut of a true sharing economy, from the controversial Lyfts and Airbnbs to the individuals who run home businesses knitting scarves and baking pies without traditional employment safety nets or the corporate muscle of Big Sharing. While the former wields the power to get its way, defining “the sharing economy” at the expense of workers and consumers, sole proprietors and nonprofit collectives are often the ones facing real legal problems that they can’t afford to solve. The benefits big disruptive “sharing economy” players might be making for themselves are not exactly trickling down.

Image for post
Image for post

For all its troubling externalities, the sharing economy is largely heralded as a “return to the village,” an ahistoric utopia where we were friends with all of , lived in harmony with nature, and wanted not to consume, but to share. (Nevermind that this is not new at all — sharing and homesteading are things poor people have been doing forever out of necessity.)

But our society is not returning to a past utopia of collective social confidence and equality because this utopia never existed. The sharing economy doesn’t build trust — it trades on cultural homogeneity and established social networks both online and in real life. Where it builds new connections, it often replicates old patterns of privileged access for some, and denial for others.

Image for post
Image for post

Sharing economy boosters repeatedly call the whole thing “empowering.” For them, it certainly is. And in some iterations, it can be for all of us. In its full scope, including barter and gift transactions and nonprofit collectives and cooperatives, the sharing economy is decidedly not all bad. Enabling peer to peer commercial interactions can save us time and money; it can lessen our impact on the planet. And it can also replicate old social and economic patterns and further degrade worker and consumer protections.

The sharing economy has painfully noble goals. But a society and an economics that truly values civic engagement, the commons, and trust between people is one that invests in the protection of those people so they can really prosper, even when something goes wrong.

In many ways, Share was an object lesson in self-delusion. In the week since, I’ve received four emails from Peers and SOCAP organizers declaring the event an unqualified success. A smaller version of it is set to .

Image for post
Image for post

Follow . Sign up for The Nib’s mailing list or follow us at and .

The Nib

Political cartoons, comics journalism, humor and…

Sign up for Taking Stock of COVID: New comics from The Nib

By The Nib

New comics from Matt Lubchansky, Keith Knight, and Niccolo Pizarro. Plus How Seniors Are Living With COVID-19. 

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Susie Cagle

Written by

Reporting, drawing, politics, policy, economics, technology, labor, JSK Stanford Fellow 2016, susie dot cagle at gmail

The Nib

The Nib

Political cartoons, comics journalism, humor and non-fiction. Words plus pictures.

Susie Cagle

Written by

Reporting, drawing, politics, policy, economics, technology, labor, JSK Stanford Fellow 2016, susie dot cagle at gmail

The Nib

The Nib

Political cartoons, comics journalism, humor and non-fiction. Words plus pictures.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface.

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox.

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store