Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What’s Mine Is Yours

What’s Mine Is Yours - The Rise of Collaborative Consumption
By Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers

Harper Collins 2010

I don’t write many negative reviews. Normally, I try to write reviews to tell people about a great book I have just read, or to get them to read it themselves. In this case, I wouldn’t say "don’t read this book". There’s some interesting material here, not least an account of some really interesting schemes for real non-commercial community building and sharing activities. But I wouldn’t go out of my way to track it down, either.

A new economy or a new hype?

Any book that quotes the xenophobic neo-con, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, as some kind of measure of progress raises my suspicions.

In February 2008, the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, commissioned a report on alternative methods for measuring growth. “We’re living in one of those epochs where certitudes have vanished… we have to reinvent, to reconstruct everything,” Sarkozy announced. “So many things that are important to individuals are not included in GDP.”

The statement isn’t objectionable in itself. GDP measures expenditure, so as the authors point out, an ecological disaster can increase GDP by requiring increased use of services to clean it up. Certainly, the world could do with measuring progress in terms other than bank balances. The authors criticise mindless consumerism, and the waste associated with it manifest in disasters like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“Collaborative Consumerism” is what the authors identify as a new paradigm that is growing within the old consumerism, fuelled by peer-to-peer information sharing technology on the internet.

The authors recount an array of different web-based collaborative consumption communities. Some are highly familiar, like eBay. Others aren’t (yet) but deserve to be. Couchsurfing, which a friend of mine used while travelling around the world, for example: a free service where you advertise your couch (or spare room) for travellers to stay at free of charge, or look up potential hosts for your backpacking trip. There are similar services for giving away unused second-hand household goods (Freeshare, Freecycle), sharing rides, swapping kids’ toys, and all manner of stuff. There are also many versions that are not free, like eBay, or airbnb.com which is like a payment-based version of couchsurfing; or rental services for kids' toys.

Selling second hand stuff is hardly new. Junk shops and the Trading Post and classifieds have been around for ages. What is it that makes businesses like eBay so different? The authors identify that these kinds of businesses and services, when powered by the web, are so much more accessible and flexible. For example, three-way swaps are easy on swapping sites like SwapTree, whereas teeing up that kind of thing by printed advertisements and phone calls would just take too long.

There is a powerful argument that instead of discarding last year’s unwanted clothing items or kitchen gizmo we could pass it on to others who might appreciate it – without just dumping it in a charity bin and hoping they find a use for it. It certainly could avoid a lot of waste. There is also great potential for building community in these “collaborative consumption” methods – for example, using online bulletin boards to start a street-level “commune” that can help residents share resources with each other.

But there are problems with the discourse: the authors seem to get carried away with their own hype. For starters, they talk a lot about profit-making corporations like eBay, or the online video rental NetFlix that delivers your order to you; yet at the same time they are talking of things like Freecycle which enable people to give away items they no longer need. Surely there is a difference between online rentals and shopping (even online second-hand shopping) and swapping or giving away items for free? But there is little analysis of this difference presented.

Secondly, the authors talk a lot about the potential for avoiding waste as companies redesign products to have replaceable or upgradable parts. They even name a couple of examples – Timberland market a pair of shoes that can be repaired or modified by replacing parts if you send them back for the work to be done. Extended product responsibility, whereby a company is responsible for taking back worn out products and repairing or recycling the materials is a great idea. But one or two examples don’t make a revolution. Inbuilt obsolescence is criminal when you think about it, but the huge profits it creates mean not too many businesses are likely to move to more labour intensive, less profit-intensive practices like building things to last. I want to evidence that this is not just niche marketing before I attribute any great significance to one brand of shoes.

The authors even stray into Big Brother land with their notion that we will all get a centralised “reputation bank” for our online collaborative consumption. You may be aware that if you use an online market like eBay, your peers can rate the reliability of your performance (for example, did you provide the goods you sold in a timely fashion and in the condition advertised). Peer ratings make these services work: you can trust that most sellers are fairly genuine, because they won’t last long if they accumulate bad peer ratings. The authors want an aggregate of your peer ratings from various services.

But peer ratings are not infallible. What review mechanisms will we have? What if you couch-surf with a household that have a profound political disagreement with you? Imagine it’s midnight, you’ve had a couple of drinks with your hosts, and without thinking you curse the Israeli state’s treatment of Palestinians in response to a TV report that comes on. Unknown to you, your hosts are ardent Zionists, who throw you out and rate you with the service as being a racist anti-semite! (I don’t know if that is actually possible with the couch-surfing platform, but you get the idea). Suddenly you are tarnished, virtually as though you’ve earned a criminal record, without really doing anything wrong. And suddenly you're stranded in a strange place with all your planned accomodation thrown into doubt!

It may not matter too much if it were just your eBay account – you can buy second hand stuff elsewhere if you need it – but what if it affected a lot of your necessary daily transactions? Consider what happened to the guy who is suing FaceBook for suspending his account without explanation or warning: he apparently lost a whole lot of important personal contacts, for reasons quite unknown to him. Perhaps he accidentally offended someone or had his account hijacked by a spam service, Facebook aren't telling.

How radical a challenge to consumerism is this “collaborative consumption” anyway? The book admits “eBay has now grown into a gigantic online store, with a significant percentage of exchanges involving new products.” Explaining the breadth of appeal of this new way of doing things, the book says

…from the masses of baby boomers addicted to eBay (21 per cent of all users are over 50 years old) to the Gen Xers increasingly using bartering services, people are participating in different types of Colaborative Consumption from a diverse array of subcultures and socioeconomic and demographic groups.

There’s a revealing turn of phrase here. Having people addicted to purchasing things is not really a mark of any kind of liberation or progress that I can identify with. It’s entirely within the framework of consumerism. Sure it’s a bit smarter and more customisable to the individual, but that’s just part of the charm that keeps you buying, right?

The authors probably reveal more about their own ideological prejudices than their subject matter when they write that

For the most part, the people participating in Collaborative Consumption are not Pollyannish do-gooders and still very much believe in the principles of capitalist markets and self-interest. In his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture Fred Turner envisioned that these citizens desire a world in which “Each individual could act in his or her own self-interest and at the same time produce a unified social sphere, in which we’re ‘all one.’”

This is a common theme throughout the book: they aren't talking about hippies but savvy entrepreneurs, such comments are repeatedly thrown in.

This regurgitation of free-market dogma is not more convincing because it’s written about people connected by the internet. It is a profound fallacy of liberal economics that self-interest brings about some kind of greater good; the “invisible hand of the market” invests the “market” with the will to act of its own accord, as though it were a discreet entity capable of independent action. Really, the market is just a collection of people, and if they are all acting in their own self-interest it would be truly remarkable for this to turn out for the greater good.

Ideologically, this book seems to promote a kind of market utopianism, marked by a slightly naïve technological optimism. I’m all for using new technology and I’m not the kind of socialist who thinks all commodity markets can be abolished overnight, but I think that the daydreaming vision of the future presented in the last paragraphs of the book might have blinded the authors to some of the real power relations that prevent their utopia from coming to pass (like with the inbuilt obsolescency issue).

Alistair Davidson has an interesting article at Links magazine which outlines the rise of the free software movement, leading to wikileaks. Digital information “wants to be free” as they say. Botsman and Rogers are trying to make the case that information technology is not just transforming how we use information, but how the physical economy works (something Davidson clearly did not argue, by the way). I am not convinced, as you can tell from this review.

And back to Sarkozy, recently notorious for deporting Romany (gypsies) from France to Romania. The war between the rich world and the poor world hasn’t stopped all of a sudden. How many poor Pakistani or Bolivian peasants are going to be availing themselves of a couchsurfing host in Melbourne? Even if they tried, I doubt the Australian government would give them a visa, due to the “risk” that they might illegally overstay it. (European backpackers never overstay their visas, right folks?). Relatively speaking, even poor people in countries like Australia have a degree of privilege over vast numbers of poor people elsewhere. Nifty arrangements like Freeshare might help us to get by, or provide some kind of outlet, but I can’t see them solving many of the poor world’s problems. I'm convinced they amount to any profound change in the economy of consumerism and third world exclusion, despite some genuinely interesting, innovative and useful ideas that could be of real benefit to many communities.

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