The sharing economy offers us the possibility to build a new economic system of sustainable production and consumption. Yet it has been hijacked by a cult that glorifies disruption, while the actions of major disrupters are exploitative and immoral. We must destroy this cult if we want positive social change.
The sharing economy affects everything, including tourism, because it makes people live, love, travel, and do business in different ways. We share houses, partners, rides, and much more, and use the ICT of online platforms to do so. We happily pay a fee for their services, because we often prefer the stuff they let us share to the offer of traditional providers. Hence these platforms increasingly disrupt established service industries, and impact on how tourism destinations develop.
The sharing economy promises positive social change. If we use algorithms to predict production volumes, based on real-time demand, we can use (scarce) resources more effectively and get rid of overproduction. By organizing production and consumption through peer-to-peer exchange, we can empower people and stimulate social cohesion. But above all, if we deploy ICT to share and copy more stuff, we can reduce the labor costs of producing these goods to zero, and erode the price mechanism of mainstream economics. When there is no labor to exploit, we remove the main incentive of capitalist expansion and the corresponding politics of speculation(Marx, 2013). In short, the sharing economy tells us it is possible to abandon capitalism -according to the World Bank (2016) in demise since the 1970s- and build a new system of sustainable production and consumption.
Yet, this promise has been hijacked. Silicon Valley-based venture capitalists and speculators have bought into the sharing economy to turn online platform start-ups into a new generation of growth-driven multinationals. Their icons Airbnb (2008) and Uber (2009) are currently valued at $30 billion and $65.5 billion respectively (Forbes, 2014; n.d.). Despite heavy losses, they keep pouring billion dollar investments in both companies to fuel global expansion. In their wake we find the believers: a mish-mash of hipster entrepreneurs dreaming of becoming the next unicorn, valley-cronies like former EU commissioner Kroes (European Commission, 2014), and politicians in need of stories that restore public faith in business. All of them confuse rapid growth with tangible value, despite lessons of the global financial crisis. And together they are building a cult that glorifies disruption to the point it becomes delusional. This cult preaches how to disrupt, innovate, and be digital. Anyone who follows three basic rules can join: first, only communicate in infographics and simplistic dichotomies; second, build fake authority by claiming you know more about the future than others; and third, declare all the time that everybody must embrace disruption as the new status quo. Want to learn more? Go to the management handbook section in your nearest airport bookstore, or sign up for the next event about innovation in your industry.
While the cult takes bullshit bingo to the next level (Bregman, 2014), its icons are exploitative and immoral. There is nothing social about Airbnb and Uber(Poole, 2016). Neither cares about service quality, because neither is more than a web-shop offering users the chance to sell stuff to each other against a fee and access to their digital identities. Both conveniently linger in legal limbo to externalize the costs of their operations and shift responsibilities to others, from cities that face a surge in illegal rental operations to exploited Uber-drivers (Slee, 2014). But above all, with their clever e-commerce and user-friendly applications they sell the idea of the sharing economy, while in reality they are tearing it apart.
This is why we must act now if we want positive social change. We should realize that Airbnb and Uber do nothing more than spreading empty marketing blabber about the sharing economy’s promise to exploit other people’s property and labor. Neither creates tangible value beyond bits. Instead, together they symbolize capitalism’s final convulsion. Therefore, we must continue to build a system free of exploitation to genuinely enable sustainable production and consumption. In the meanwhile, if you want an easy ride or spend the night in that fabulous loft, go ahead and enjoy. But ask yourself whom you are sharing your data with (ibid). And be on the alert. In Silicon Valley they already know you better than you know yourself, because you have been telling them for years who you are. Therefore, you should ask your government to stop this exploitation by demanding intelligent international legislation. But more than anything else: we must fight the cult together. Because while the next batch of hipster-nerds is pitching their wannabe disruptive business models, the professional bingo players are monopolizing what is really at stake here: control over our digital lives. And only together we can stop them, before it is too late.