This is a (rather too lengthy) review essay of What’s Mine is Yours by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers. After seeing Botsman speak at TEDxSydney, I requested a review copy from the publisher.
Waste, or non-useful expenditure, is central to understanding the value of things and the cultural circuits in which they travel. In political economy, waste stands as a zero degree of value or in excess of the useful. Neoliberal and Social Democratic politics are both animated by their capacities to chart and maximize use (consider Walmart and Ikea’s countries of origin). As Will Davies has noted,
The left has liked to define itself as being more favourably-inclined to state-led policy solutions than market-led ones. The former are indeed a better guarantee of equality of outcome. But the left has also conned itself that the state operates with a sunnier view of human nature than the market. In fact, the logic that operates in public policy formation is ultimately the same as that which operates in the marketplace. Human beings are assumed to be rational utility-maximisers, and resources are allocated to achieve the maximum aggregate utility.
Wasteful expenditure, as the counterpart to utility, is central to modern life; and yet a science of use remains elusive. From choice of clothing to cars, beverages and smartphone operating systems, displays of use are infinitely subtle games that perform our membership in social categories. These games cannot be reduced to units of use and measured as such, even if such units are derived from them. John Frow has suggested that such systems of symbolic use, apparently supplementary to the norms of the rational calculation of utility that dominate political economy, may in fact render those norms unworkable. Frow turns to the work of Thorstein Veblen, who recognized invidious displays of wasteful use – conspicuous consumption – as the stuff of class. Veblen aimed to square the Progressive era aristocratic excesses he observed with codes of reputability using primordial distinctions of productive (female) and honorable (male) work. Veblen’s sought to revive a functionalism from the (honorable) ownership of desired objects and the ability to be wasteful with them. These displays of rivalrous emulation in turn inspire others to be wasteful. One’s consumption choices are never arbitrary, but informed by peer groups. This sense of comparative achievement is where Veblen locates the source of status differentiation; social distinction is ‘gamed’ – even a withdrawal from playing games (for example by labelling it ‘hipster’ or ‘bogan’) is a social group marker. To the extent that the escape from such games is impossible – and that Veblen never managed to articulate function independently of waste – responsible businesses’ are a contradiction in terms – operating between, rather than across, social divisions.
Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers’ book What’s Mine Is Your’s seeks to fuse, expand and multiply these games, promising a new mode of consumption under the banner of ‘collaboration’ rather than self-interest. It’s an ambitious book that’s full of fascinating case studies, but light on analysis in key sections where I waiting to be told exactly what was ‘collaborative’ about the litanies of businesses and organizations listed in the ten chapters. Instead, it serves primarily as a rallying cry for a departure from credit, mass advertising and individualism to a new regime of capital accumulation based ostensibly on ‘community’, shared resources and eBay style economies of ‘reputation’.
There are two moral point of departure for the book. Firstly, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (or ‘recent changes to our economic landscape’ as all too cautiously described on the back cover). As the authors are all too aware, the GFC was, of course, at least partially caused by the leveraging of status anxieties into equities and the repackaging of those into credit swaps. Secondly, the Great Pacific Garbage patch. The authors then go on to attack other evils of the current economic model: unsustainable resource use, the Diderot effect, Mad Men/Bernays style psychologically manipulative marketing, the paradox of choice, and increasing anomie and isolation. The objective is “a healthier more sustainable system with a more fulfilling goal than ‘more stuff.’” As Rob Horning notes in his incisve review essay, they aim to step into the breach here, outlining a new model of consumption that “… internalizes ideas that have long animated attacks on consumerism, promising to turn them inside out. The new consumerism is not competitive but collaborative; not isolating but unifying; not massified but local; not authoritarian but entrepreneurial and empowering; not wasteful but conservative in the noblest sense of the word.” In short, not the rivalrous emulation that ‘the ponzi scheme of the last 200 years of industrial civilization has been built upon.’
This sheer breadth of activities and organizations that the authors label as forms of Collaborative Consumption are ringfenced by a number of concepts to ensure the term doesn’t lapse into general analysis of the sociality of economic exchange. These concepts are: critical mass, idling capacity, belief in the commons and trust between strangers. I’ll deal with the first two of these before turning to the issues of trust, ‘the commons’ and expertise.
‘Critical mass’ is a quasi-natural process taken from Malcolm Gladwell to refer to the amount of choice available in a ‘Collaborative Consumption’ alternative to conventional shopping or other modes of consumption. For example, there needs to be enough bike hiring nodes spread across a wide enough distance to make a bike sharing scheme attractive. The authors argue that experiments with these schemes in the US seem to have been more successful than in European cities where networks have been too small, and/or the bikes systems lack technologies to prevent theft or absconding. The concept of ‘Idling Capacity’ is used to implore readers to look around them for spare things that could be useful to others. The average drill is used for just 20 minutes in its lifetime, yet there are 50 million of them in the United States. ‘You need the hole, not the drill.’ … which begs the question of whether you also need the print you’ll be hanging from the hook that goes in the hole.
The authors explore three forms in which such an idle drill – or bike, car, or even silverware – could be mobilized. Each of them operates in adversarial tension to an existing cultural form of consumption. Firstly, they explore ‘Product Service Systems’ such as Zipcar or the Australian equivalent GoGet. These are largely privately run and essentially compete with conventional care hire companies by having available cars nearby residents. Users pay membership fees and for the time they use the cars. The authors argue that by ‘moving our relationship with things from ownership to use, options to satisfy our needs, whether it be for travel, leisure, work food or children increase.’ The Enthusiast explored in the work of Eventmechanics operates in adversarial tension of this particular model.
The second model is ‘Redistribution Markets’ in which the burden of wasted or idle stuff is liberated, usually through either non-commercial ‘noticeboard’ sites like Freecycle, Gumtree or commercial operations like eBay. The authors also list a tonne of niche swap community sites (MakeupAlley, anyone?). It’s not clear what is ‘collaborative’ about these sites – the authors don’t ever quite say.
My own experience with eBay is anything but collaborative – it is indeed my own self interest leads to decisions to sell old camera gear, for example. This decision comes with very clearly delineated by rules about what is on offer, my advice and, likely, my relationship with the seller. ‘Community’ – and its connotations of shared discourse and resource access – simply doesn’t enter the equation. The cultural category these new swap/trade markets operate against is the Hoarder, well described by Jodi Dean in this fascinating and evocative post.
The final, and most tenuous, category of ‘Collaborative Consumption’ outlined by the authors is ‘Collaborative Lifestyles’: organizations dedicated to sharing workspaces, goods, skills, parking spaces, travel (AirBnb, Couchsurfing). Again, the authors fail to articulate how the most prominent of these organizations are ‘Collaborative’, rather than simply a counter-cyclical extension of capital into home economies as national economies suffer through crises. AirBnB, for example, is a startup business that aims to compete with hotels by encouraging people to rent out spare rooms or even whole properties. Indeed, AirBnB’s is the entrepreneurial success story that begins the book. The startup now has the character of a full scale corporate operation, with a new ‘collections’ branding that represent exactly the kind of marketing to social distinction that animated cultural critics like Veblen.
Each model of ‘collaborative consumption’, then, seems to operate in a dialectic with enthusiasm, hoarding and Hyacinth Bucket – much like ‘fat camps’ with fast food binges, long commutes and punishing but sedentary workplaces.
Trust, Price and ‘Community’
And this dialectic between the excesses of mass consumption, rivalrous emulation and the purging of ‘stuff’ is precisely where sociological critiques of the concept of Collaborative Consumption raised by Rob Horning bite. Ownership over things versus things owning us are recast by the authors as a fun opportunity to interact with others – swap meets, bartering and other forums to get rid of stuff. But, again, the onus is on the authors to argue exactly what is ‘collaborative’ about all these forums. Here the revival of ‘Community’ through car sharing and clothes swapping/junk dispensing seems glib. In Toennies classic formulation of Gemeinschaft, shared resources and their mutual enjoyment was crucial to maintaining the ‘proximate cosiness’ of a community. Botsman and Rogers have quite the opposite in mind. Horning’s notes of the contradiction of ‘Collaborative Lifestyles’: “The theoretical underpinnings for the redistribution (not of income or wealth, mind you, just the stuff you already wish you could get rid of) are a sentimental communitarianism fused with a Hayekian faith in spontaneous order… Sharing isn’t simply caring anymore; it’s becoming an alienated system for proving your trustworthiness, your willingness to play ball.” AirBnB, of course, could not operate without eBay style reputation metrics that will undoubtedly require analogous security apparatuses to maintain the ‘organized rumour mills’.
It would be too easy to follow Horning and spend the rest of the review cynically criticizing the authors’ use of ‘old time virtues’ (sic) through stories of efficiency gains and ‘community revival’ by savvy but benevolent capitalists. Instead, I think it’s more valuable to (re)turn to the implications for public policy viz. trust and ‘commons’, and specifically its implications for climate policy.
Botsman, a highly articulate speaker, has visited Number 10 to outline implications for Collaborative Consumption to the Coalition government. And it’s easy to see why there’d be a receptive audience for her ideas given the Neoliberals transformation of Whitehall deftly documented by Davies. As Davies argues, Policy Utilitarianism has mostly been a clandestine operation – pursuing aggregate welfare increases with no regard to means. For example, if there is evidence of decreased road tolls near churches, an entire secular machinery will offer religious tax credits to stimulate building more churches. As Davies notes, these sorts of policies may be very successful in the aggregate, but unfortunately the view of ‘the aggregate’ is a view from nowhere, cannot be easily communicated and is susceptiable to the criticisms of Price Theory. For example, WRAP is a British QUANGO established with the promise of ‘transforming waste to riches’ by pursuing productivity gains in government, households and corporations. It’s not hard to see how individual focused organizations of Collaborative Consumption would perform ‘resource efficiency’ better than a government agency. WRAP, neoliberals could justifiably argue, simply makes visible what prices already do. As Marx well recognized, prices function within capitalist systems to stimulate technological innovation. Organizations like WRAP seek to ; Chicago School economists like Coase saw prices everywhere, generalizing them to human behaviour beyond the marketplace. The question for policy makers, therefore, became less what was worthwhile and more what could be demonstrated to provide maximum welfare gains in an abstract sense.
The appeal of CollCons is that it preserves Coase’s fascination with ‘transaction costs’ (indeed, in a characteristically broad and frustratingly facile generalization declares them ‘Collapsed’ in a 1.5 page section of Chapter 4) but provides the resources to generalize the problem of market failure into every nook and cranny of the house. This would be receptive to Whitehall because the ‘collaborative’ label addresses policy-makers problems communicating the welfare enhancing character of alienating calculative systems whilst preserving their ability to act as centralized operators of welfare maximization. This is where the generation of numbers of different kinds through acts of consumption appeals enormously to policy makers, for reasons I’ve explored elsewhere.
Numbers, Expertise and the Politics of Design
Climate Policy since the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol have framed national emissions quotas, monitoring systems and transaction logs to keep track of emissions. Most national governments have simply handed their emissions quotas to their largest polluting facilities and established their emission reduction commitments accordingly. It’s clear that if we’re to have any chance whatsoever of closing the emissions/policy gap, relying on entrepreurial ‘Collaborative’ systems alone will not be enough.
Policy barely gets a look in here because the authors seem to believe that in the internet age, remoralized consumption may be able to substitute political decision-making. That’s a speculative, but consistent with some of Rachel Botsman’s tweets, and also because the discussion of corporate regulation is off the libertarian end of Michael Porter’s influential Competiveness and Environment thesis (that greater environmental regulation leads to better net economic outcomes, rather than constituting a tradeoff with welfare). Instead, the authors are interested in promoting the superiority of decentralized decision-making in a distinctly Hayekian way. The authors attack suggestions that the current crop of Generation X entrepreneurs are ‘valueless’ – they seek to revive a morality and classical liberal market equity, implicitly cheering for competition policies in distinctly Hayekian ways idea. Unfortunately, one of the examples I checked, Meraki, was a startup ISP providing internet to poor neighborhoods according to the Authors. The project was based on open source code developed from MIT. However, their tactics appear to have turned decidely anti-collaborative, introducing firmware to lock users into Meraki’s systems.
Botsman and Rogers’ discussion of Product Service Systems embodies the tensions between expertise and private incentives well. For Product Service Systems, Collaborative Design doesn’t mean open access, reverse engineerable devices that may spark actual communities of users into being – in fact quite the opposite: it means rationalizing the user and their objects of consumption from the ground up. For example, BCycle, currently operating in many US Cities, embodies the kind of successful system that will have important implications for transport and climate policy in the coming decades. Botsman and Rogers stress that CollCons systems like bike and car sharing must consider the relative and marginal benefits of a particular service in relation to other transport options. BCycle appears to have successfully learned from design failures that have plagued European bike sharing schemes – their nodes are close to sites of use, rather than restricted to just the centre of town like Copenhagen; they can be tracked and booked online and require a membership, rather than just the insertion of a coin. Furthermore – and this is where it may get interesting – it tracks your mileage and also provides a figure of ‘carbon offsets.’
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a cycling advocate, so don’t mind that these are privately operated systems. Indeed the problems with Copenhagen’s bike scheme were all too evident when I lived there some years ago.
Numbers represent the archetypal fact upon which bureaucratic authority is founded, and it’s in the generation of numbers that Botsman and Rogers’ faith in spontaneous free enterprise – their urging of 21st Century reputation, community, and shared access may come into conflict with their concern about the global commons of the atmosphere and climate change. This collision between these new enterprises and existing state expert systems will be interesting to watch. What Donald Mackenzie has termed the ‘techno-politics’ of climate change exists in the coding of material calculative devices like the ones used to track BCycle bikes. Techno-politics refers to decisions made about technical devices that may develop political significant but are not subject to any direct political input. For example, what baseline assumptions are made transport usage of the riders? Is this a voluntary disclosure or checked against car ownership records? How big a car do they actually own? These are all insignifcant details for now, but the origin of the GFC lay in such accounting decisions scaling up to national economies. The climate change equivalent of this would see BCycle offsets finding their way onto some companie’s balance sheet which they will be awarded ‘standing’ or ‘early action’ for (The collapse of the Chicago Climate Exchange suggests they’re unlikely to find a market in the voluntary sector).
These questions are where the ‘game’ like character of social life theorized by Veblen and Bordieu intersect with policy decisions relevant to ‘caring for the commons’. Expertise will be required to reassure concerned publics that their ‘collaborative’ efforts are not ultimately wasted. The question is how this reassurance can take place and by whom – and these are political questions irreducible to acts of consumption, collaborative or otherwise.