Remember the quiet wonders. The world has more need of them than it has for warriors.
I work in Toronto’s sharing economy. There's been plenty of criticism and celebration of the entire idea of the "sharing economy," with some strong arguments on both sides. But ultimately, I think what my organization does is important, and further, I don’t think the criticism is a failure of the critics. I think it’s a failure of the community-building side of the sharing economy to differentiate itself from the community-breaking side.
On one side, we encourage communal property, maintained through communal resources. It functions like a co-op, wherein you can contribute your time, your goods, your skills, or your money in exchange for use of the shared items or space or labor. To dig into the word frequently used to describe organizations like ours, we are “disruptive” in that we are breaking some standard expectations about how property works in the modern world, but we operate legally. We’re a registered non-profit, which I don’t think is mandatory but which does lend some weight to my argument about our existence being of shared value. We offer certain things to our community for free as part of our mandate, and these things are also offered using our shared resources.
In my mind, “my” sharing economy functions in a fashion similar to libraries, parks, museums, and so on. The people who use them (and sometimes people who don’t) help fund them because they feel they are of value to the community. They may contribute time, goods, or funding to help ensure they continue to exist as part of the community.
On the other side, you have, well, Uber. They charge a fee for a service, designed to create maximum profit, and that service is disruptive primarily because it flagrantly breaks not just expectations but some kind of important rules. It pushes people who follow the rules (rules like abiding by insurance regulations to make sure everyone is protected, paying legal wages, and abiding by safety standards) out of the game by subverting those rules. They are more convenient only because they do not follow the law, and the laws they break are frequently the ones designed to make people safer through licensing, insurance, and more. When laws are changed to try to reach a compromise, they continue to break the new laws in order to maintain their pre-existing operations, regardless. They will, to use the cliche, do what they want.
Disrupting culture is something I think can be valuable, especially if it’s working toward a new culture in which people are more included, more respected, and more connected. Culture can evolve along trajectories that lead to harm, and only by "disrupting" those trajectories can we avoid some of the harm. Sometimes disrupting culture means illegal civil disobedience, but when laws start to be broken for the benefit of businesses at the expense of people, it starts to be something else. It's breaking the agreements we have as a society that help us continue to function in densely shared spaces.
The social contract is more complicated than just an argument for governing bodies. It’s an argument for a social system in which we follow rules that might be inconvenient in the short-term but help the whole social body function more smoothly. Social contract is why we generally stop at red lights, why we stay on our side of the road, why we don’t go into people’s homes and take things without their permission. We have agreed that abiding by certain rules is of mutual benefit (because it makes it safe to assume others will follow them most of the time, as well).
Companies like Uber are disrupting social contract for the sake of less restrictive regulations on businesses and licensing. That kind of disruption is ultimately a positive only for a money-hungry few at the very top of the structure, while those at the middle and down deal with unstable work, inconsistent socioeconomic resources, and a steady loss of protections both as workers and as consumers. Meanwhile, organizations like mine get lumped into the "sharing economy" with Uber while we're working hard to create more grassroots safety nets.
Maybe I'm tooting my own horn a little bit, but I'm real tired of sharing space in the cultural mind with that kind of practices.
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