The Sharing Economy

I have to admit that I am taken by the idea of sharing, especially in the context of win-win situations that can benefit multiple parties.
I was thus a little perplexed during the course of a thought-provoking BBC Radio 4 Bottom Line podcast on sharing and the “sharing economy” (although the examples described are actually probably closer to “renting” than “sharing”).

It was the idea that people are changing and no longer want to own or possess things, instead moving towards a society where renting and sharing are commonplace, that left me feeling slightly off-balance. I can see that there is a trend in this direction: after all, a system whereby I could try something out for a price (e.g., a new gadget) before deciding to buy it myself is something I would certainly consider. I might even think about sharing or exchanging a house for a short period of time, if the view is nice, especially as an alternative to a possibly soulless hotel somewhere. I can also fully appreciate sharing as a kind of antidote to the consumer society. If I buy 20 oranges for my family because they come in a pack of 20, but usually only get through 18 in a week, why would I not share (or perhaps barter?) the remaining two oranges to someone whose appetite doesn’t demand more, especially in these austere times?

What I can’t quite square in my mind is that someone still needs to own the thing that is being shared. Ownership and possession are, in my mind, instinctive concepts: I agree with the moderator here, but perhaps that just reveals something about my age. It seems to me that sharing comes into its own when there is some doubt in the mind about whether one wants to possess something, whether the investment (both instant and possibly future, when considering buying a house, for example) are just too large to warrant making a decision about commitment. The housing metaphor is an apt one, I think: where are the boundaries exactly between sharing, bartering, and renting? Perhaps it relates to value, perhaps to security: but commitment (or the lack of wanting to commit) is implicit in all of them, whether physical or emotional, and in this sense sharing is indeed perhaps a sign of our times.

Community and geography

Inspired by a Start the Week podcast from December 2013, I made myself a note before Christmas to spend some time thinking about the lively discussion, which was loosely centered on the idea of an “old-fashioned” community based on geography, and whether this can really be re-created in the current modern world, with its variety of different connections and reasons for connections. As a counter-point, the idea was raised to what extent a community arises from the existence of a common purpose as opposed to simply a physical geography. This is probably especially interesting if the common purpose exists in the face of adversity, and raises a multitude of additional tangential questions:

  • How does one define a community?
  • Who defines a community? Those within it or those from without?
  • Do communities form in physical locales, or do individuals/groups move to a specific locale with the creation of a community in mind?

My particular interest, as might be expected, relates to the psychogeography aspect of this discussion. Psychogeography is also tied to community, but in two different ways. On the one hand, it is tied to community as most of the memories linked to its geography happen in the community, in a shared area that is familiar. On the other hand, however, one of the key points of psychogeography as it has been studied, described, and formulated was to move into the unfamiliar, explore the areas outside the community, or perhaps to better describe it: outside the known community. This generates in my mind an image not just of overlapping communities, but stacks of communities, where sub-groups exist within larger entities, and individuals are defined (and define themselves) as belonging to different circles based on their personality, belief, or other subjective or objective criteria.

An idea for a story that came to mind (related to the additional discourse on the disappearance of the traditional high street) was of a person walking down such a high street, with the narrative focussed on the sensory experience: sights, smells, the overall experience of what made the high street a special place and often a/the central location of a community.

Just in time to save me the effort, a recent Thinking Allowed podcast about the multicultural smells of an East End market in London brought this back again. This kind of sensory description can be used to link different cultures with different locations, different times, and the many layers and waves of immigration and assimilation into big urban centers such as London. And at the core are people such as “Ali the assimilationist hero” who by understanding his customers (from many different backgrounds) is able to stitch together a pathwork of sensory and cultural triggers that not only satisfy each customer individually but make up the rich tapestry of which each individual is a part.