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.

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