• Jennifer Barnick

The Sharing Economy: Road to Utopia or Yet Another Hilarious Great Ape Experiment?


Nearly every day I have my breakfast and then lunch with the Wall Street Journal. I have been following this ritual for years, and I miss it when I travel or am somehow unable to have my alone time with the paper. Today (March 28, 2017), there was a little article about a sharing economy movement in Italy that is causing controversy. Many people are starting to invite strangers over to their house for dinner. They use a social-dining platform called Gnammo and can book dinner with home chefs for a fee. So, this is not simply a site for people to start playing friends and family with total strangers. Diners pay for their meals. The issue is that restaurateurs are peeved because they feel these new homey, amateur upstarts are taking away their business while simultaneously not having to adhere to any of their burden of intense health and safety regulations. Here in the U.S. the same arguments have arisen on virtually all sharing economy platforms from Uber to Airbnb. There is plenty to go over and argue on where peer to peer operational freedom and protective regulation come into play, however, today I want to talk about something else. I want to talk about the other voice, the other side to the rise of the sharing economy (or rather the computer platform phenomenon that has allowed an unprecedented efficiency regarding aligning peer customer to peer laborer). This other side is the Sharing Economy Utopians. I believe this is an important crowd to watch because it is making very strange bedfellows as issues of agency and responsibility are becoming completely entangled— where traditional left and right really lose their moorings.

The Utopian cry of the sharing economy (or peer to peer or P2P) use terrifying words. I do not like utopians. That is my disclaimer. Utopians always forget some people say ‘no’ and are stupid or stubborn enough to not give in, and while utopians are efficient pruners of knaves and mountebanks, over the arc of time, it is the knaves who win the hearts of man and everyone re-remembers that utopians are bad news. Oddly though, just as there will always be independent thinkers and doers there will always be utopians and the masses they so handily sway. Now, I am not sure what the best practice is for this burgeoning sharing economy , however, I do know entangled with this phenomenon is a lot of utopian talk, and so I would like to just point out a few of the more (what I believe to be) dangerous words these utopians are using.

“Allocate value more fairly” was a small phrase found on the internet in a blog written by a professor of a Boston area college in reference to the sharing economy and its future potential to make everything a lot better for everyone—especially the everyone that is not doing well right now. ‘Fairly’ is a super terrifying word because it has no real meaning and yet carries with it a subtle threat of violence. When your brother or sister cries about whether or not something is fair when playing, the physical blows are soon to come. If a parent steps in before the blows and stops the brother from striking the sister understand the reason the parent was able to stop the blows was because their blows are much harder. Essentially, fairness requires the threat of violence always.

In another article found online, they used the term “more democratically organized” in reference to what the rise of a sharing economy would mean for me, and note it was very sincere in its message that all my feelings of powerlessness and personal inadequacies would be cured if only things were “more democratically organized”. The problem with that dangerous gem is that democracy and organization are antithetical. Socrates poked a lot of fun at democracy. He knew humans very well. If you have a room of 100 adults and each adult has an equal vote the pizza is never going to get ordered, because there will never be an agreement on which toppings to pick. Now, what happens next is really exciting and terrifying: one or a few of the 100 adults will grow tired of the hassle and start to get a group together to agree on one type of pizza. This is hard to do quickly so coercion is the best medicine. Then, after some good coercion a large enough mob is formed to put forth the pizza decision. This is good because people finally get to eat, however, only a few really got what they wanted so resentment builds within the 100 adults. When resentment builds, some are going to start shouting, “That’s not fair! You only got your pizza way because you threatened and bribed everyone.” Then the artificially loyal toppings majority (with some shame because it was sort of true) says something like, “Shut the f*&k up and eat your pizza. If it were not for us we would all still be hungry.”

I believe we will hear a great deal about the sharing economy now and going forward. There will be a lot of fighting over the matter. There will also be a lot of utopians rising up and gathering crowds. The problem is that regardless of what kind of economic system we have now or in the future we are all still great apes. And while I suppose if the futurists who speak of the Singularity (when us humans can rise above our silly great ape ways through technological enmeshing) are correct then we might create a Utopia. Then again, maybe not, maybe it will be yet another hilarious great ape experiment.

Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.” You can follow Jennifer on her Instagram here.

Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.