Douglas Rushkoff is one of the most interesting writers of the last couple of decades.
His books have covered a broad range of topics, and his latest, “Team Human,” is a fast-paced 100-point manifesto. When he thinks What the Future, he’s wondering about the personal connections possible in a tech-driven economy.
WTF: What’s your reaction to the popular use of the term “sharing economy”? A lot of this is really just recast traditional rental relationships, with some sort of app interface that somehow makes it seem like it’s a whole new industry, right?
Douglas Rushkoff: Right. Many of the best platforms on the Internet in the ’90s were simply doing the matchmaking between people with needs and people with surplus. And that was an interesting phenomenon. One of the most successful of those platforms was couchsurfing.org. It was really just, “I’ve got a couch. If you need a place to stay, you can stay with me.” It wasn’t about money or renting or anything. It was, quite literally, about sharing. There were lots of places where you could list stuff that you had that you didn’t need anymore, and it engendered a culture of community sharing and value exchange.
WTF: There’s still a couple of them. And then other people can come and get that stuff if they need it. That’s more like sharing.
Rushkoff: A true sharing economy would be more of a situation where everybody on the block is going to chip in to buy one lawnmower or one snowblower, and then we’ll create a schedule and actively share it. The ’net was really good for helping administrate or facilitate this sort of activity. Ever since “Web 2.0,” as Tim O’Reilly called it, the temptation was always to find a way to become the landlord of those spaces and to charge something for allowing those exchanges to happen and encourage people to charge for the use of their stuff. And that’s where it just gets kind of crazy and unfair.
WTF: In your book you talk quite a bit about “the Commons.”
Rushkoff: The Commons was a collective resource that was shared by a community. And there were strict rules put around it for how it could be shared. It might be a pasture for grazing cows. So, if you’re part of the collective that is sharing this common resource, then there are rules: You can bring four cows per day, or you get 200 cow hours on this pasture per week. These rules were strictly enforced. If you broke the rules of the Commons, then you would lose your Commons privileges. All of this stuff we’re talking about is from the Medieval Era.
WTF: So, when you talk about the Commons in the book, is that something we should be aspiring to get back to? To bring some of that human connection back to these things?
Rushkoff: There are really two main models that would help us. One is the co-op. If the platforms were owned by the constituencies that use them, you end up in a very different world. Then you’re not an employee, so much as a stakeholder or an owner. Those kinds of businesses work differently. The other way is to look at certain things as Commons. This whole “tragedy of the Commons” is a fallacy. They’re not talking about a Commons — they’re talking about something that is neither owned nor supervised. A real Commons is governed by its users, who need it to stay viable. We’re all depending on it, so together we create a way of governing this important shared resource. We monitor it in shifts. We protect it.
WTF: Some of the so-called sharing economy is really about sharing labor more than goods, isn’t it?
Rushkoff: Right. I can have this person the first three hours, and you can get their second three hours. To them, sharing has to do with maximizing the utility and the time of the employee or the resource or the worker. That goes back to debt and [famed anthropologist David] Graeber’s idea that we need to find a way to grow the economy by any means necessary, which has very little to do with getting people the goods and services they need and everything to do with how do we extract more money in the same amount of time.
WTF: So, how do we build an actual sharing economy?
Rushkoff: If you’ve got people with skills and people with needs, you have everything you need for an economy. You don’t need a bank to lend money to a corporation to invest in a factory to provide jobs for people in your town building widgets that nobody needs. That’s not how to fix an economy. If you’ve got someone with a broken refrigerator and someone who can fix a refrigerator that’s the basis for value exchange. You just need a way of keeping track of favors, be it local currency or favor bank. It sounds like barter, but an economy shouldn’t be strangled for lack of a means of exchange between all these people that have value and needs. And that’s where some of the sharing economy apps have succeeded; at least they’ve opened people’s eyes to the idea that we could transact directly with each other.