Over the years I’ve written about a host of interesting peer to peer or crowdsourcing projects, from lending on Zopa or Streetbank’s neighbourhood sharing scheme, to Whale.fm’s crowdsourced whalesong study,Bookmooch, or Peoplefundit. There are dozens of people-powered projects to mention, usually using the internet to create new ways to share resources and time.
What happens if you step back and start to map these many projects? What kinds of trends start to emerge? There’s certainly something going on, and Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers’ book sets out to investigate exactly what. Whether it’s a movement, a phenomenon or a revolution, they’re not sure. It’s a “socioeconomic groundswell” of sorts, and they call it collaborative consumption.
“Every day people are using Collaborative Consumption – traditional sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting and swapping, redefined through technology and peer communities.”
The internet has opened up a raft of new opportunities for people to find each other. Perhaps you’re looking for someone with a couch you could sleep on in a city where you don’t know anyone. In the past you’d have been in a hostel, but now you could use couchsurfing.org and stay with a local. Maybe you’ve got a printer you don’t need anymore. Selling it would have been too much of a hassle in the past and you may have dumped it, but today you can Freecycle it or Ebay it. Perhaps you have a two-car driveway and only one car, and you can advertise that space to rent on parkonmydrive.com
Pile enough of these websites and projects together and you do get a sense that there’s a cultural shift going on, and there are some interesting sides to it. People seem willing to trust strangers. We’re often very generous, and more willing to be neighbourly than we often assume. And many of these ways of sharing are far more environmentally friendly than the usual processes of individual ownership and sending things to landfill when we’re done with them.
What’s Mine is Yours looks at all these aspects. It begins with a view on consumerism and some of its perversities, such as the boom in self-storage and consumer debt. They look at the evolution of disposability, something I’ve not read about before, and the development of planned obsolescence. These things didn’t just happen. They were designed and promoted, sometimes with government support. (During the First World War, shops displayed ‘Waste Not Want Not’ signs, and after the war the US government gave out replacements that read ‘Beware of thrift and unwise economy’ to encourage people to spend more.) If our current consumerism was designed, then it is not “an immovable fact of modern life.”
After outlining some of the problems and drivers of consumerism, the book goes out to explain the new forms of consumption that are emerging. They suggest there are three strands of collaborative consumption. There are ‘product service systems’ that turn goods into services instead, where many people use the same products – like Lovefilm or car-sharing. There are ‘redistribution markets’ than circulate unused items, like you can on Ebay or Swap.com. The third type are ‘collaborative lifestyles’, which includes things like Landshare or co-working.
Botsman and Rogers explain each of these things through examples, so you get the history of Craigslist, Etsy and Linux. Along the way you’ll the story of the commons and the work of Elinor Ostrom, the theory of idling capacity, a celebration of launderettes, and much more besides. It’s a diverse and stimulating read, full of fascinating people and interesting new ideas.
What you don’t get is much of a sense of how collaborative consumption could be part of a broader vision of sustainability. There’s no speculation about how collaborative consumption can compete in a corporate culture, or how corporates have sought to co-opt the language and ideas of the movement. There’s no analysis of the economic consequences of sharing over ownership either, or how it could be part of a new economy. But there is passing mention of these things – the authors are aware of all these further questions, it’s just not their purpose here.
Earlier this year I wrote about my hopes that the future is more cooperative. I bought this book, along with The Cooperative Revolution, to explore that thought further. I remain more convinced than ever that this is one of the big cultural movements of our age.