Sharing is something profoundly human. After all, sharing is the directive generally given to very small humans in the playground sandpit. This is the place where most of us have made their first steps in becoming an active part in human society: ‘Share your bucket. Paula, give Antonio the spade. You need to learn how to share. Let him play with it, you will get it back. Well done.’ When we were small, we were shown how to be social by learning to share.
Maybe our early childhood conditioning is the reason why we did not pay much critical attention to the rise of the sharing economy. The promise of more sharing assisted by digital technology seemed a good one. Other than the articles that warn us on a daily basis about the technical potential of artificial intelligence to soon become our new overlord, through the data with which we feed it, the technical potential of sharing has been largely welcomed. But are we sharing or being shackled? Do we participate or subscribe? What has become known as sharing was in fact not. We had been tricked.
Assisted by apps and web-based platforms, we started to address and organise everything around us with ease and much more precision. Today, most European cities offer one or the other sharing opportunity, be it peer-to-peer ridesharing such as Uber, peer-to-peer rent-sharing such as Airbnb, task-sharing such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, or office-sharing such as WeWork. Access to things and space became easier, cheaper, and more convenient. In reality, this was never about peer-to-peer exchanges, but a set of centralised global platforms that made use of a local city – of local drivers or of local users. In reality, we also did not share – we rented out, or were rented out ourselves. An important difference. Its profound effect can be seen, for example, with Airbnb.
Exponentiating gentrification even further, the dramatic success of the company, founded in 2008, reshaped many Western cities by disturbing their inner workings on two levels. For one thing, residential homes in our inner cities became places for short-term rental, thereby expanding a market that had before been reduced to hotels. By opening up that market, inner city flats were turned into cash cows. Soon flats were bought as places that made money, and not as places to live in, thereby raising the cost for a home and pricing out locals. For another thing, the ‘guests’ that came, and with whom we ‘shared’ our flats and bedrooms, were not bound to us by hospitality. Having paid for the place, they had no reason to be grateful towards their hosts nor had they any commitment to the place itself. We had not shared our homes or cities with them. They were rented. Today, inner city life means to deliver the colourful background to loudly celebrating tourists, who as renters are consumers of a place to which they have no attachment. Today, we find our cities, habits, expectations reshaped by our new overlords, i.e. the companies that organise the sharing. Who is to blame?
Disruption vs Revolution
Enter technology. Regarding its role in our societies, technology is an interesting problem. As many philosophers from Martin Heidegger to Gilbert Simondon or Donna Haraway have shown, every time a new technical function freshly enters our societies (i.e. before tech companies have had the opportunity to form this function according to their own interests), its potential seems promising. By disrupting the set-up of the established world, new technological functions offer new connections, which have the potential to make the world function differently. But while all technologies have the forceful and fabulous capacity to create difference in our worlds, the worlds that appear do not automatically lead in any progressive direction. In other words, their technical realities are necessarily different, but not necessarily ‘better’. Technical tools will always ‘disrupt’ (a word so beloved of Silicon Valley), but the difference introduced by their disruptions is not automatically a revolution.
It was no one other than Walter Benjamin, who pointed to this in his famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’ (1936), in which he discusses the divergent ways in which the (then) new means of (re)production – photography and cinema – were affecting the masses, an affecting that can be twofold as the ‘increasing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process’ (Benjamin 1936, 120; emphasis added). Technologies can be employed to manipulate the masses in the interests of capital or fascism (let us not forget the context in which Benjamin’s text was written, three years before WWII); or they can be employed to allow masses to meet themselves, thereby helping them to understand their own formation and needs through their own mirroring in, and use of, technical apparatuses. As Benjamin makes clear in his essay, the actual appropriation, the way a technology is used, decides which one of those worlds will be created. As technology continues to re-shape the masses, the struggle regarding sharing continues.
Efforts in using the capacity of the digital to reshape the world we live in have been made. Besides open licenses for content or software, such as creative commons or open source, there are also open data initiatives; all are efforts devoted to a very different idea of sharing – to a sharing that is not merely renting. Instead, the phenomenal capacity of the digital, its potential for endless identical duplication, is used to open up its ownership, and not to rent it out. All of the above mentioned licenses and initiatives share their files, thereby allowing interested others to collaborate using copies, based on the fact that more copies do not mean that the digital materiality of the original file is being compromised. Initiatives that open data to the commons are important alternatives as they remind us that there are other ways than the subscription slavery we find ourselves in when renting Spotify until the end of our lives to hear our music. When data allows us to collaborate with and shape it – through use rather than rental – it can be our ally rather than our overlord.
Giving Some Data, Getting Some Data Back
There needs to be more of this. Ever since the digital potential trickled down into reality, the worlds we live in have been shaped through an effortless tracking and tracing of things, humans and spaces, which we have wrongly referred to as ‘sharing’. In reality everything gets simply connected to a central platform that shapes and dictates the ways in which our worlds can be managed according to the platform’s own interest (mostly for profit). Recent efforts have understood that such global platforms, owned by and obeying the imperatives of big business through big data, will haunt the local unless the locals have a stake in them: platform cooperatives have aimed to reshape their usage with the aim of being counter-organisations to platform capitalism.
A city that shows that this fight can be won, is Barcelona. When Ada Colau became mayor of Barcelona in 2015, she included programmers in her civil service that have the mandate to design technological tools to support the city and its citizens. Assisted by Chief Technology Officer Francisca Bria, their aim is to give the data back to the city. By negotiating contracts with companies such as Vodafone, they managed to reshape the extraction of data, which now flows from the citizens to the company (for example Vodaphone) and back to the city that supports the citizens. Barcelona’s project DECODE (DEcentralised Citizen-owned Data Ecosystems) reverses the shape of sharing: it is not anymore just the users that share what they have with the platform; now the platform also shares its data with the citizens and assists in extracting aspects from this information that benefits them and their society.
To open possible lines of postcapitalist modes of production is essential, as Tiziana Terranova pointed out in her essay Red stack attack! Algorithms, capital and the automation of the common. In a world where everything is organised through the cloud, to insist that a fundamentally different approach is possible, is more important than ever. Lured by the cloud’s promise of omnipresent availability, we freely enter into our chains thereby renting one subscription after the other; at the time of entrance, they seem irrelevant and are easily made. Ten euro here, five euro there and available are Spotify, Netflix, Google Drive, iCloud, Microsoft Office and so on. Tell me what subscription you have, and I tell you who you are. But like smoking cigarettes, lifelong renting adds up. It also keeps you in check. Today, it is not what your neighbours might think of you, but the threat to lose the right to rent via AirBnB, which conditions your behaviour in a place you have no relation to. Always luring above all our heads is the threat of experiencing no entry worldwide, being thrown off a platform; or the threat of subscribing to a start-up that decides to end its services and with it to delete your history. Sorry about that.
To unlock its potential, the technology that is currently reshaping our societies for the worse needs the support of new language and cultures. A new and different world reshaped by sharing is unfolding in front of your eyes. We struggle with this world. We cannot pin it down. We fail to describe it – there is work to be done. The ambiguities we experience in this new world have difficulties in finding their place in a language organised according to orderly antagonistic dialectics. A new cultural archaeology of the contemporary is necessary. It is time to work on a new vocabulary, in which we find the space to incorporate, express, and understand the ambiguous contemporary complexities we live with.
Sharing is a word that does not describe anything. But it is a term and action that requires agency on both sides to truly operate, as a door opens into a world in which we find a network of new relations and connections interwoven into the world around us – humans, spaces, feelings. As young children, we learned to share thereby becoming social individuals. As young democratic societies, we now need to learn the same. Much like in the sandpit, we need to explore capacities of sharing based on this new human tool that is the digital. Again, this demands playing an active part, although not in the sandpit of a market, but in a new and different network of human connections. Let’s enter.
(Written for Maia Bienal with thx to Justin Jaeckle)