Efficient Frontiers: Will the Sharing Economy be Cooperative or Co-Opted?

by Kurt

What do 3D printing technologies, social lending platforms and co-working spaces have in common? It is tempting to answer that they are all part of the new sharing economy – a playground of possibilities including open source and peer-to-peer endeavors in a new creative commons. Yet if history repeats (or at least rhymes), the democratizing effects of these developments may be overrated. What they do share for certain, though, is a impressive and praise-worthy shift toward increased efficiency and (consequently) resource sustainability.

There is no doubt that these are dramatic innovations. From dresses to weapons, car parts to whole houses, 3D printing can produce just about anything, making our very homes into potential micro-factories.  Social lending allows individuals to bypass traditional banks and more directly access (or provide) capital. Co-working spaces offer (net)working, collaboration and mentorship opportunities outside of traditional business structures.

At the same time, the most powerful 3D printers are still best obtained from commercial sources. Peer-to-peer lending happens primarily through a handful of large for-profit intermediaries. There is no clearly visible sign yet of co-working spaces being co-opted by corporations (though corporate-sponsored incubators are on the rise), but if there is money to be made, it is a safe bet that large companies will get into the game (see: Starbucks v. coffee shops).

Consider the on-the-ground conditions of the internet-as-such: theoretically open, access for most everyday users still happens by means of a few large corporate portals (Google directly, Microsoft and Apple less so, not to mention internet service providers). While it is not impossible to find darknet alternatives, the bulk of bits making their away through the tubes are doing so through Fortune 500 channels. This is current reality, like it or not.

If this sounds dire or depressing, there is an upside: power structures aside, increased efficiency can still translate into real and lasting gains for the everyday individual and society alike. Even if the means of producing, transacting or collaborating inevitably becomes centrally controlled, people can still use them to bypass circuitous supply chains and maximize the utility of financial, material and spatial resources. In turn, these reduce the need to expend valuable resources on transportation (instead: printing objects from home), idle disuse (instead: sharing largely-unused vehicles), lighting, heating and cooling unused spaces (instead: hot-desking takes on a new meaning).

And, of course: this take could be wrong entirely. In considering the question posed at the outset of this piece, I went out and searched for the core topics to see who else is talking about their intersections and the implications of such. What I found was a discussion transcribed and dubbed Dialogue between P2P Theory and Marxism. On the emerging model of distributed production, Michel Bauwens states:

It is based on distributed infrastructure, distributed machinery, 3D-printing, micro-factories, distributed finance, crowdfunding, social lending, distributed currencies like Bitcoin, collective working spaces like co-working, hacker spaces, fablabs… collective learning capabilities which are very, very developed, even renewable energy. So this is happening anyway. But what we can do is steer it and fight for it so that it actually evolves in a way that is the most useful for the workers. In my view, peer-producers are the working-class of post-capitalism. It is an exodus out of capitalism towards a new mode of being and thinking about oneself, which is outside the capital-labour dichotomy. But of course it exists within a system of capital, so the social reproduction of the commons is dependent on capitalism. But they are mutually dependant. For me, the essential thing is to break this dependency.

This all seems optimistic in its revolutionary predictions, and falls victim to that human tendency we all have to extrapolate present evidence toward an improbable future (see: the technology bubble).  All prognostications aside, the implications are still profound: we are able now (and will increasingly be) to better utilize materials, objects and spaces for our mutual benefit. Those of us enjoying this evolution from the thick of things and from the sidelines alike should all revel in the environmental, personal and social potential.

Bitcoin should serve as a simple (and sobering) example for new-paradigm enthusiasts – while an ingenious decentralized currency in theory, in practice it has been subject to rampant deflation, speculation and hack attacks. While an epic experiment already enjoying use as an alternative medium of exchange, it has not yet begun to prove its potential as a reliable store of value let alone the basis of an entirely new monetary system.

Not to toy too much with skeptics of capitalist infrastructure, but in modern portfolio theory, the term efficient frontier is the optimal balance of assets that maximizes reward per unit of risk. Perhaps we are seeing the emergence of a real-world efficient frontier – a re-balancing of production and distribution which provides incrementally greater risk-adjusted material, economic and social results to all participants, with or without the revolutionary rhetoric.