A story trapped within a story trapped within a story. A few years ago, I successfully crowdfunded the start of a peer-to-peer staffing network that would allow freelance hospitality staff to solicit their expertise directly to clients without being hired by nefarious staffing agencies.
The research into “new” and “sharing” and “peer-to-peer” economies was fascinating and undoubtedly evolutionary in scope. Although organizations such as Couchsurfing and WWOOF (WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms) kept the grassroots, relatively cost-free foundations of early sharing-economy principles in place, the inevitable was about to happen in the money economy. As the global economy receded in 2008 and subsequent industries collapsed, a global “sharing” economy was born out of its ashes.
The sharing economy, as it’s come to be known, has been around since before the word economy existed. The word economy literally means the “management” of the “household.” It preceded monetary economies. It preceded financial institutions and debt, as it has come to exist. It could also be said it was the basis for communal solidarity and resilience before monetized economies and scarcity began to empower the individual and disregard the community.
And so in the west we have come full circle, with many emerging companies whose foundations of disintermediation create or strengthen community and offer people an opportunity to make money where they otherwise couldn’t previously. None of these things are inherently bad, but when we don’t question how a new economy works, only that it works, we inevitably fall deeper into a story that we consider ourselves to be escaping.
A Different Business Model
The business model I created attempted to remedy the increasing disparity in the hospitality catering world between staffing agencies and staff. So I imagined a website that could do what the agencies did, independent of administrative personnel and “finders’ fees.” I realized at the same time that simply paying people more to work the same job does not necessarily remedy the acute vapidity or abuse of their work, it just makes it more palatable. As seems to be the case for a large majority of peer-to-peer networks that tend to stylize the sharing economy, the agency middlemen defend their role as facilitators by taking up to 70% of the staff’s wages charged to the client, at least in the case of hospitality staff in Toronto.
That being said, it’s no wonder alternatives are arising. Similar alternatives have popped up for other freelance workers as well, usually in tech and design. Although these models follow similar styles as AirBnB and Uber in creating safe networks and allowing peer reviews, none of the models implement safeguards to ensure safer work environments, higher pay rates, guaranteed pay rates, etc.
In fact, the models do the opposite of the story of innovation and sharing and disintermediation that they are so quick to espouse. The online models replacing the traditional middlemen instead allow competition to such an extent that the price of one’s work is affected by a “race-to-the-bottom.” (“Because the competition is offering the same service for less, they will probably have more business, so then I should lower my prices too.”) Not to mention the considerable project revisions that can be demanded pro bono just so a user can retain a positive review. These consequences should come as no surprise when longterm, unpaid internships, which often don’t result in paid work, have become the norm in the corporate and non-corporate work world alike.
Today you can hire someone online to micro-manage your week for you, although most people require simple tasks completed. Fiverr is the big one, where people can sign up and hire designers for any variety of micro-projects, starting at $5. As if this outsourcing of work isn’t enough, there has to be Fourerr, which is a laughable, albeit sad declaration of the race to the bottom. And don’t forget, most of these peer-to-peer job networks take a 20% commission.
Larger project-based online job networks like Guru and UpWork so opaquely try to represent themselves as the cutting edge of next generation work (so says their pretentious names). But that’s just it. These platforms are exactly that — an evolution of the same system that came before it, just more efficient. But it does absolutely nothing for the world when a more efficient model is presented, especially when it’s based on grandfathered principles. What good does it do to make a runaway train more efficient? What it does do is dress the emperor in new clothes. But the ugly truth is that he’s still naked.
Of course, things are never so black and white. Share-washing is a term coined to describe the greenwashing of the sharing economy.
Somehow a person who decides to become a short-term landlord is suddenly helping the world by renting their spare room to complete strangers. It doesn’t mean they suddenly contribute something revolutionary to the world. What it does mean is that they are being convinced that is the case.
Somehow they are not a capitalist, not a slumlord, not exacerbating an economy in protracted collapse, but rather the angels and creators of a more beautiful world. Marketing also convinces them of this with redemptive, but equally vague catch phrases such as “open source,” “gift economics,” and my personal favourite, “collaborative consumption.” Still, things are not so black and white. Many organizations and networks have bred a more beautiful world without the necessity of monetized interactions. Let’s contrast the angels and demons.
Couchsurfing is a great example of a grassroots, community-building introduction to a peer-to-peer sharing economy. Essentially, it is a social network, much like Facebook, that allows users to register, build a profile, and engage with people from all over the world to either host travellers in their homes or to solicit hosts for a couch to sleep on. The organization charges a fee to register as a verified member, enhancing security, but other than that, it is not only free to use, but policies demand that no money is exchanged for the use of one’s couch. It is free, yes, but there is a sort of unspoken responsibility among couchsurfers that they at least offer to buy or cook the host dinner and share stories, skills, and ideas.
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Those who might flip this around and see their responsibility as an obligation perhaps don’t understand the generosity and otherwise unnecessary need to offer a stranger a place to sleep for the night, because as you might be able to glimpse, it can be much more than that. I’ve been a member for a long time and it is an amazing way not only to meet new people, but new cultures, in a way that removes one from the cultural concept of strangers, and brings them together in an inter-cultural space that demands something of them, and not their wallets.
Often when I explained to my parents or friends that I would be staying on a stranger’s couch or hosting someone in the same way, their fears would be curled up around their curiosity, demanding that their worldviews on the dangers of strangers be somehow accommodated. They never were. But for their ilk a slightly similar website emerged that not only brought the idea out of alternative lifestyles, but monetized it. AirBnB has become a household name. The website allows people to rent out spare rooms and whole apartments to strangers. For those who can’t afford to stay in hotels, and those who desire income, AirBnB is a perfect match. While this new platform certainly undercuts the revenue of local hotels, AirBnB provides work and money for people who otherwise might not have any. Much in the vein of couchsurfing, AirBnB hosts and guests often have an opportunity to bridge cultural valleys, learning and interacting in ways that eclipse the capacities of museums, cultural centres, and day tours to educate.
The AirBnB model has had incredible success spreading wealth that was once consolidated in the hands of corporations and agencies and allowing it to funnel into the hands of the average citizen. While this, coupled with the capacity to create inter-cultural dialogues and bridges, is amazing, there is certainly a side to this coin that most people don’t want to acknowledge. In allowing people to utilize their homes and rental units, they don’t just allow them to increase their income, but by default turns them into landlords. It also encourages people to obtain more properties as a means for extra, and often easy, money. As if it wasn’t difficult enough to own property in 21st century North America without a lifelong mortgage, “innovation” sings the song that now everyone can become a landlord. This model has kept unemployed people from becoming homeless and employed people a little bit more financially secure, but only at the cost of their tenants. AirBnB hosts have become the proletariat Marriott, the friendly, average Joe version of Donald Trump. By monetizing the model that couchsurfing started, AirBnB has not solved the increasingly dangerous rent problem in North America, it has exacerbated it tenfold by saying “why risk permanent tenancy when you too could be a landlord?” It is simply an extension of the capitalist model in the face of its own collapse.
Uber is a similar example. Take a profession that requires multiple licenses, shady intermediaries, often negative public opinion, and offer a somewhat de-regulated, cheaper version of the same thing, and suddenly you have a brand new industry worth tens of billions of dollars. An industry which anyone can make money at, as long as they have a nice car and a driver’s license. It is likely that here too, many, many people who might have otherwise gone unemployed now have full-time jobs as drivers. But the reason Uber has become so popular is not because it offers people jobs, or that the public is discouraged with the conventional model of taxis, but because it offers a cheaper service. This alone is why most people use Uber, which is 20% cheaper than taxi cabs on average.
While it varies from city to city and country to country, Uber drivers can often make more money than taxi drivers, when they don’t have to pay for insurance or licensing fees. But while tons of people now have jobs they otherwise wouldn’t, the price of the service is going down, along with all drivers’ income — simply as a direct relation to the amount of competition that now exists. The peer-to-peer economy claims to remove the middlemen, previously agencies and government regulation, and to create new jobs. The flip side of the coin is that it postpones the shrinking of local and global economies because, simply, the prices of these services are cheaper. It is essentially the 21st century version of free trade — that rosy sounding economic style that promised to “develop” all countries to a rich, work-free standard of living, but instead has brought the global economy to its knees, making rich people in rich countries richer, and anyone else not already poor left with the promise of lifelong drudgery.
The ethos of capitalism as it has come to exist in the modern world is to make more people, so they can buy more things, at cheaper prices, so that inevitably there will be money left over for the next transaction. The peer-to-peer economy is not a socially just revolution of microeconomics and disintermediation — it is the natural consequence of the global capitalist economy trying, in its death throws, to prop itself up and shy away, as efficiently as possible, from its last gasps. And look how it is championed by the liberal and progressive among us.
Leave your dog with a stranger. Rent a car or bicycle from a neighbour. Lend or borrow money (with interest) from a peer investor. Buy used clothing from a friend instead of a second-hand shop. Rent sporting goods from a peer instead of a store. Rent your parking space for the days you don’t use it. This kind of peer-to-peer economics certainly reduces waste and makes local economies much more efficient than they previously were, but what also seems inevitable, is that the praise and proponents of the new economics actually encourages people to monetize, at least potentially, every thing that they own and every service they can offer. A person’s objects no longer exist primarily in relation to ownership or want, but that everything has a resale price attached. The consequences are endless, and unnerving.
The “sharing” economy is so often offered up in quotations because it is obvious that sharing something does not and never did mean putting a price tag on sharing. The bright side is that there are social networks and organizations whose word is bond and offer up platforms and meeting spaces where things not only don’t have to be monetized — what a concept! — but aren’t monetized. Couchsurfing, online barter and “freecycling” networks, tool-lending libraries, seed libraries, book libraries, and carpooling are all great and sometimes timeless examples of how we can start to tell stories that might include money in some fashion, but not as the foundation through which the interaction unfolds.
The culture of innovation for entrepreneurs today has become a caricature, with very few stones left unturned in order to find a way to justify monetizing a new idea. Young people dressing up in their blazers and v-neck t-shirts, paying money to attend “salons” and “unconferences” and get certified as a life coach at 30 (the irony!), so they can then charge for their own salons and certification programs. Don’t get me wrong — everyone needs to make money, pay rent or a mortgage, and so on. But saying that is what everyone needs is also saying that it has always been this way, which is one of the hallmarks of the story of western civilization. If you convince someone that it has always been this way, then how could it ever be otherwise?
So in the face of western culture rotting from its core comes the rush to create new technologies and bandaids masquerading as solutions. Still, people need narrative. And so with the share-washing of business, otherwise known as business innovation, is it really any surprise that conferences and salons always begin with some organizer pitching a story — something relatable, something hopeful, something that hinges on a world much unlike their own? But the guests in the audience, even with their inspiration lit, conscious of it or not, are there to build something they can sell to others, and without even knowing they are being sold the same. old. story.
A story trapped within a story, that is ironically enough, trying to tell a different story.
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