The first thing that the sharing economy killed was the concept of sharing. The ability to transact for the tiniest of things (and indeed, for a share in the tiniest of things) has made it easier and cheaper for us to buy access – but that means that everything we possess, even our thoughts, our emotions, our time – have a price, and we’re loath to let them go for nothing at all.
Remember all those times you could just call your friends to help you move house? It’s easier to get a TaskRabbit (or a TaskPeon, for my Indian brethren) now. Need to borrow a power tool from a neighbor? It’s probably available on a per-hour basis from some sharing economy service, where it will likely get dropped off at your house. Even grocery shopping: now you can buy little slices of peoples’ time, to get them to run to the shop for you and pick up eggs and milk and a dozen other sundries.
I used to Couchsurf a lot. The concept was simple: travelers and hosts are paired off for each to learn about the other. There was a transaction, but the economy was learning-based, the currency was exposure to a new culture. It was awkward and stilted at the beginning of each surfing experience, but soon you’d forge friendships that spanned continental distances and many years. AirBnB took the basic concept of Couchsurfing – the ability to stay in someone’s home – and made it all about the money. The minute you bring money into an equation like that, you’ve removed the awkwardness. Everyone understands a commercial transaction, no matter what culture they’re from. So the familiar roles of vendor and customer are reprised, and the more awkward (and, arguably, enriching) experience is lost.
I’m not deriding the sharing economy. It’s great because it adds value to the things that we own that would lie fallow because we don’t need them right now. If you have just a few hours to work, you can still make meaningful (and profitable) use of that time. If your car and driver do nothing but sit in the parking lot for the 8 (or 9 or 10) hours that you’re a cube rat, now you can put them to work at Uber or Ola. So the concept is great and in many ways we need to think of more methods to boost productivity like this.
But let’s remain cognizant of what we’re losing. We’ve placed emphasis on and prefer to receive a small increase in economic terms over a similar increase in intangible, emotional value. Which seems pretty wishy-washy and not worthy of consideration, but the thing is, it is. At some point, it will become impossible to replace the joy of receiving thanks and good spirit and fellowship with the joy of receiving money. I postulate a transaction that is so micro, that even though it does bring you cash, or credit, it won’t bring you as much joy as the simple act of giving would have brought. The fearful part of this possibility, of course, is that by this point we may have so thoroughly trained ourselves to expect joy from money that we won’t even know why we’re dissatisfied.
It’ll manifest itself, instead, as a form of ennui, a general dissatisfaction with the world, a malaise or a sense of missing out on a better deal. Our subconscious self will be aware of the fact that the deal we’re getting is a raw one, but our conscious, logical, processing self will be unable to reconcile this feeling with our bank balance. “After all, I did just get paid,” we’ll tell ourselves.
As a freelance writer, I’ve always been aware of this phenomenon. A writer who writes for a living (as opposed to going in to an office and being part of the process of publishing) moves gradually from a person who likes to write, who likes the challenge of sitting down and wrestling with some abstract concept or idea to someone who refuses to budge without a brief from an editor who’s confirmed that they’ll pay for work.
As it becomes more and more economically rewarding to write, it becomes more and more unfeasible to just sit down and write for the sake of writing. You’re acutely aware of the fact that this aimless noodling about on word processors may be fun and it may make your friends laugh when you post it on your blog, but it doesn’t really pay the bills. It’s one thing to allow yourself the distraction when times are lean and no-one is beating down your door with work – but when you’re getting assignments all over the place, it seems criminal to turn them down in favor of something that brings you joy. And so you do more commercial work, leaving the ideas that keep you up at night for a “more suitable time.” There is no such thing. My ‘Ideas’ folder is bursting to the seams with such thoughts that cry out in the middle of the night for attention. If you replace my writing-for-profit situation with something less obvious – ownership of a house, or a car, or free time – then you’ll see quite clearly how this might translate.
I should state quite clearly that I don’t have a solution. I don’t think we should stop monetizing (there, I used that word) our work, or that AirBnb and TaskRabbit and Instacart are evil. Quite the opposite, in fact. I do think, however, that we should remain aware of what makes us happy. That while there is joy in receiving money for something that we once did for free, there is also loss. I think we need to learn how to tally up emotional loss as easily as we check our bank balances.