So long, collaborative economy!
After four years of exploring it, we should be happy that the collaborative economy is going mainstream – it’s even used by the EU. But I have to admit, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hide a certain unease.
Translation by Elena Denaro, Bianca Pick and Lou-Eve Repussard
The collaborative economy is over. It might be sad, but that’s just the way it is. And it’s not because some naughty capitalist platforms have shamelessly exploit the altruistic and selfless motivations of citizens, or the so-called prosumers (wow, those bullshit neologisms don’t age well!) - or some other similar rubbish. No. The collaborative economy died simply because the concept lost all its explanatory power. It’s no big deal: concepts don’t last forever. Most can shed a new light on a phenomena for a while, but usually end up hiding the reality more than they unveil it. Once we reach this point of no return, there is only one option left: euthanasia. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the eulogy for collaborative economy.
It died the way it lived…
I knew the collaborative economy well. I rubbed shoulders with it everyday for 3 years. My OuiShare colleagues and I were actively involved in shaping this concept. What were we thinking back then? Were we just young and naive? Maybe a bit. After all, no one is really serious at 25. But don’t expect a mea culpa in due form from me. We had our reasons. First of all, we didn’t want to speak the sharing economy language. At best it didn’t quite sit right, at worst it sounded hypocritical. And this was not only because the ideology of sharing (a sort of cheap collectivism made to sound cool) became a patchy cover-up for the aggressive business strategy of Californian platforms marching triumphantly on Paris, but also because damn you! You can’t play with us, us French with our Cartesian spirit.
We didn’t want to speak the sharing economy language. At best it didn’t quite sit right, at worst it sounded hypocritical
But mostly because it brought in its wake a crowd of rather sleazy Gurus calling for vast transformations, expecting them to emerge, almost spontaneously, from changes in individual behaviors. Hail the virtuous! Personally, these intellectual masturbations always seemed just as stupid as the idea of moralizing capitalism. The answer should rather be systemic, and the term collaborative felt less charged, more neutral, less moralistic. We weren’t imagining Christ sharing wine and bread with his disciples. And with any luck we could escape the archaic debates between monetized and ‘true’ sharing, between material avarice and ethereal altruism. And we did - for a while.
We don’t want to sell bullshit
Collaborative helped to describe systems that are neither based on hierarchy nor on competition. It allowed us to pinpoint a sort of divergence from the laws of the market economy, which in truth is nothing more than vertically structured organizations competing for resources. And this, as a strategy, wasn’t entirely stupid.
To sell an idea – at a good price – you have to tie it down, smooth over the edges and package it in a shiny sleek box
In our defense, we never tried to hide the hotchpotch nature of the collaborative economy as a concept. It wasn’t a defined economic sector. Of course, lumping Airbnb, Blablacar, Fab Labs and Wikipedia together was, as the Anglo-saxons say, a heroic assumption. It seems to me that we always have expressed our doubts, and sometimes even changes in our thinking. And frankly, not everybody has these kinds of qualms these days. We would have been bad consultants, unable to correctly market our thoughts. Because to sell an idea – at a good price – you have to tie it down, smooth over the edges and package it in a shiny sleek box. You cannot sell an idea and keep it in flux. This is how we ended up with the radiant and worldwide triumph of bullshit: clunky and half-arsed concepts well packed in ugly Powerpoint presentations, or worse, a snazzy Keynote. In one word: harmless. The idea, castrated of its corrupting potential. Anyway, I digress.
The delicate art of prophecy
For us, talking about the collaborative economy was above all, a bet for the future. Large platforms were of course rare and not always nice, but they were supposed to form a kind of vanguard: their success would be a prelude to the emergence of a motley crew of well-meaning initiatives (yes, some even a bit nuts), that so far only existed in the margins. As simple as it sounds, it was the herald of a paradigm shift right at your fingertips, the last glow of capitalism.
And here, we strike the heart of the problem: I don’t believe in it anymore. We’ve seen a lot of projects struggling to getting by for a few years, and we’ve seen many more startups dying. And the big ones? They just kept growing (surely a little too much for their own good, if you listen to the fears of the imminent bursting of this bubble). When I speak at conferences, the same examples keep coming up (Wikispeed, Protei, Loconomics, and many more), and honestly I have nothing new to say about it. So what? This kind of transformation takes time, doesn’t it? Perhaps. But I can’t keep pretending that Open Desk and Uber are going down the same path and at the same speed. The concept of the collaborative economy was composite by nature, from the beginning, but the tensions that shape it have reached a level today that makes it impossible to hold it together. We have to pull the plug. Requiescat in pace.
"Life ends but work never does" (Arabian proverb)
In the end we are left with an important question: can we find any rubies in the rubble? Searching through the ashes of the collaborative economy, we have uncovered new models of organizing work. Indeed, the initiatives that have been called "collaborative" have a common denominator: they all depend on freelance workers.
Wage labour or work under an employment contract is not only a legal status and framework, it is also a mode of production (with its associated relations). To put it simply, it is the founding principle of the modern social contract. Of course wage labour isn’t going to disappear overnight, but a substantial and growing proportion of economic value is already generated outside of this framework. We can no longer afford to ignore it.
Of course wage labour isn’t going to disappear overnight, but a substantial and growing proportion of economic value is already generated outside of this framework
So let’s try to carve a new conceptual framework out of the remains of the collaborative economy, focusing on what it actually gave us – a transformation of work:
- Digital labor. Basically all the data that you and I are feeding to the huge algorithmic factories. Your Google searches, your Facebook status, your geo-location data, the ongoing heart rate recorded by your fitbit, etc. constitute the unintentional part of the digital labor. At the same time, you have intentional digital labor, whose most radiant example is Amazon Mechanical Turk. Yann Moulier-Boutang compares us to bees in the big digital and global hive. This metaphor is useful, but remains somewhat rosey: in our relationship to those large platforms, we act more like aphids colonized by ants addicted to honeydew, than pollinating insects. To go further on this subject, I recommend the reading of Digital Labor: the Internet as Playground and Factory by Trebor Scholz.
- Amateur work, or peer-to-peer, understood here in the narrow sense. It is the exchange of goods and services between private individuals that maintain themselves on an infra-professional level. Renting out your apartment or your car once in a while, but without following the normal course of capital accumulation and without establishing a clear subordinate relationship between the one that supplies the service and the one that receives it. In short, it’s the economy of pooling, which is not expected to have a high potential for growth, but whose existence we can’t ignore.
- Autonomous work. The jackpot: the growing freelancisation of the job market and the relative eclipse of subordinate work. In the USA, self-employed individuals are already likely to represent one third of the labour force. The causes of this phenomenon? First, the automation of traditionally white-collar jobs, which renders most subordinate work unnecessary. Second, ever decreasing transaction costs, causing firms to shrink dramatically. The development of self-employed work remains the biggest challenge for our societies, both on an intellectual level — it compels us to think over the different forms of exploitation — and on a political level — most urgently, the reinvention of social protection.
That’s it. The good news is that we can all definitely stop thinking of the "perimeter" and the "boundaries" of the collaborative economy. Work today: is it alienation or freedom ? The rest is of trifling importance.