Aldo Agostinelli

The so-called sharing economy is getting more and more old-fashioned, despite its digital look, and less “sharing”. 2018 marks the end of the utopia envisioning users as self-made entrepreneurs using their own assets (houses, cars etc). Sociologist Evgeny Morozov clearly declared it from the pages of the Guardian. According to him, the techno-populistic vision telling about an informal and decentralized economy has officially failed.

As far as I am concerned I have no doubts: some of the companies which were expected to “open the market” have actually closed it, transforming into new monopolies, sometimes located in fiscal havens. Thus, new rules and a strong web tax are needed. 

No answers have come from politics 

Governments are among the first to be blamed, since they couldn’t and didn’t want to protect local platforms from the competition through the use of public incentives. Had they supported the first digital initiatives dedicated to the sharing economy by protecting them from the longa mano of the bigger capitals, today local municipalities would have been able to rely on platforms compensating the flaws of the public system in terms of transportation, services, infrastructures and tourism.  However, they didn’t. And all the  good things  brought about by the sharing economy (especially the mutual benefits), such as the fact that people having an extra room at home could make some money by renting it to those who could not afford a hotel room, have been lost forever. 

Car-sharing, home delivery services, bike-sharing and flat-sharing have boomed thanks to huge investments mainly coming from sovereign wealth funds . And many small start-ups have turned in huge giants worth billions of dollars which are currently ruling the market and monopolizing it.  And this has happened thanks to the very same technologies –  smartphones, apps, internet – which initially allowed for the decentralizing revolution (From Airbnb to city bikes, the ‘sharing economy’ has been seized by big money).

The betrayed revolution

As explained by Andrea Daniele Signorelli, who analyzed the Italian situation in the pages of Wired, although the sharing economy foundations appeared to be sound and steady, the dream has not lasted long. 

The transformation of cities into huge communities sharing means of transport and free time, making some money lending sofas to tourists, delivering the local sushi in the neighborhood or making some works for the people next door, have turned from prince charming to a toad and then to a mega-business for the big names, to the benefit of a few billionaire venture capitalists. 

A few examples: fairly paid lifts given by common drivers have generated  Uber, which is actually similar to the classic taxi service (the one which everyone wanted to become more democratic!), but whose drivers area unprotected professionals who will be fired without  unceremoniously when the company will go for self-driven cars; many young people in search for some argent de poche have become full time riders for Deliveroo or Glovo, receiving piece wages, complying with the unbearable laws of ranking and who can be fired at any time. And then there is one of the most amazing examples: Airbnb. What was meant to be the outcome of a reaction to the increase in the hotel prices, has soon become an advantage only for people owning several apartments to be rented to tourists with the consequent increase in the prices of long-term rental contracts. It won’t take long before it will evolve into a real hotel chain: in collaboration with Brookfield Property Partners, one of the biggest real estate agencies in the world, Airbnb is going to build its own houses (Are we waking up from the dream of sharing economy?).

Salvaging as much as we can 

Going back seems impossible at the moment. But all is not lost . According to Signorelli there are a few sharing entities which have remained faithful to their original spirit and are trying to promote it – CouchSurfing, BlaBlaCar, Là Zooz. While, according to Alessandro Bottoni, the sharing economy, despite its negative effects, has spread the idea of sharing which still allows Linux and LibreOffice  and many free audio/video contents to exist.
That is to say, a good willed sharing economy is still there: it is up to us now  to stop acting as passive users and chose it and use it at its best.

So, what shall we do? Regulate the field and introduce a web tax to be paid by big companies talking about sharing but having their Headquarters in the Caribbean or in Luxembourg  to avoid paying taxes. We need some new rules, and we need them now. 

What do you think about the sharing economy? Tweet @agostinellialdo.

To find out more about the digital world, you may read my latest book entitled: “People Are Media” 

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Aldo Agostinelli