The Sharable Economy- Technology’s New Citizen Industry

Strangers in our Home
(This article was published in the August, 2013 issue of the Ningbo Guide. It is republished here with permission.)

Collaboration has become a buzzword and anyone that can surf the Internet will stumble upon sites exploring bartering, sharing, gifting, lending or swapping everything imaginable. There is an emerging socioeconomic thrust that is resurrecting and reinventing older forms of collaboration and community. It is a new form of conspiracy, if you honor the Middle English origin of the word, which means “to act in harmony or to breathe together”. People are sharing again, and now in a scale never before imagined. Bikes, cars, products, skills, knowledge, experiences, interests, services, houses and even bathrooms are all being shared in new forms that question ownership and save time, money and space. New friends are discovered and active citizenship is growing. It is a strange new trust between strangers. It is personal and it’s happening in my home.

Six decades ago I was quite familiar with this phenomenon. Born shortly after WWII, my parents still had the smell of the Great Depression in their nostrils, the hunger birthed from starvation diets in Nazi prison camps, and the American echoes of an underground railroad that would protect and shelter oppressed peoples seeking safety and freedom. On our back door my sister sketched the chalk sign of a cat, signifying that a kind lady lived here and that food, clothing and respite were available to the hobos riding the railroads. The quiet whispers between southern blacks during the Civil Rights era spread my parent’s phone number, names and address so that weary, injured, or frightened families could find shelter in duress– and long before food banks were organized my father could be seen on the railroad tracks pushing a grocery cart, wobbling with crates of fruit and vegetables from the back rooms of the local grocery stores: food that our family would distribute to the elderly and marginalized.

We had an open door policy (literally since the doors were never locked) so friends and relatives would frequently drop in for dinners and overnight stays, preferring friendship over motels and restaurants. My childhood friends and I built a playhouse in a wooded area from building supplies and household goods freely acquired from neighboring dumps, lumber and brick yards that saw no issue with children scavenging through their properties and hauling out their trash and outdated products. It was the age of sharing. Neighborhood parents watched over everyone’s children and equipment, tools and household supplies were borrowed freely from pantries and garages. Outgrown clothes and toys were passed around the block and large groups of helpers showed up for moving day with boxes, cold drinks and sandwiches. The boundaries of ownership and consumption were porous.

The spirit is returning. Real time technologies, social networks and smart grids are making it possible to high jump over outdated modes of hyper consumption and are creating imaginative systems based on sharing bikes, cars, homes, services, knowledge, lifestyles and experience. We’re beginning to trust each other again and millions of people are participating globally.

You can rent your stuff to strangers with Zilock, an online marketplace that lets you make money off of unused possessions you’ve piled up in closets and basements. You can find tours by locals with specialized knowledge on Vayable; exchange your excess goods and downtime with businesses internationally on Bartercard; match sensible borrowers looking for low rate loans with smart savers looking for high interest on their savings on Zopa… the list goes on. The one way flow of the media and information has been hijacked by blogs and streaming media; Kickstarter funds creative projects through the direct support of ordinary people; peer to peer communities share knowledge on Wikipedia, Flickr, Digg, Linux and YouTube; and Airbnb, Couchsurfing, Roomorama and HomeAway partner travelers with homeowners willing to share their house.

New York Times journalist Mark Levine commented that “sharing is to ownership what the iPod is to the 8-track, what the solar panel is to the coal mine. Sharing is clean, crisp, urbane, postmodern; owning is dull, selfish, timid, backward”. Even in the most capitalistic of societies, humans are remembering that we can cooperate to act in the common good.

Old ideas are being replicated and made relevant again through new technologies: my childhood has returned. Now my small non-profit corporation can partner with multinational companies to pick up and distribute valuable donations of household goods, bedding, and beauty supplies for those in need in our communities. Last week alone, thanks to collaborative technology, I raced to 16 beauty salons in three cities and hauled away over $20,000 worth of shampoo, conditioner and hairspray to be given away during the holidays.

Two years ago I was invited by a young man with a sparkling intelligence to go to Norway while he was working with New York’s famous Wooster Group on tour. Since I adored both my friend and his brilliant theater company, I jumped at the chance. But I couldn’t afford two weeks in Oslo hotels and found myself searching for housing alternatives on the web. I bumped into Airbnb and found a tiny apartment I could share with a Norwegian woman, also in the arts. For $60/night I found a home and a best friend. The accommodation was far from the comfort of a hotel room but the experience and the friendship was priceless. I returned to America hungry for more.

What was it that nabbed me? Certainly not just the simple fact that anyone with the Internet and a spare room could become an innkeeper; instead I was hungry for connection, longing for a mutual trust between the unfamiliar; and wanting for a world bigger than the tiny community I existed within.

So we opened our own home to strangers through the likes of Airbnb. We carefully identified our philosophy in our online description, deposited 100% of the funds acquired into our non-profit corporation’s bank account to assist in supporting our work with artists and the economically disadvantage in our area, and watched the reservations come pouring in. This summer, which is our first full season, over one hundred people will be sleeping in our guest room, watching hummingbirds on our back patio, washing clothes in our washer and dryer, and putting their feet up in our living room after mountain hikes.

And what are we getting out of sharing our sacred space, our home, our kingdom, our personal retreat from the insanity of the world?

We are learning. It is as simple as that. We are learning about boundaries, about cultures, about human nature and about ourselves. We are learning that the world can come to your doorstep and that the close ties once formed through personal exchanges in villages can occur on a much grander and unconfined scale. Online technology is inventing new lines of trust and I am experiencing a wrinkle in time that resonates with the best of my childhood.

There is something sweet about the world reinventing old forms, at least for those of us that can remember the old. My childhood was filled with sleep overs in homes that ranged from the luxurious to those that had only dirt floors and no indoor plumbing. Our living room graced guests like Carl Sandburg and Dr. Seuss to Watt’s poets and homeless runaways. Our meals consisted of engaging and animated dialog with immigrants, international students, politicians, artists, authors and gossiping neighbors. Through it all, I learned about people, ideas, lifestyles, and myself.

Perhaps ex-pats and the urbane younger generation take this mixing, meshing, fusion, and mingling for granted. I do not. Too many decades have been spent in the in-between; a world where white picket fences metaphorically delineated classes, races, and ideologies; where conformity and personal ownership divided and separated people; where vast galaxies of waste were planted in the seas and skies, and where honest, deep, authentic and meaningful conversation was rewarded with reprimands, ostracization, scolding or violence.

Is this new collaborative world a utopia? Hardly. The emerging collaborative consumption of ideas, things, cultures and spaces demands no rigid ideology but still imposes limits to the system, specifically situations where people can’t give up on individual ownership, beliefs, assumptions or doing things solely by themselves. It is a balancing act on a new kind of high wire- but it is amusing and challenging.

So what do we learn from the collaboration of 100 strangers that ‘sleep over’ during the summer while visiting the great Rocky Mountains? We take our own little subjective survey and examine and revise it along the way. Personally, I have learned that I am not alone– but that I also understand why I am alone: a paradox that befuddles my American life. I learn that the distressing intolerance of my little town’s appetite for what is real in human interaction and conversation can be balanced by the magic of sharing a bottle of wine with guests who feel safe enough to openly weep about personal tragedies or offer immediate and profound discourse on life without judgment or censorship.

I learn that I have a preference for immigrants and international guests: they are kinder, more adept at meaningful dialog, more vulnerable to the power of the moment, more respectful of personal space, more appreciative of generosity, and more interesting in intellect and character. From half of our American guests, I gain great hope in the goodness of our nation. From the other half I learn the shadow side of our national arrogance: the invisible privileged status we operate from, and the unwillingness we have to learn about the rest of the world.

While most of our guests nourish us in small and personal ways, others take the ‘what’s mine is yours’ attitude to the extreme and move our furniture, dig out soup pots from the backsides of cupboards to soak their feet, rummage through our freezer, proselytize about religion and politics, take over our kitchen and monopolize our TV to watch sit-coms. We learn that these strangers are ourselves: this swarming, conflicted, vulnerable mass of humankind that struggles for a place in the world.

Our little experiment teaches us that the convergence of social networks, a renewed commitment to the essentials of community, unrelenting environmental concerns, and cost consciousness are moving away from the old fashioned top-heavy, centralized, and controlled forms of consumerism towards one of aggregation, openness, contribution and cooperation. It teaches us about what we share and what we give away in terms of time, knowledge, objects, space and attachments. It is reinforcing our belief that, in the end, we are all in the same boat. For this, opening our home to complete strangers is a good beginning and a meaningful wrinkle in time.

Jinx Davis