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Flea-Market Ideology: A Review of What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption

What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption
by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers
HarperBusiness, 304 pp. ISBN: 978-0061963544

Where money is not itself the community, it must dissolve the community. — Karl Marx, Grundrisse

Like capitalism, consumerism has proven adept at assimilating critiques and adapting to them. In so doing, it cuts away the ground underneath the complainers who don’t appreciate its dynamism. When complaints arose that mass markets forced a stultifying conformity on consumers, the market responded with brand campaigns organized around an ethos of individualism, offering superficial options for customization to appease the desire for distinction. When critics argued that acquiring goods didn’t necessarily lead to lasting happiness and that accumulation of stuff merely puts us on a hedonic treadmill, marketers like Paco Underhill began to emphasize shopping “experiences,” a bit of rhetorical prestidigitation whereby consumer items became souvenirs of promised states of feeling rather than their source. When the problem was with homogenizing brands and the eradication of mom-and-pop stores, corporations rolled out ersatz small brands and adopted old-timey packaging design to recall the heyday of regional businesses. When social theorists complained about the hollowness of leisure time predominantly spent consuming and collecting goods, consumption began to be represented in marketing discourse as a creative form of meaning  production, with consumers as “co-creators,” using products inventively in off-label ways to enrich their unique identity. When ecological concerns began to be voiced more loudly, the market responded with recyclable packaging and “green” products that offer a moral alibi for our consumer behavior and let us continue our love affair with packaging.

Consumerism’s logic allows it to transform into a form of market research the critiques leveled at it by pointing the way to new profit opportunities and to coalescing groups of disgruntled consumers who can be flattered and sold to through marketing that seems to hear them and address their concerns. Hence advertising pitches are constantly re-tuned to better convey the same message of empowerment of how new innovations really put consumers in charge this time by letting their voices be heard. This customer-service approach co-opts and domesticates any oppositional practices which manage to gain steam, and thus protects consumerism’s core operating principles: that social relations must be mediated by products; that shopping is the solution to all personal problems; that only branded goods can be useful or have true, broadly accepted meaning; that life’s purpose derives ultimately from consuming rather than making things. It buys off the casually disaffected, preventing them from ever adopting more uncompromising forms of resistance, and it makes consumerism’s hardened critics seem like inconsolable cranks, like poorly socialized cynics who find happiness only in complaining.

This intractable tendency of the market to squash any counterhegemonic uprising ought, then, to encourage skepticism with respect to the latest iteration of this process, “collaborative consumption,” which involves various Internet-assisted methods of peer-to-peer exchange and resource renting, as exhaustively described in Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers’s  new book What’s Mine Is Yours. After recapping the history of anticonsumerist criticism, touring through conspicuous consumption, the Diderot effect, the evils of psychologically manipulative marketing, the paradox of choice, and increasing anomie and isolation, the writers proceed to the book’s main purpose, tracing the contours of the redemptive new consumerism, “a healthier more sustainable system with a more fulfilling goal than ‘more stuff.’ ” This new approach to consumption claims and internalizes ideas that have long animated attacks on consumerism, promising to turn them inside out. The new consumerism is not competitive but collaborative; not isolating but unifying; not massified but local; not authoritarian but entrepreneurial and empowering; not wasteful but conservative in the noblest sense of the word.

As Botsman and Rogers detail, the new consumerism derives from the possibilities of mass collaboration and communication offered by new technologies.

The convergence of social networks, a renewed belief in the importance of community, pressing environmental concerns, and cost consciousness are moving us away from the old, top-heavy, centralized, and controlled forms of consumerism toward one of sharing, aggregation, openness, and cooperation.

So if you want to attack the new consumerism, you must not only be a de facto Luddite, but now you also must seem eager to denounce universally cherished ideals like “sharing” and “communities” and “reciprocity.”

Collaborative Consumption replaces the serendipity of the thrift store, of the sidewalk discovery, with a competitive, rationalized system for distributing goods to eager early birds.

In practice, though, the collaborative consumption paradigm merely supplants “more stuff”  with more exchanges, as we are encouraged to take every iota of spare capacity we can identity in our lives — any old clothes, unused equipment, any trips taken with free space in our vehicle, a couch not slept on, a garage not filled with junk — and turn it to account by finding a stranger to give, sell or rent it to. “At the heart of Collaborative Consumption is the reckoning of how we can take this idling capacity and redistribute it elsewhere.” This commandment to search for “idling capacity” to exploit hardly mitigates the corrosive psychological influence of capitalism; it extends its calculating instrumentalism and market making to every nook and cranny of our everyday lives. It replaces the serendipity of the thrift store, of the sidewalk discovery, with a competitive, rationalized system for distributing goods to eager early birds, to the most persistent users of cutting-edge gadgetry. Whether or not you believe this is potentially increases our society’s fairness is a good indicator of how much you will enjoy this book.

The theoretical underpinnings for the redistribution (not of income or wealth, mind you, just the stuff you already wish you could get rid of) are a sentimental communitarianism fused with a Hayekian faith in spontaneous order. Together these yield a belief that markets can organize themselves to the benefit of small groups of consumer “peers” while manufacturing grassroots surveillance and enforcement systems (what Botsman and Rogers call “trust”) among them to guarantee the exchanges. “We have returned to a time when if you do something wrong or embarrassing, the whole community will know. Free riders, vandals and abusers are easily weeded out, just as openness, trust and reciprocity are encouraged and rewarded.” Sharing isn’t simply caring anymore; it’s becoming an alienated system for proving your trustworthiness, your willingness to play ball. Best of all, this kind of discipline is implemented at the level of personal relations rather than impersonal markets. In the realm of collaborative consumption, which Botsman and Rogers eagerly anticipate will be powered in the future by “reputation bank accounts” that permit or deny access to the social product, identity is always at stake, making your consumption behavior everyone else’s business like never before.

Get stuffed!: Collaborative Consumption's version of an initial public offering.

Were the emphasis of What’s Mine Is Yours strictly on giving things away, as opposed to reselling them or mediating the exchanges, it might have been a different sort of book, a far more utopian investigation into practical ways to shrink the consumer economy. It would have had to wrestle with the ramifications of advocating a steady-state economy in a society geared to rely on endless growth. But instead, the authors are more interested in the new crop of businesses that have sprung up to reorient some of the anti-capitalistic practices that have emerged online — file sharing, intellectual property theft, amateur samizdat distribution, gift economies, fluid activist groups that are easy to form and fund, and so on — and make them benign compliments to mainstream retail markets. Indeed, conspicuously absent from the book is any indication that any business entities would suffer if we all embraced the new consumerism, a gap that seems dictated by the book’s intended audience: the usual management-level types who consume business books, the sort of people for whom Thomas Friedman is a “thought leader,” as Botsman and Rogers deem him.

With such readers in mind, Botsman and Rogers are in the tricky position of trying  to hype collaborative consumption by making it seem more or less normal, something in which “regular” Americans might participate without feeling foolishly liberal. “For the most part, the people participating in Collaborative Consumption are not Pollyannaish do-gooders and still very much believe in the principles of capitalist markets and self-interest,” they are quick to remind readers. They reassure us that “Collaborative Consumption is by no means antibusiness, antiproduct or anticonsumer. People will still ‘shop and companies will still ‘sell,’ ” so there is no need to be alarmed. All that’s needed is an image change for the kind of consumerism that’s already happening: “The message that ‘everybody else is doing it,’ ” they advise, “sometimes works better than trying to appeal to people’s sense of social responsibility or even to their hope of safeguarding resources for future generations.”

Such advice suggests that Botsman and Rogers, for all their enthusiasm about people power and communities, believe that social change will be implemented not by the people or even a vanguard of sharing pioneers, but by the guiding adaptations of  the business community, prodded by entrepreneurs and wise investors. They will take the fringe practices of activists, intended to actually threaten existing social relations, and make them more “practical.” As Stephanie Smith, CEO of WeCommune Inc., a for-profit startup that generates ersatz communes, tells the authors, “What we are interested in doing is making them an integral part of culture, not a counterculture.”

Botsman and Rogers’ vision stops far short of the kind of transformation that could make “sharing” and “collaboration” into something other than marketing buzzwords again.

How will anti-consumerist practices be made safe for late capitalism? The authors refurbish familiar homilies about selling brandable services (community building is their chief example) instead of commodities, and preach how business can “reimagine the larger system” of how they market products to integrate them more deeply into the social life of consumers. They don’t recognize the ubiquity of the branding metaphor as endangering human autonomy or dignity; they merely see it as a force to be leveraged for fresh ends. “In the same way that brands have manipulated us to want more and more stuff by connecting advertising campaigns to deep fundamental human needs and motivations, brands can make us want more of the sustainable values and benefits attached to Collaborative Consumption.”

Thus it turns out that the existing systems for social control through intensive marketing and incubating start-up companies render more revolutionary approaches to social change superfluous. We just need better brands and shrewder “entrepreneurial leaders” targeting a reconceptualized set of consumer needs (not things but states of mind and services), and of course, angels supplying them with capital.

But are companies like Zipcar and Netflix really the building-block institutions of a better way of life? Do they move society closer to a place where the standard of living and extent of opportunities are improved for all of us? Or are they just companies looking to profit by performing privatized commons-maintenance duties that government should already be performing on our behalf? In one chapter, for instance, Botsman and Rogers tout the potential of alternative currencies (a subject discussed in this earlier Generation Bubble post), but there’s a reason so many people all around the world want legal tender backed by the faith and credit of the U.S. government, as opposed to scrip backed by the faith and credit of an entity that might turn out to be FlyByNightCollaborativity Inc. Virtual money is simply real money in an obfuscating disguise, or it’s what people are receiving in lieu of the real money that ends up in the pockets of the fake money distributors. (Just try spending Disney dollars outside of Disney World.)

Botsman and Rogers’ championing business as the solution to the social problems business has created is certainly pragmatic, but it feels a bit like surrender, an admission that the institutions of consumerism and their motivational apparatus can’t be bettered, and that they will continue to constitute our lifeworld. The authors can’t be faulted for their unmistakable enthusiasm for mitigating the selfish individualism that consumerism inherited from capitalism’s early days. But their vision stops far short of the kind of transformation that could make “sharing” and “collaboration” into something other than marketing buzzwords again.

Rob would love to hear from you. Drop him a line at horninggenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Discussion

5 Responses to “Flea-Market Ideology: A Review of What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption

  1. This is a well-written and well-thought-out essay. But if I was going to criticize your position (and I am), it seems a little overly sneering in its anti-capitalist condescension, like you begrudge pitching a more socialistic way of interacting with consumption to people who don’t understand socialism– “the usual management-level types who consume business books.”

    Newsflash: ‘the revolution’ is a [expletive deleted] joke. It’s basically impossible. Progress is not ‘giving up’. Progress is moving towards the sort of world you want to see in a pragmatic way. Now, I’m not being an Obama supporter here, I fully support moving the ball as far as you can at every opportunity. But the fact is that it takes money to accomplish things at scale. It takes money to do things in such a way that someone who doesn’t consider themselves as being fundamentally separate from mainstream society will appreciate it.

    And are you really so short sighted that you can’t see the collaborative consumption model being applied to venture capital, or further, to infrastructure, to the very way we operate businesses? If we were to live in a capitalist society where all businesses larger than a dozen or so employees were managed by stakeholders in a fundamentally democratic manner, then wouldn’t we be living in a properly socialist world? Why do you think that centralized government should manage things that markets can manage? Obviously capitalism consistently [expletive deleted] up infrastructure (because there’s no meaningful competition to drive improvements in service), and we need control of the money creation process in a way that can *probably* only be done by government if we’re going to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to succeed (basic needs met, access to education and capital), but if we’re able to apply a cooperative model to capital itself, then who cares if there’s a profit motive? You’ve got to pay for retirement somehow, and how better to do that than by creating economic incentives for the risk that drives progress? Anyway, that’s what I’m working on, is democratic finance.

    I think you will have a very different view of all this in a few years, as this model hits the world of infrastructure, and you get over your butthurt at the mainstream picking up on the best practices of the counter-culture. This is a profound change in how things get done.

    Posted by Uriah Zebadiah | November 6, 2010, 7:00 am
  2. @Uriah “… it takes money to accomplish things at scale”? Tell that to Ghandi.

    Posted by Scott | November 8, 2010, 3:00 am
  3. Rob,
    Thanks for your thoughtful critique. I have finally had the time to digest and write a response. My comments on your post are not surprisingly similar to my response to Nicholas Carr’s post:

    Most of the charges of naivete that get thrown at the book and the growing movement of collaborative consumption come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Taking the same behavior – sharing – conservatives have mocked the book as a communist manifesto [checkout the comments on my recent CNN post] while liberals have ridiculed the book as a cynical sop to capitalism [e.g. your Review!]. The fact that the book has attracted criticism from both ends of the political spectrum should be comforting because I’m not sure which charge of naivete stings more: that coming from conservatives who cynically contend that their wealth will “trickle down”(!) or that coming from liberals who evidently think that centuries of economic evolution has no inertia(!). But actually, it’s frustrating. From my perspective, and in this respect I’ll happily admit to being naive! What matters is whether an idea or possibility being put forward represents an improvement. (I just finished reading Kelly’s new book and take the view he posits that progress is creating “just 1 percent more possibilities than you destroy.”) Whether it goes too far, or not far enough, should not be allowed to obscure the merit of the underlying idea.

    Of those two possible approaches, it is the approach of critiquing an idea for not going far enough/too far that seems to me to be unhelpful because it serves only to consolidate the views of the converted and antagonize ideological adversaries.

    It is in an effort to avoid that result I deliberately targeted the business community. Not to make money (the blurbs on the jacket are from other authors and Craig Newmark, the inside design features a library card that encourages people to share, swap or trade the book, yes, a fun negotiation with the publishers, I am focusing on applying the principles to the public sector etc) but because it is in the mainstream business community (the “management-level types who consume business books”) where change is fundamentally required.

    In terms of detail, my reaction to the comment (“….having raised the specter of an anti-consumerist explosion, Botsman and Rogers immediately defuse the revolution they herald”) is to say that it depends on what you mean by “immediately”. In case your comments on What’s Mine is Yours seem to based entirely on the Horning review, the first section of the book takes a heavy swipe at the current unsustainable model of consumerism. Elsewhere, the book devotes considerable attention to non-profit ventures like Landshare, Freecycle and Timebanking that are using technology to facilitate sharing and that collectively represent the nascent (I emphasize nascent) stages of a redefinition of the relationship between citizens and society.

    One of the key strands examined in the book is the promise that collaborative consumption will ultimately drive the life-cycle of products to extend in ways that will eventually force companies to drastically reposition the longevity vs. obsolescence fulcrum in the products they produce. Personally, I welcome this promise. If collaborative consumption helps to bring forward the day when a light bulb lasts for 1000 days instead of 500 hours, I’ll be happy. If collaborative consumption helps a new generation of designers to think differently about how shared products can be personalized, upgraded, repaired etc or how products are not required at all to fulfill a need, I will be VERY happy.

    I am not sure how you can disagree with the logic of the likes of Relay Rides, thredUp, and Neighborgoods. I agree, they are not a Utopian revolution but they represent the start of change. Would you prefer folks like Shelby Clark and James Reinhardt graduate from Harvard Business School and go to say Goldman or use their talents to start businesses with a social purpose?

    Finally, something I have wrestled with for years is whether it is better to stand on an intellectual soapbox and shoot for ideological purity or to frame things in an accessible way that starts to make things happen in the world. There is room for all of us but personally, I have opted for the latter.

    Thanks, Rachel

    Posted by Rachel Botsman | November 9, 2010, 7:59 pm
  4. Thanks for reading — Rachel, your point about the pragmatism/theory divide is well taken; I don’t mean to impugn the good faith or motives of those investing their resources into trying to do something about consumerism as it exists now. Much easier to fulminate in a book review than to write a book, much less start a company.

    I worry though about the darker possibilities of social consumption and groups anchored in consumerist-oriented deeds — the instrumentalizing of social relations, the potential for self-exploitation, the acceleration in exchanges that mitigates against reducing obsolescence, etc. And I worry about collaborative consumption working as a cover for a more intrusive form of marketing that leverages people’s social capital against them.

    Posted by Rob | November 10, 2010, 3:20 pm

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