Is the Sharing Economy Provoking A Shift In Human Consciousness ?

cut out world

When many of us first heard about the “Sharing Economy”, less than a decade ago, hopes ran high, as if this novel economic model would be the holy grail that would transform the prevalent capitalist system, seen as not working properly.

On a first basis, the sharing economy sounds appealing and hopeful. The iconography of “sharing” evokes nice feelings, positive ones, therefore trendier with current times and its narratives, which have been, since the nineties, designing our world, and therefore us, in a different way. What we design, design us back, and the narratives of wellbeing, collaboration, positive psychology, sustainability and happiness, have been with us now long enough to be embedded in our language and ways of living.

Paradoxically, the sharing economy resulted as well from gloomier things, such as the negative impact the 2008 crash had on the slowdown of the economy,  the falling wages, and the loss of jobs, due to increasing automation.

After almost a decade, what the sharing economy is bringing us is more radical than it seems. In a recent article published in The Guardian, Paul Mason mentions how: “the sharing economy presents a radical departure from traditional business models, often allowing people to simultaneously reduce their carbon emissions, save money and strengthen communities.” Mason suggest that we are now living through a moment of transition, from one system to another. And he states that:  “in order to make the difficult transition to a more equal and sustainable world, we need to recognise that sharing is also pivotal to how we restructure all aspects our social, political and economic systems in the 21st century.”

Ultimately, what the sharing economy brings us, is a shift in consciousness

A shift in consciousness

It is interesting to think that what is behind and enabling the sharing economy, is a new type of mindset,  or shift in consciousness, that even though has been here germinating for more than 3 decades, it is now gaining momentum.

Various authors have been speaking about this shift, such as Charles Eisenstein, who wrote the book “Sacred Economics” or Jeremy Rifkin, the author of the widely known book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society. According to Rifkin:  “Turning points in human consciousness occur when new energy regimes converge with new communications revolutions, creating new economic eras.”

In his book he reviews the story of the evolution of consciousness and how the subsequent technologies of communication, have enabled expanded empathy, since the invention of language up to the historical time in which we live now. According to Rifkin, we have now reached the era of biosphere consciousness. That type of consciousness is vital to our survival as species and it comes along with the technological innovations occurring nowadays, first the internet as we know it, and secondly the expansion of the internet of things. He says:

“We need a change in consciousness to go with this technology platform. We need a new narrative: we need to shift from geopolitics to biosphere consciousness in one generation. ”

Quote by Jeremy Rifkin

Social Media And Empathy

New technologies of communication  such as social media can be seen as well as technologies of subjectivity that contribute to the shift in consciousness mentioned previously. The immediacy and visuality of the social media channels, expand our capacity for feeling empathy with people living sometimes far away from us, by exposing us to constant information about all kinds of occurrences in their lives. Through Facebook, we can mourn collectively the earthquake in Nepal and immediately provide help, or participate in the joys and sorrows of our extended group of online and offline friends. Our brains, subtlety and on a daily basis, rewire themselves to be able to feel empathic affection towards  a larger group of human beings.

The late tremendous popularity of  5,000-year-old spiritual practices such as yoga and mindful meditation also contributes to that shift in consciousness. Could it be that step by step, we  have been moving a little bit away from the traditional “flight or fight” response, the automatic one commanded by our reptilian brain?

Neuroeconomics, the survival instinct and the sharing economy

According to Richard Dawkins’ famous selfish gene paradigm, as explained in his book “The selfish gene” published 3 decades ago, natural selection favors genes that build survival machines. Neuroeconomics has used similar types of theories to explain the carrot/stick logic of the incentives of capitalism. As such, one could say that  our reptilian brain is supposedly the reason that explains greed and egotism, as traits necessary for the survival of the fittest.

If our minds are changing through techno-mediated exposure to a interconnected global world, processes of change are not continuous and crystal clear. Many types of mindsets coexist and influence each other. The carrot/stick logic of incentives motivated by profit,  is one of those influences. Paradoxically, global warming and climatic disasters have their useful function as a negative “incentive” pushing individuals and governments to wake up to the sound truth of a world living on the cliff of possible ecological disaster.

After almost one decade, “The Sharing Economy” has already revealed  its contradictions, leading some to call it disguised capitalism at its worse.  As David Golumbia writes:

“The “sharing economy” doesn’t have much to do with individuals. Instead, it represents corporate capital doing what it typically does: Monetizing parts of the social world that have previously avoided it” (cited in Burns 2014).”

Is the sharing economy, after all, just more of the same? This point of view as usual can be looked at through many ways. Lets look at the example of someone renting a room through one of the possible sites where you can find a place. If you look at the experience through the economical point of view, as a matter of fact, you are not really “sharing”. You are doing it out of lack of cash, to be able to cope with the monthly rent. In reality, people have been forced into renting spare space and utilities, as a way out of the economic crisis.

On the other hand, whether we like it or not, ten years of “sharing” are producing its shift in mindsets: people are more willing to trust others, by opening the doors of their cars/flats or swapping their tools or skills to total strangers, (after a quick check of their identity on Facebook or other social media channels)  even if the incentive to do so, is to get some cash.

A shift in consciousness is only possible through embodied action. By sharing your flat, you embrace access and relinquish ownership. By swapping your skills for free (“I teach you math, you teach me English“), you might be germinating the seeds of a futuristic cashless society. And… you increasingly lower the marginal profits of established industries. Who hasn’t heard of the threat posed by the sharing economy on industries such as hotel chains? If some companies operating with the sharing economy have been economically successful, that might not be so in the long run, as we are heading to zero marginal costs as Rifkin writes.

Accordingly,  Paul Mason (2015)  predicts that it will come the day when sharing economy models will not grow:

“First, however brilliant these new models are, they cannot produce exponential growth. It is technology in the service of squeezing out the final drops of value from something, rather than infinite expansion. Once the platforms to rent out things, services or time are stable, textbook economics states that the cost of using them should fall. “

One way or another, the question still remains: What is the role of the sharing economy in our world right now ? Will the sharing economy enable the transition to a more sustainable and ecological alternative?

Ideally the sharing economy platforms that exist today, could eventually be taken over by society to the benefit of all. This, again, will only be possible when the consciousness shift mentioned previously expands itself to larger segments of the population. Only then, we can slowly shift from  the goal of economic growth and maxim profits, to the one of sustainable sufficiency on a global scale, in which governments aim to maximise well-being and guarantee ‘enough’ for everybody, rather than encouraging the consumption of ‘more’ of everything. Those will be the days when we will no longer be “consumers” but “sharers”.