Rent to Pwn

by Rob Horning

22 April 2011

What you buy and collect is nobody else's business. But to the sharing czars, it's necessarily everybody's business -- that's where their profit opportunity is, having an itemized list of your stuff. Or even your opinions.

“Pwn is a leetspeak slang term derived from the verb own, as meaning to appropriate or to conquer to gain ownership.”

I am all for people buying less stuff and sharing more of their stuff with people. I think it is great when people figure out how to give stuff they are getting rid of to people who want to use it. But I am fairly skeptical of “collaborative consumption,” which wants to monetize these impulses in new tech startup companies. A current Fast Company article by Danielle Sacks covers this emerging sector, what Silicon Valley investor types apparently call “underused asset utilization” ventures, which includes car sharing and other co-op-like schemes, peer-to-peer rental services, and eBayish resale sites. There is so much scary dystopian potential in what Sacks reports that I almost choked on the omelet I was eating while reading it (at which point it occurred to me that if I coughed it up, maybe I could re-sell it to a underfed peer).
“Underused asset utilization” strikes me as a far more honest term than “sharing,” and it certainly sheds a new light on what Facebook is doing: getting us to conceive of ourselves, our social lives and our identity as “underused” assets to exploit. (My web-surfing history is really too valuable to keep to myself—and really, how can I monetize my friends? What else are they good for? Are they even my friends if I can’t profit from them?) The governing principe with all these ventures is to use the deeper mediation of people’s personal lives (through smartphones and social media) to get them to behave even more like little capitalist firms. Consider the way Sharable founder Neal Gorenflo talks about his own life:

One afternoon, after a jog through the parking lot of his Brussels hotel, he quit his job. Since then, Gorenflo has deconstructed every aspect of his personal and working life, “removing all the things that don’t add value and concentrating on the things that deliver value.” Andrea made the cut—she’s now his wife.

Is there anything more to life than adding value? Not from this point of view. “Sharing” might evokes images of potlatch and competitive altruism, but in the world of underused asset utilization, sharing has nothing to do with gifts and everything to do with efficiency, with bringing rationalized use of capital resources to ever single nook and cranny in one’s life, even if you had no intention of being a entrepreneur or a capitalist. The backers of these ventures imagine the purpose of the social web and “connections” is merely to make self-entrepreneurializing easier, near automatic. So when you are about to “underuse” some “asset” in your everyday life, your smartphone can intervene to rent it to someone else (and let some Silicon Valley venture capitalists get their cut). “I’m looking at virtually every resource and finding ways to extract additional value or productivity from it, from food to gardens to skill sharing,” says one investor. That sounds awesome, a real recipe for joy. (It reminds me of Marx’s “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!”)

Gorenflo tells Sacks, “Business has spent centuries making buying really easy. We’re just at the beginning of making sharing easy.” This had me confused at first, because I don’t really get how firms can be capitalist if they are not seeking profits through selling things. This confusion could prompt a person to think that the “sharing economy” is some sort of postcapitalist potentiality—as when Rachel Botsman, the co-author of a book about “collaborative consumption” declares, “This could be as big as the Industrial Revolution in the way we think about ownership.” But these companies are not out to usher in the end fo private-property rights. Botsman says that she realized, ““I just can’t help companies sell more stuff,” but that doesn’t mean that she’s looking to decrease the volume of capitalist exchanges or slow the velocity of commerce. It means selling services rather than stuff, brokering the exchange of existing goods between parties, like a pawn shop owner. The for-profit sharing companies are still operating like capitalist companies; only they are now “platforms” that root exploitation deeper into the lives of the independent contractors (i.e. the customers they “serve”) they use to generate work product.

The part of the article that struck as most depressing, though, is the development of private “reputation companies” that hope to create a “trust rating” similar to a credit rating based on one’s online behavior, the “data exhaust” one’s mediatized activity generates.

The challenge that worries everyone in the sharing world, of course, is trust. It’s one thing to believe that a knitter on Etsy will mail you that crocheted beret. It’s another to let a stranger sleep in your home or borrow your second-most-expensive asset, your car. “Sharing of the kind we’re talking about really only works when there’s reputation involved,” says Freestyle’s Felser…. Almost all (including AirBnB) require profiles for both parties and feature a community ratings system. But these ratings would carry far more weight if they traveled with you across the web, so that your eBay reputation helped inform your standing on AirBnB. Startups like TrustCloud would like to become the portable reputation system for the web. The company is building an algorithm to collect (if you choose to opt in) your online “data exhaust”—the trail you leave as you engage with others on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, commentary-filled sites like TripAdvisor, and beyond—and calculate your reliability, consistency, and responsiveness. The result would be a contextual badge you’d carry to any website, a trust rating similar to the credit rating you have in the offline world.

By all means, let’s automate trust. Who doesn’t love the arbitrarity of credit ratings and the way they rob one of a sense of autonomy? Yes! Let’s extend that principle more generally, and let computers assign a number to the quality of our ethical character overall, based on how much garbage we look at online! That is a beautiful idea. Who wouldn’t “choose to opt in”? (As if opting out won’t come to signify having something to hide if, god forbid, these systems catch on—you already can’t really opt out of Facebook and belong socially in the accepted way in the U.S.) Let’s let an algorithm score our cultural capital and make that number known so people can more efficiently judge whether it is worth their time to interact with us. Splendid! How efficient will my “sharing” and appropriating become then, when I know who the losers are after a glance at a spreadsheet?

I guess this is why Amazon is constantly pestering me to “rate my transactions” all the time. They can’t leave me alone and let me have my book; they want me to volunteer my feelings to grease the wheels of their distribution and rent-extracting mechanisms. I don’t want to help build reputations; I want to reserve the trust that my minuscule contribution to this world can build for something better. I don’t want to be part of a panopticon that is deemed socially necessary to keep people from cheating one another under a generalized Hobbesean regime of hypercapitalism in which every single gesture and every single thing I think and do is theoretically for sale and is thus a theoretical cheat. Offshoring “reputation management” to private companies seems like a terrible way to build general trust in a society, as does assigning people a numeric rating. These are indications that trust doesn’t generally exist, and shouldn’t be expected from one another. It’s a neighborhood watch society where people are only kept in line through fear, not sympathy.

One of the positive aspects of markets (and possibly the whole point of trust-building between parties) is that they can facilitate anonymous exchange and foster privacy—granting a modicum of autonomy to getting and spending and owning. What you buy and collect is nobody else’s business. But to the sharing czars, it’s necessarily everybody’s business—that’s where their profit opportunity is, having an itemized list of your stuff. Or even your opinions. In a world where value is primarily created socially at the level of affects and signifiers and brands and so on, privacy makes you into an “underused asset.” And Silicon Valley can not let that stand.


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