From Sharing Economy To Gift Ecology

Posted by Nipun Mehta on May 31, 2014
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Couple weeks back, Sam and I spoke at a local gathering in Oakland. In casual conversation, the convener of our circle, Syra tells us: "I love that so many people are talking about sharing. See, I'm always campaigning for it," handing us a card for local sharing event. "But you know, I tried to get into this sharing conference, and it was 500 bucks! Doesn’t that just feel wrong? Most of us can’t afford that kind of sharing."

Like many, Syra consolidated two ideas into one: sharing and giving. Traditionally, sharing has much in common with giving, but in the booming phenomena of a ‘Sharing Economy’, they are significantly different.

Sharing has elements of inter-connectedness, of a village-like community, of a transformative altruism. But 'economy' puts us squarely in a transactional mindset and culture of convenience. Enthusiasts of the multi-billion dollar (and growing 25% annually) ‘Sharing Economy’ say that it is the best of both worlds, cite data on how sharing is the new buying, and get excited about ideas like 'collaborative consumption'. Yet, it's easy to see how those phrases land more as oxymorons. Sharing and collaboration are typically we-oriented ideas, while buying and consumption are clearly me-oriented. Consumption subtly becomes stronger, and all of a sudden, "Sharing Economy' feels a lot more like Economy and a lot less like Sharing.

It's a pattern we've seen before. Sometime last year, I ran into a woman who had just quit her job, after ten years of leading a pioneering sustainability organization. Just plain burned out. When I probed further, she said: "I started with the hope that we could elevate economic forces to value nature. Instead, what we've done is commoditized and devalued nature." Same thing happened with social entrepreneurship. Bill Drayton's vision behind it was to leverage entrepreneurship to solve complex social problems; instead, all businesses called themselves social and diluted its essence. Similarly, Muhammad Yunus pioneered micro-finance with the idea of eradicating poverty, but now MFI institutions openly profit from poverty. We've even done this with friendship. Facebook and the world of social media forged trillions of new connections amongst us, but it has simply cheapened the idea of friendship.

Now, it seems like sharing is having its turn.

In 'Case Against Sharing', Susan Cagle writes: "For the past few years, the 'sharing economy' has characterized itself as a revolution: Renting a room on Airbnb or catching an Uber is an act of civil disobedience in the service of a righteous return to human society’s true nature of trust and village-building that will save the planet and our souls. A higher form of enlightened capitalism. [But] sharing economy’s success is inextricably tied to the economic recession, making new poverty palatable. It’s disaster capitalism. 'Sharing' companies are not embarrassed by this -- it appears to be a point of pride."

On paper, it seems like a good idea to build an app to share my lawn mower with everyone on my block. But it never stops there. Soon, everything that we used to share informally now tempts us with a price tag. I could share my room on CouchSurfing, or I could get a bit of cash through AirBnb. I could connect with my neighbors in my spare time, or give a ride on Uber and a bit of extra cash. I could spend a bit more time with my kids, or I can take a small job on Mechanical Turk and make a bit of extra cash. And the conspiracy of the price-tag is supported by an entire system ranging from education to economy to our technologies to the mindsets we culturally encourage. It is very difficult to not take the bait, whether as a designer or a consumer, and the rules of the game are making it harder and harder by the day.

Consider ride sharing services, that allow everyday folks to turn their cars into cabs. For many, it delivers technology’s promise to connect strangers, rewire relationships and create community. Uber, a $10 billion startup, was the early one. But then Lyft came along, where its entire payment system was donation based. Lyft cofounder, John Zimmer, goes so far as to liken their intent to time he spent on the Oglala Sioux reservation in South Dakota. “Their sense of community, of connection to each other and to their land, made me feel more happy and alive than I’ve ever felt before,” he says. “I think people are craving real human interaction -- it’s like an instinct. We now have the opportunity to use technology to help us get there.” A donation based service would indeed require two parties to be in much more nuanced relationship (indeed, like a native pot-lach), so that felt exciting. Not for long, unfortunately. As they got $333 million in funding and built some legal muscles, Lyft now aims to "be bit cheaper (and a whole lot more fun) than other transportation alternatives." No serious disruption of values there.

When what used to be shared informally turns into a formal, commoditized transaction, we lose something. That something is subtle, so it’s easy to gloss over. But over time, it cheapens our human experience. We strip away our commons, and we forget how to value things without a price tag.

The highest potential of sharing is when it embeds the transformative spirit of generosity. When kids share their favorite toy, or when we share a seat on a crowded bus, or when we share our public parks, the quality of connections can go quite deep. It’s one thing to get into a car-turned-cab with someone smiling to keep their online ratings for future profit, and then say goodbye after making a mechanical payment through your iPhone. It’s quite another to ride in a rickshaw where someone before you has paid for you and you are trusted to evoke your empathy muscles to pay forward for the person after you -- to a rickshaw driver whose entire family depends on his earning, and who still humbly offers himself in the spirit of unconditional love. That is a VERY different kind of “peer to peer” economy, and a very different kind of sharing.

Looking at the trajectory, I now wonder about gift economy. Over the last 15 years, ServiceSpace has helped popularize the modern iteration of that idea. Smile Cards, Karma Kitchen, and more. The essence of gifting is to give with no strings attached. That kind of giving creates relationships that deep enough to facilitate a circle of giving -- A gives to B, B gives to C, and C gives to A. It's not just enough that A, B, and C are connected, but they have to be connected in a way that everyone trusts in the a pay-forward interconnectivity. Only generosity can create that kind of economy. So if this phrase goes the way of its predecessors, if the unchecked momentum of economy overrides the gift, we will have cheapened the idea of generosity.

As Viral recently pointed out, gift ecology is probably a more suitable word. Economy reduces value into a few focused dimensions, whereas ecology implies a more intricate interplay of relationships that generate diversified -- sometimes immeasurable -- value. When we give freely, we naturally build affinities with recipients and over time, create deep ties that form the basis of a gift ecology and a resilient society.

Of course, such an ecology is rooted in selfless action -- which requires a significant inner transformation. In the deeper recesses of our mind, where the dominant pattern is to operate from a very narrow notion of self, we have to transition from me to we to us, with the understanding that the small self is best served when it can let go to the bigger ecology. A lot of research suggests that, for instance, we can't teach compassion but we can create the conditions for it to arise naturally. In that sense, we can't manufacture such a world or a culture. It has to emerge. We simply till the soil, sow the seeds, water the plants, and then trust the interconnections of the ecosystem to build its trees as the time ripens.

Then, instead of economy leading the sharing revolution, it might be led by generosity. Generous Sharing. With that kind of momentum, as time ripens, it naturally blooms into a gift ecology.

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Comments (22)

  • Anne stadler wrote ...

    Gift "ecology". Yes. A strong Yes! Thank you Nipun! This is an important and timely (for me) insight that Viral and you are offering. And i hadn't earlier pinpointed the power of commodification in the gift exchange. How does money participate in this?

  • Ana wrote ...

    Thank you Nipun for putting into words something I have been noticing lately: good ideas that start with a generous heart and then along the way profit takes over and completely changes it into something that has nothing to do with the first intention. With corporations always on the look to turn into profit even the most precious human qualities like kindness and sharing, it is our challenge for the future to protect our ecology of generosity in a world still very price tagged.

  • Richard Whittaker wrote ...

    Yes. Things seem to have a trajectory of losing touch with their beginnings. In the absence of some kind of conscious effort and persistent cultivation, what you describe seems to be an almost inevitable course of events. Thank you, Nipun, for your wise observations.

  • Pancho Ramos Stierle wrote ...

    (articulated)BAAMplex! :-) Great writeup. At the end of the day, it is through experiencing the Gift-Ecology that people will understand this message (i.e. The Kindness Temple in Santa Clara).

    The great news is that we all have/had a mother whose body and mind were generous enough to share with us the miracle of life. The ultimate Generous Sharing ;-)

    May we all cultivate the heart of a mother and embody grandma power...

    Jai Jagat! :-)

  • Pancho Ramos Stierle wrote ...

    ps: #Gift-Ecology! ;-)

  • sheetal wrote ...

    Such rich fodder to chew on. Love the shift from economy to ecology

  • Fenia wrote ...

    "Sharing and collaboration are typically we-oriented ideas, while buying and consumption are clearly me-oriented". On Swapdom we totally agree with this quote. Spare a moment to see why we feel our service makes a difference out there, in terms of a peer-to-peer trade with no money or credits involved. It's all about building healthy communities and as others have said before me, the shift to ecology moving away from economy is what we need.
    Thanks again for the post!

  • Zach Pine wrote ...

    Thanks Nipun, I share your concern about the commodification of sharing (and everything so much else too).

  • Will Szal wrote ...

    Thank you for this Nipun! I love it!

    Have you heard of the Eight Forms of Capital model or the Regenerative Enterprise Ecology model?
    [View Link]

    I think you'd find them interesting.

  • Nipun Mehta wrote ...

    Indeed, Will, I had linked to a similar article on breadth of wealth creation: [View Link]

  • Deven wrote ...

    This has a stirred a debate inside of me... I am a new bee here... as you can tell probably after reading this...

    I am doer. I like action. I like acts of kindness because they are helping me. They help me feel good. It truly connects me with people. So, I do them. I mentioned in the weekly reflection thread for Awakin call (the theme is service - here is that thread - [View Link] - awesome thoughts there in case if you haven't seen that yet...) So, the idea of selfless action makes sense to me.

    I feel the energy and true happiness, people around me think "this guy is changing" (in a good way ... :) ... or so I think). So, hopefully transformation is happening for me. I am not too worried about that just yet for myself either.

    I am new to realm of being. I try to lose myself in the task at hand. That's my "being" part as it makes sense to me today.

    To me, "economy" ties into doing. And ecology is where economy and all of us are being or living or breathing ...etc. I am happy to be part of the gift ecology, what would help me being there is gift economy.

    I am less tense, I am less wired up, I think I can relate to people around me a bit better ... If I stop trying/doing acts, these good things might stop happening.

    So, I like gift economy. Without that I wouldn't fit in so well in the gift ecology.

  • Ammi wrote ...

    Thank you for pointing out the 'profit from poverty' mentality. So few see this. Micro-financing agencies supposedly are helping the poor but are replacing the old money-lender who atleast had a human relationship with the borrowers by impersonal systems that self-perpetuate themselves with 50% margins and double-digit growth rates, and no human connection at all. The business rush to get to the fortune at the so-called "bottom of the pyramid" has been another such misguided effort. The people at the 'bottom of the ECONOMIC pyramid" are often at the 'Top of the Creativity pyramid" and maybe even the sustainability pyramid, so to only see them as a source for the fortune/profits for corporations is just such a limited worldview. Thanks for articulating your thoughts and making clearer distinctions.

  • Anne stadler wrote ...

    One thing has been occuring to me: the crucial distinction is no quid pro quo! You do not expect to "get" anything from the act. It feels to me as if that is the heart of it. Hence "ecology". To me that word infers autonomous entities offering gifts, without expectation of anything but enacting their own beingness.

  • Deb Hill wrote ...

    Nipun, this is a powerful article you wrote and I appreciate the possibility you suggested of us going from economy to gift ecology. May I quote you in a blog I am writing about the American Dream?

  • Ganoba wrote ...

    Indian philosophy (darshan) and the society built on it took a wholistic look at creation and life. Dharm, Arth, Kaam, Moksha being the four pillars on which all aspects of society and human affairs stood. That is why it lasted for centuries and withstood the onslaught of many marauding aggressors.
    The modern economy on the other hand is piece meal in its vision, a single aspect getting all the attention and energy. Profit being its sole indicator of success.
    It takes the latest concepts even the noble ones and turns them into fads to serve the demon of profit. It has done that with politics, with religion, with science and is now doing so with mindfulness, happiness, sharing and all other so called new age concepts.
    We need to go down to the basics. Mere tinkering with a few words (ecology for economy for instance) will not do. The monster will swallow it and spit it out in no time.
    I would be happy to have a heartfelt chat anytime with you and other concerned friends.
    Thanks and lots of love.

  • Ari wrote ...

    I'd definitely give this blog a smile if I could figure out how to Nipun :) What I am confused about is how the term "sharing" is being used here. Sharing for me is offering something I have without and quid pro quo given or expected. In fact, it seems very much like a practice of generosity. However, the "sharing economy" you describe seems more like a strategic way to have limited resources be used more efficiently and with a shorter distance between the parties in relationship. Like you said, its a transactional relationship. There is a lot here for me to reflect in regards to how I run my own business as a landlord. I intend to, one day soon, try this gift economy thing out more fully in apartments. I look forward to engaging in this experiment with the support of the folks at Service Space! Thank you for sharing your insights with me.

  • Deepak wrote ...

    Thank You Nipun . I am too insignificant a being to comment on your article but have always kept Gandhiji's principles in mind for my own path in life . " Service before Self "

  • cherryl abrigo wrote ...

    Just want to say "thank you." The things you share here have been life-changing for me and for the community I belong to. We've learned so much and we endeavor to live out this gift ecology. We're making little steps but we are so inspired by what you do and share here.So grateful...

  • Guisepi wrote ...

    Yes, and yes!!!

  • Daniel R wrote ...

    This article has helped me to finally differentiate between sharing, the sharing economy, gifting, the gifting economy, and the gifting ecology. I've also had to read it twice because there's so much information packed into it. Lots to think about here. Thanks!

  • Sheetal wrote ...

    While chatting about the sharing economy, a friend Amol Phalke had an interesting comment: "Though originally intended to support a shift from consumption to contribution, maybe what the hyper-networked Sharing economy does is lead us from consumption to co-consumption.. And what we need are designs to shift us from co-consumption to co-contribution."

  • Rushabh Gandhi wrote ...

    Great write up. Makes it easier to understand. Thank you :)