Sometime in recent years it became the height of modernity to have strangers sleep in your bed when you weren’t there or to sit next to you as you drove from one city to another. It felt futuristic to mention that your clothes were rented and utopian to lease a spare room to someone with 100 cans of paint and nowhere to store them. This movement was called the “sharing economy” and it relied upon certain widely held assumptions, such as that it is fine to be near other people and that it is alright to touch what they have touched.
In an age of pandemic anxiety, these assumptions have all but evaporated. The sharing, or peer-to-peer, economy was meant to represent the commerce of the future, the perfect fusion of technology and reality. That destiny now looks shaky at best. What will happen to Airbnb, which at the time of writing was reportedly finalising a $1bn (€920m) emergency loan? Or to UberPool when people squirm at the thought of sitting close to one another? What will become of the start-ups enabling us to monetise our garden tools, our bikes, our spare time? And, beyond the brands themselves, what will happen to the people who were making some or all of their income from these platforms?
It’s a tangled mess in which health-related unease clashes with economic necessity. “Will people be willing to ‘share’ rides and homes and scooters just as they were before?” says technology writer Brad Stone. “That feels as unknowable as when all of this will be over.”
The immediate future for most cities will surely involve some kind of grey area between house arrest and a version of pre-pandemic freedom. Lockdowns and physical distancing will be escalated and de-escalated by the government like the gears in a car. A sharing-economy business might suffer greatly in full lockdown but then thrive when movement is even slightly freer. “For ride-hailing, the current impact is very negative in terms of demand,” says US sociologist Juliet Schor, author of the forthcoming After the Gig: How the Sharing Economy Got Hijacked and How to Win it Back. “But I believe that when we open up, demand will be robust because people will be afraid to use public transportation and, if they can afford it, will use ride-hailing. It will perhaps be a major boost to Uber and Lyft, which have problematic business models involving subsidising the rides they offer, if they can raise the prices when things open up again.”
Most expect there to be a post-pandemic behavioural shift. New York-based futurist and brand consultant Faith Popcorn takes things to a kind of logical end point, predicting the rise of “deep cocooning”, a new norm of hardline physical distancing. “As traditional offices end, occasional co-working will be a new model,” she wrote recently. “Most of our time [will be] spent in our deeply decontaminated spaces.” Speaking on a video call, she predicts a service in which, “We’ll rent a space to store emergency supplies for future lockdowns.”
In order to assess the sharing economy’s future, it’s worth reflecting on the forces that drove its original rise. It wasn’t solely about a love for sharing but rather something pragmatic and baked into a radically changing set of priorities. “We went from the notion of the value of possession to a notion of the value of use,” says Tamara Brisk, ceo of Paris-based start-up Mokki. She points to the importance of economic concerns but also environmental ones. “In the Covid era that should still be relevant. The value shift towards a kind of democratised environmental consciousness will only continue – and part of that is a big vote for the value of usage versus possession. The idea that a woman would buy a dress, wear it four times and then trash it, is over.” Mokki acts as an “accelerator to the sharing economy” by providing dedicated spaces in office buildings where people who work in those buildings can receive and send their sharing-economy purchases, such as clothes bought via online fashion marketplace Depop or smartphone-resale platform Back Market.
These scenarios depend on baffling variables. One is psychological: how many people will still be happy to mingle with crowds and how many will become Faith Popcorn’s new breed of misanthrope? The other is economic. There’s a chance that the coming catastrophe will eclipse the pandemic itself. People might well want to distance themselves from others but can they afford to? It’s not as if they were living in cramped flat-shares or squeezing onto crowded trains every morning out of choice. In that sense, the incentives behind the sharing economy haven’t changed at all. “In a world where we’re all going to have a lot less spending money, there’s a very strong argument to rent your clothes, rent your vacation apartments through Airbnb and find a way to amortise the cost of your own possessions,” says Brisk.
It’s always been about the money, which is why the term “sharing economy” is something of a misnomer. The platforms most closely associated with the model are huge and somewhat exploitative corporations, harnessing a form of commerce that’s almost liquid in the way it might conceivably flow into every nook of daily existence. Whatever happens, the sheer force of the technologies that have made it possible will allow it to adapt. It’s conceivable that the entire model could be renamed the “separation economy”, with most of the underlying principles remaining the same. If nothing else, that is testament to its ingenuity.
About the author: Emina is a British writer interested in culture and technology, and editor in chief of The Happy Reader, a modern magazine about classic literature. He is based in Paris.