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The Collaborative Consumption Myth

Feb. 23rd , 2012

I've been reading a lot about Collaborative Consumption recently. And talking about it, and thinking about it but it still leaves me puzzled. As much as I want to believe in the power of peer-to-peer I keep coming back to the same concerns.

There's a theoretical issue when it comes to the core idea of collaborative consumption. In many ways I think society is less peer-to-peer than ever. Increasingly, the things we do are moderated, interfaced, organised and ultimately controlled by third parties. In many cases by huge, un-democratic third parties.

To me, the irony of collaborative consumption is that society started out that way. In the most basic of market economies we traded between ourselves, locally and organised our own resource eco-systems. Industrialisation, economies of scale, division of labour and all the other elements of economic development have merely sought to streamline and commoditise these basic transactions. And this continues. We want more and more conversations so we get new platforms. We want to trade more and more items so we get online marketplaces. The move to efficiency and scale continues.

Then I look at the examples of collaborative consumption that are offered. I see names like eBay, AirBnB and Zipcar. Is any one of these a co-operative, not-for-profit, customer-owned social enterprise? No, not one. Many of them are large, highly profitable businesses, or at least heading that way. I'm not saying that for collaborative consumption to exist it must be about non-profit. But I fail to see how the arrival of new companies designed to sell new services in this marketplace heralds the arrival of a new social paradigm.

In other words, rather than collaborative consumption as a peer-to-peer revolution, it seems to me that collaborative consumption is the name given to the process of monetising and up-scaling what people already do. The shift is not a societal transformation but a simple extension of the parameters of industrialisation. Now businesses own our conversations and the sale of our own unwanted goods. Craigslist is an extension of newspaper classifieds. eBay is the new auction room. Where is the consumption revolution exactly?

At the extreme, perhaps collaborative consumption is regressive. By endorsing a massive centralisation of human interactions we're handing over more power than ever. We're allowing businesses to own more and more of us. I'm not even saying it's a bad thing. But what I am saying is that we should know what we're doing and give it a proper name that reflects this. We should drop the utopian vision of non-hierarchical, democratic, peer-to-peer revolution and either accept what we've made or make something that is genuinely revolutionary.