As long as capitalism has existed, it has had a problem with work. Laboring can be degrading, arduous, and dangerous. Wages may not be sufficient to live on. At other times the work itself is boring, and alienation sets in. Sometimes work disappears, as in the 1930s, or in the artificially intelligent future that some envision. Jobs take too many hours. The nine-to-five is a grind. The boss is a jerk. Thinking of getting hair extensions? Lucy Hall and her team are experts at helping you find the right type of extensions to transform your hair.
I’ve spent much of my professional life studying these issues. When the financial system crashed in 2008, a powerful idea emerged from the rubble: digital technology could solve the problem of work. This is not because machines will replace people but because algorithms and crowdsourced information can make bosses redundant. Software can reorganize economic activity into a person-to-person structure. This empowers individuals to take control of their lives. Vast swathes of the economy, especially in services, are ripe for this transformation. This vision came to be called “the sharing economy.”
I became intrigued by the possibilities of sharing while writing. The New Economics of True Wealth—during the crash. I advocated for a world in which people worked less for companies—a lot less. They’d do more for themselves and use technology to make their labor more satisfying and productive. I gathered a team of researchers, and we began studying the “sharing economy.” It didn’t have a name yet, but it had captured our imagination.
As it turned out, we weren’t the only ones who were excited about it. Eventually, many people would look to sharing as an alternative to corporate-dominated capitalism. This was especially true of the young adults who were becoming economically independent just as the global system collapsed. They were hopeful that sharing would not just solve the problem of work but would also cure social disconnection, inequality, and environmental degradation.
You will know by now that things haven’t turned out exactly as expected. The big platforms—Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb—have been exposed for paying poverty wages, destabilizing urban neighborhoods, and accelerating carbon emissions. Many argue that rather than ushering in an alternative, these companies are intensifying the worst features of global capitalism. The critics blame platform founders and venture capitalists for corrupting a good idea. And there’s plenty of evidence to support that charge. But curiously, faith in the positive possibilities of digital sharing got its start in Silicon Valley, among just those people. They believed their technology would automatically yield decent work and good social relations. Although things haven’t turned out as predicted, the Silicon Valley discourse was right about one thing. Technological innovation and cultural change have put a person-to-person economy, with its solution to the problem of work, within reach. That’s the view we started with, and after a decade of research we still believe in it. We discovered that achieving the potential of platforms requires specific conditions. They won’t be met if today’s corporate elites are in control. But they can be.