Culture Critique
Culture Critique

Sharing the Trojan Horse

Let’s define sharing. When you share, you are giving something to someone else without expecting anything in return. Or you are working together to produce something that you will all enjoy together. For example, sharing a meal that you have prepared, or perhaps having a potluck where everyone brings something to share with the group. In other words, sharing is different from selling or renting something to someone. Sharing is giving freely to another individual or contributing to the common good; it is not a for-profit, private commercial activity.

 

So it is misguided, if not blatantly dishonest, of Airbnb landlords in San Francisco to protest regulation of Airbnb with signs stating, “Sharing Is Caring,” “Let Me Share,” or more confusingly “Shared Homes for a Stronger SF.” While it’s true that sharing is caring, renting out your home for money is not sharing anything, it is a business transaction. As for the plea of “Let Me Share,” again, this has nothing to do with the goodwill of, for example, actually sharing your home with a visitor free of charge, and everything to do with the self-interest of the Airbnb landlords wanting to make money. Let’s be clear: no one is stopping anybody from sharing, in the true sense of the word, when government rightfully assumes its role as a regulator of sort-term rent-seeking by private landlords. That being said, government also needs to promote the construction of more housing.

 

Otherwise, in regard to “Shared Homes for a Stronger SF," the sign should simply read, “Let Me Profit from My Private Home Rental in SF.” Let’s cut the BS, landlords renting out their homes on Airbnb does not make San Francisco “stronger” in any way. It makes landlords richer, it may help some lease-holding tenants live at lower cost or for free via arbitrage rental of additional rooms; but if what we mean by “stronger” is a city where most people can live affordably and thus be able to invest in their future prosperity, and perhaps own a home, this simply isn’t the case. By enabling the short-term rental of private rooms and units at premium prices, Airbnb removes rooms and units from the long-term rental market, thereby driving up the cost of housing for resident renters.

 

In the bigger picture, "sharing,” as conceived and practiced by the IT industry, has nothing the do with sharing at all, but is instead its opposite: an attempt to privatize the communication and information sharing of internet users. In other words, it is a takeover of the commons by a cartel, much like the enclosure movement in England, which privatized rural common land and enabled the low-wage, high-rent urban economy of the First Industrial Revolution.

 

Under the guise of “sharing,” IT companies are intentionally destroying the digital commons by taking the final resource available: your information, and everyone else’s. This digital dispossession forces people into an unstable, low-pay, piece-rate economy run by those same digital platforms, or rentiers, which take a large cut of their users' production based on monopoly control of what was previously a common resource: user information. When IT companies talk about sharing, the only sharing going on is by you the user, while they systematically collect your personal private information (PPI), for their commercial use. Like the enclosure of public land, they are in fact privatizing public information, and not sharing anything. Once they have collected your PPI, you no longer have control over what they do with it. Which is contrary to the whole purpose of the internet, which is to democratize information and make it freely available to all. So the “sharing” economy of the IT industry, besides being a misnomer, is also a massive fraud. It is doublespeak and betrayal of everything the internet stands for.

 

The free sharing of information was once an important part of grassroots tech culture in Silicon Valley; indeed, without it, the IT economy we have today would not have been possible. Since its early days, there has been a conflict within the IT community between collaboration for the collective good and the pursuit of profit. On the one side, you have the open source movement typified by the Linux operating system, the Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox browser, and Wikipedia, the non-profit internet encyclopedia; on the other, you have Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, etc. In the end, profit won out, and as the IT industry has matured, the internet has become dominated by for-profit companies producing platforms and applications that have either the primary or ancillary purpose of commercial data mining. Meanwhile, sharing in large part is no longer practiced, but instead used as the clever PR of a monopolistic industry, drawing on a residual memory of the entrepreneurial spirit and cooperation of a few early digital pioneers.

 

In effect, the IT industry’s promotion of sharing by internet users was the Trojan horse it used to invaded everyone’s private lives on the false promise of being a gift of free information and value for everyone. Given the novelty of the internet, and a heavy dose of naïveté and/or ignorance, many internet users never stopped to consider that sharing their information on privately-owned platforms was in fact simply allowing corporations to privatize, monitor, and commercialize their communication, and ultimately their identity.

 

In retrospect, it is ironic to think that one of Apple’s early TV commercials used the theme of 1984 to claim it was challenging the status quo. In the video announcing the product launch of the first Macintosh computer, a woman throws a sledgehammer at the video screen of Big Brother and ostensibly destroys the old system. The follow caption states, “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And You’ll See Why 1984 won’t be like “1984.” But the opposite has turned out to be true. In the interim, Apple, and the IT industry in general, has become the status quo it claimed to be destroying, only worse, as a result of the scaling potential and amoral efficiency of the internet itself. In the end, Apple’s commercial was prescient in that it depicted the surveillance society the IT industry would both create and abet, but also the arrogance and monopolistic megalomania of the IT industry as a whole, the small and marginalized open source movement and online non-profits apart. As for providing an alternative to the hierarchical, consumer society of today, it never happened, because the IT oligarchy never intended for it to happen. Ultimately it was all about money and power, and replacing Big Brother with the latest model of tyranny.

 

In order to stop the IT industry from continuing its commercial privatization of the free communication and information sharing of internet users, online citizens need to develop the collective, non-profit, truly open, digital platforms and apps that eliminate the rent-seeking IT middlemen. Only then will we the people really be sharing. 

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