I recently read the article What’s The Future Of The Sharing Economy? It got me thinking about the new opportunities made possible by our increased connectivity. Technology is enabling people to share goods, time, and expertise very efficiently and in a way that creates new streams of income for the people who join in these sharing networks.
I see the benefits. For example, the article mentions someone who earned $5,300 in a year letting others drive his Honda Civic worth $4,800 (though there are legal nuances depending on how much you earn). I think the idea of a sharing economy is fantastic as it pertains to things (such as extra space in one’s apartment, or car); I love that technology makes it possible to use what we already have more efficiently. There are some neat ways that science is harnessing technology to become more “crowd sourced” and allow lots of non-scientists to participate in meaningful ways (e.g. Galaxy Zoo, FoldIt, eteRNA). In the realm of eCommerce, eBay, who we might consider the original “sharing economy” company, states on their site that in 2011, the total value of goods sold on eBay was $68.6 billion. That’s a lot of extra income generated for eBay sellers!
I also see drawbacks. I have mixed feelings about the long-term economic consequences of our hyper-connectivity as it pertains to the sharing economy of “thinking work”. I’ve seen lots of friends (across all kinds of fields – programmers, lawyers, academic researchers, writers) take part-time or contract gigs long-term, though they would prefer more stable full time positions. On the one hand, it’s great that technology allows this to be possible – with a laptop and an internet connection you can do all kinds of work well with little overhead and at least make some money – but on the flip side, it can be a difficult way to make a living long-term for most people. Some examples of the downsides to the sharing economy were articulated well in a NY Times article from last June – Is Technology Fostering a Race to the Bottom?
In the end, I appreciate that technology allows stellar folks to rise to the top more easily than was perhaps possible before. Salman Khan of Khan Academy and Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight blog are examples of smart folks who started something, got noticed, and then went on to bigger positions. These days, if you have a good idea, you can just start working on it with off-the-shelf or cheap technology rather than waiting for someone else to fund you. The trick is to ensure that this ability to share and create benefits as many people as possible.
Technology has lowered barriers to entry across nearly every industry, which has both pros and cons depending on where you stand. I’m looking forward to continuing to track how the future of the sharing economy plays out.