By Stephan Manning.
Some time ago people celebrated Airbnb and Uber as new forms of sharing economies that might democratize and challenge existing principles of capitalism. But soon people got disappointed when they learned that Airbnb is reproducing inequality and is becoming just another hotel business, and that Uber drivers went on strike to fight against price cuts of the Uber Corporation, like in any other industry. In fact, disappointments about alternative economies within our capitalist system have a history. Oftentimes, these economies are very limited in scale, they do not sustain, they turn into profit-making businesses, or they turn out very difficult to organize. Famously, Paul Krugman once described the Capitol Hill Babysitting Co-Op as an example of a failed sharing economy: it went into recession because couples would rather bank time by babysitting than utilize the service to care for their children; thus there was insufficient demand for the available sitter supply. So are sharing economies just an ideal? Is there any sharing economy that has sustained over time? Well there is, but you might not be aware of it…
Did you ever ask yourself where your various pens come from?* Well, you probably did not buy them! Instead it is most likely that – out of three pens – one was left behind and you kept it, one was borrowed and never returned, and one was taken without notice – perhaps one of those emblazoned with the logo of a restaurant or hotel that they are only too happy for you to “steal.” But does it matter? Do you even remember? Probably not. Pen sharing is a curious example of a pragmatic sharing economy where no money is needed to exchange and share a particular good, where scarcity is not a problem since everybody has access to pens one way or another, and where trust and reciprocity do not play a role since nobody cares if pens get returned or lost, or where pens come from. To some extent, pens are public property. And not just that: the pen sharing economy is global. The more you travel and move around the more likely you will end up with pens from across the globe. But why is that? Why do we tolerate pen sharing, whereas we typically need money or coupons to buy, borrow or use almost every other good or service? Why are we ok with pens changing owners without notice, where stealing private property is illegal and usually frowned upon, and where not returning favors can end friendships?
Pens are cheap and impersonal. One reason why you might not miss your pen when somebody took it or kept it is because pens are commodities. They are impersonal utility goods. First of all, they are typically not expensive, such as smartphones or other gadgets. So ‘losing’ them is not a big deal financially. Second, unless a pen was given to you by your grandfather or loved one, you are probably not attached to it. Unlike your favorite stuffed animal, pens typically do not have any personal value. And pens are not like keys, which lead to your house, or notebooks, which contain personal information. Interestingly, pens are also unlike other commodity goods, such as lighters, that owners are unwilling to give away.
Pens are accessible, durable, and trustable. Another peculiar thing about pens is that it is easy to find them. They lie around, they hide in corners, drawers, and bags. In fact, it is easier to find pens than coins, even though a pen is more valuable than a quarter. But of course: other things lie around as well, which does not mean you would pick them up. Let’s say food or clothes. Unless you are very hungry, you would not pick up a left behind banana or apple from a table. Unlike food, pens don’t ‘go bad’. And pens are more trustable. Let’s imagine a sketchy looking person offered you – alternatively – a $50 bill, a fancy chocolate box, and a pen. Which one would you choose? Maybe not the $50 bill, because who knows if it is fake and you might get caught trying to deposit it or purchase stuff with it. And maybe not the fancy chocolate which might be poisoned. So, you might choose the much cheaper pen instead. But would you pay for the pen? Even one dollar? Even if Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street tries to sell the pen to you in the most persuading way? Maybe not (I wouldn’t).
Pens are not consumed or traded, but needed – occasionally. There is something else that makes pens more shareable than other commodities. Unlike food or cigarettes which are consumed, or money which gets spent and traded for other goods, pens are re-usable tools. Because of that there is no value in keeping dozens of pens. It does not really matter whether you have one, ten or a hundred pens, as long as you have one available when you need it. But unlike lighters or other items you do not need pens permanently. You can do without them for a while. And because of this it is not a big deal if you leave them behind or forget them, and people, in turn, understand if you ask them for a pen if you do not have one. And it is likely that most people have a pen available – even if they do not realize.
So what can we learn from the ‘pen sharing economy’? Does it only work with pens? Well maybe it works – in principle – with similar types of goods that are durable, reasonably cheap, impersonal, accessible and occasionally needed, such as books, umbrellas, scissors and card games. For example, think of book-sharing circles among friends. But maybe there is more to it. The pen sharing economy is very simple and almost invisible. It does not require sophisticated coordination and incentives like baby-sitting or other cooperatives. Nor do you need to know each other to participate in it since trust and reciprocity are not important. It is also pretty stable in scale and scope. It does not grow and does not generate incentives for big business to take over. It is also social and fun – almost a by-product of daily interaction with friends and strangers.
So let’s not get overly disappointed again when the next big ‘sharing economy’ trend turns out to be yet another illusion. Sharing happens every day – in a pragmatic almost invisible form. And if you pay attention you might discover other ‘pen sharing economies’. Any thoughts or comments welcome!
* I owe the curious example of pen sharing to an inspiring conversation I had with Kythe Heller.