Hugh Bollinger
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Workers of the world, reuse!

Is collaborative consumption communist?

By Reilly Capps I worry what the neighbors will think. And so reading a book called "What's Mine is Yours" in public is terrifying, on account of the fact that I don't want people to think I'm a communist.  The point of the book is that, in the future, we will own many more things collectively, sort of like they did in Russia. So I jettisoned the bright shiny dust jacket and covered up the spine with a copy of "Juggs." But don't worry! I'm no communist! I'm a capitalist with a dollar sign tattooed on the inside of my eyelids. I don't really believe that what's mine is yours. I believe what's mine is mine and what's yours is about to be repo'd. But the book makes interesting arguments about consumerism, and makes a solid case for collective ownership of certain things. We will still all own our own houses and toothbrushes. We won't own things collectively the way Russian peasants owned Russia collectively during the Soviet era -- that is to say, they all owned Russia, and Stalin owned all of them until they were dead. But the Internet is making it easy to own certain things collectively, such as cars. (But not hammers or sickles, I promise.) And of course there's houses. For the past six months, I've spent nearly every night on a couch, floor, futon, hammock, farm, bus or bed owned by a stranger I met in an unconventional way:, -- where they let me stay for free; or, where I pay. I'm also on SERVAS, Mennonite Your Way, Craigslist, and more. Shared housing is the ultimate communistic trick. I'm doing this to meet new people and get out into the world. The Internet can be so isolating. But I'm slightly worried that I'm turning into Trotsky Jr. But collective ownership is a pretty great idea for cars, which are used an hour or two a day and sit for the other 22 or 23 hours, gathering dust, crowding out kayaks and motorcycles, growling slightly less cool every model year. You're familiar with these car share programs, like City Car Share, Zipcar and Relay Rides, where you borrow the car for just a few hours. But don't worry, my capitalist brothers! Er -- not brothers, friends! Future customers! You pay for these cars (sometimes $8 an hour, plus mileage) and you're responsible for them. And somebody is making money. Besides, a car sitting idle is a waste. That's what your grandmother would say, that's what Stalin would say, that's what Adam Smith would say. It's common sense. But a waste of what, exactly? Your grandmother is a pretty good economist. Anything being regularly used comes closer to its "highest and best use," which is what makes economists happy (allegedly -- economists don't usually look happy). And if we all share cars, fewer cars will have to be built. So metal is not mined. Rubber trees are not tapped. Coal is not fired to create electricity to run factories. This helps the Earth. Which, in the end, helps humans, since we happen to live here. But this answer still feels vaguely -- communist. Build fewer cars? But cars are sweet! My question is also: Will anybody ever get rich again? If we're all using and reusing and recycling and sharing, we'll make fewer new things.  And the fortunes of the past were made by men (they were usually men) who were making things -- Carnegie -- or who sold things cheaper -- Walton -- or who pumped the oil to fuel the whole cycle -- Rockefeller. And so where does wealth come from if we're all sharing everything? How do we know this won't turn out to be like Russia, where all the Russians owned all of Russia until there was nothing left to own? A smart person might be able to give simple answers to these questions. I can only see problems. Plus, in real life, many of these online sharing systems, like communism, seem to break down. Or, for now, they're limited. For example: Let's say your girlfriend's amp is busted, and you need a socket wrench to fix it so that she will continue to like you. But you don't want to buy a socket wrench set because you're not handy, and you know you'll never use it again. After all, as was said by Victor Papanek, what you're ultimately after is the illumination and not the lamp (or, in your case, the tightened nut, and not the wrench). You want to use the wrench one time and then be done with it. In a small town, you would go next door and borrow it. But you live in a big city, a city so fractured that you don't even know your neighbors' names, let alone whether or not they have a socket wrench. Their socket wrench is sitting idle, and you could have borrowed it, except you have no idea who they are. There are people trying to solve this dilemma. (And not by individually introducing neighbors to neighbors, which would be time consuming, and require a lot of Purell.) "What's Mine is Yours" makes a big deal about how there are "tool libraries" in certain cities, where you borrow tools for free or a for a small fee. Wikipedia has a list of tool libraries here. But in California, our most populous state, the world's eighth largest economy, there are only six tool libraries listed, and the one in the city you happen to be in is closed until further notice. And forget about the heartland. There are no tool libraries there -- although that makes some sense, because people in Oklahoma have the space to store tools. In your case, attempts to locate a socket wrench set have been fruitless. The socket wrench problem continues. So you go buy a socket wrench set, use it once, and, five years from now, spill all the sockets into a corner of the closet. The fracturing of society is part of what drives the economy. The same goes for gardening. "What's Mine is Yours" makes a big deal about Yard Share web sites, where you can supposedly find homeowners with land who are willing to let you garden there. But, again, things don't work out that well in practice. The ones mentioned in the book don't exist where you live. And none of the ones listed by Wikipedia exist where you live either. And the ones that do exist where you live don't seem to work very well -- and you live in San Francisco. And if garden sharing doesn't work that smoothly in San Francisco, where is it gonna work? There is a way to get a plot to garden in San Francisco -- but it involves calling an actual person and getting on a physical waiting list. It seems like it might be that way for a while. In Collaborative Consumption, just like in communism, there is a big gap between theory and practice. The Web 2.0 solutions might not be expandable to everything. This isn't going to work over the web. Not yet, anyway.
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