Services, too, can be automated. And so what we may be left with is the nightmare the French writer André Gorz envisaged: that just as it tried to privatise water in the 1980s, capitalism is forced to privatise and commodify simple human interaction. That just as we have sex work now, we might have affection work, sympathy work, anti-loneliness work in the future.
I wanted to highlight this so I remember to mention it with respect to the so-called sharing economy. What sharing companies and apps chiefly do is invite us to turn more of our lives into capital, and thereby extend capitalism’s reach, further normalize it (which is still necessary after all these years — that is how counterintuitive its ethos can be), and further entrench it as the necessary/efficient/appropriate/beneficial way for social relations to be mediated. For the sharing economy, market relations are the only social relations.
The sharing economy appropriates a language of change and collectivity (e.g., “collaborative consumption”) to proselytize for business models that atomize individuals further, reducing their social usefulness to the spare capacity they can mobilize and marketize. Just as factories allowed deskilled workers to “cooperate” and create value that accrued to the factory owner who brought them together, sharing-economy apps implement coordination to extract value from users, offering them merely a cut of what was entirely theirs back to them, and worse, expecting them to be cheered at what a “trusting” operation it was.
But the exchanges these platforms and apps facilitate, rather than build trust, instead induce competition (along lines of price and responsiveness) among participants. Rather than collaboration or cooperation for the sake of social bonding, they impose reciprocal exploitation. (I rate you, you rate me; who would believe in our “reputation” otherwise? And if I have nothing to sell you, what would you want to do with me?)
Nonmonetized social bonds are made to seem like wasted opportunities. The only “real” bonds between people are the ones verified and rationalized by market exchanges, which can be rendered “explainable.” Actual sharing, actual collectivity, defies market logic and economic rationality, and is inexplicable, unreal. Sharing apps help reinforce that perspective. They make visible only potential relations that will be based in monetized spare capacity, in relations of metered service provision, in wages.
Sharing economy apps epitomize the use of technology to intensify capitalism’s immiseration, which partly explains the urgency of the rhetorical offensive pushing the sharing economy forward. Through these apps, technology is deployed to impose networks (while pretending they are “communities”) and make them exploitive, to make asymmetries circulate and create incentives to maintain them. These apps supply a medium in which to discover new sorts of advantages we have over others and a means to exploit them. It lets us seek out precisely the people we can exploit this way, and invites us to name that exploitation “trust” or “sharing."
By implementing network effects in these newly marketized relations, the sharing economy apps also institute monopoly and thereby exacerbate inequality. So they subvert or negate whatever potential technology may have to reduce the unevenness of the distribution of wealth by ultimately funneling it upward, and making everyone trapped within the networks (suddenly made explicit, with their animating logic for the kinds of connection that are valid suddenly feeling mandatory) that they have to earn every social gift they might receive, and look everywhere for advantage, not empathy or conviviality, in order to survive.