Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of crisis. 

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.


Micah Saul: And here we go again.

Aengus Anderson: Are you ready for the shar­ing economy?

Saul: I have no idea.

Anderson: I don’t either, actu­al­ly, and I’m still try­ing to fig­ure out one, what the hell the shar­ing econ­o­my is. Two, what it’s going to do to the rest of the econ­o­my. So, here’s a lit­tle back­sto­ry. In 2010, I was work­ing on a radio series called The Decisions Project. I was rid­ing all over North America on my motor­cy­cle ask­ing peo­ple about their hard­est deci­sions. While I was trav­el­ing, I was couch­surf­ing. When I was pass­ing through Austin, I had a series of didn’t quite reach the couch­surfer in time” moments. So I end­ed up just con­nect­ing with couch­surfers who were pass­ing through. And one of the peo­ple I met on route through there was Gabe, and I asked him about his hard­est deci­sion, and it was fas­ci­nat­ing. If you’re inter­est­ed in hear­ing it, you should go to thede​ci​sion​spro​ject​.com [domain has been tak­en over] and actu­al­ly lis­ten to it. He’s hid­den in there.

Two years lat­er I found myself pitch­ing a sto­ry to This American Life about Gabe’s hard­est deci­sion, and what I need­ed for that was a follow-up inter­view. So I got on Couchsurfing, I found Gabe, we recon­nect­ed and end­ed up talk­ing about his cur­rent work, which is evan­ge­liz­ing the shar­ing econ­o­my. So that’s what brought us here. I was real­ly blown away by a lot of the stuff he was talk­ing about, and he’s just a fab­u­lous, elo­quent speak­er. He’s real­ly fun. I’m very glad we’ve got him in the project.

Saul: Me too. Do you feel like you gave up any­thing that makes you human by recon­nect­ing with him via the Internet?

Anderson: You’re bait­ing this.

Saul: I am bait­ing this. I’d like to hear what he has to say specif­i­cal­ly to Andrew Keen.

Anderson: Yeah.

Saul: And specif­i­cal­ly to what it means to be using the Internet in social means.

Anderson: Absolutely. It seems like there are going to be two paths we walk in this inter­view. One is going to be com­mu­ni­ty, and one is going to be econ­o­my. For Gabe, he’s real­ly inter­est­ed in both of those things. The shar­ing econ­o­my brings them togeth­er for him. It has a real­ly proso­cial ele­ment, and I’m look­ing for­ward to ask­ing him more about that and why that’s good, and if it real­ly works, and ask­ing him to con­front some of Andrew Keen’s thoughts about Facebook and social media, and tech­nol­o­gy mak­ing us lonelier.

I’m also curi­ous to see what sort of big­ger eco­nom­ic ram­i­fi­ca­tions he thinks this has. And I want to know who it leaves behind.

Saul: Absolutely. Alright, well have fun. Good luck. And let’s recon­nect afterwards.


Gabriel Stempinski: I’m an evan­ge­list for the shar­ing econ­o­my, I guess that’s the best way you can explain it. I’m not a founder of any of the sources. I’m not a work­er or lec­tur­er in it, but I’m a huge pro­po­nent of it. And because of that, I got togeth­er with a cou­ple oth­er folks who are real­ly promi­nent in the shar­ing econ­o­my and decid­ed to write a book about it that intro­duces peo­ple into how to live a more share­able lifestyle. How to live a very big life on a very small bud­get. And basi­cal­ly had become ear­ly adopters in what I feel is going to be the next big thing. I’m also pro­duc­ing a doc­u­men­tary on couch­surf­ing, which is a big com­po­nent of the shar­ing econ­o­my. [It] enables peo­ple to trav­el on a shoe­string bud­get and vis­it real­ly exot­ic, inter­est­ing places and inter­act with locals and build community.

Anderson: What is the shar­ing economy?

Stempinski: So, the shar­ing econ­o­my dif­fers from our tra­di­tion­al econ­o­my in the aspect of its main com­modi­ties are under­uti­lized or unused resources that peo­ple can use in lieu of or in sup­ple­ment to cur­ren­cy for a val­ue propo­si­tion. And in addi­tion to that, it also has a val­ue propo­si­tion that’s non-tangible in that it builds com­mu­ni­ty. They’re peer-to-peer ser­vices, so it’s usu­al­ly not a ser­vice with a com­pa­ny, but a ser­vice from a per­son to a per­son, or they’re local­ized in a com­mu­ni­ty as well.

Anderson: So it’s a way to basi­cal­ly, if you’re a reg­u­lar per­son and you don’t want to spend mon­ey on some­thing, or you don’t have mon­ey to spend on some­thing, or you just pre­fer this form of engage­ment, you can put your ser­vices up for sale, or some­thing like that?

Stempinski: Yeah, not just your ser­vices but also your tan­gi­ble items, too. One of the better-known exam­ples is Airbnb, where peo­ple will have free space in their home and they will take that free space that oth­er­wise sits com­plete­ly unused, and they’ll mar­ket it to trav­el­ers to come stay in lieu of hav­ing to stay in a hotel. And they’ll be able to gen­er­ate some income off of that. And then a ben­e­fit on the traveler’s side is that they get to stay with a local, they get the enrich­ment of stay­ing in an area with a local, and they also save a lot of mon­ey ver­sus stay­ing in a hotel, espe­cial­ly in large, densely-populated cities like San Francisco or New York. 

And then there’s oth­er aspects that aren’t just asso­ci­at­ed with trav­el. I mean, there’s urban gar­den­ing, where the com­mu­ni­ty gets togeth­er and they peti­tion the city to let them use unused land to build an urban farm to ben­e­fit the com­mu­ni­ty. That’s anoth­er aspect of it. There’s a thou­sand dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions of ride-sharing, car-sharing. Instead of going to a car rental agency to rent a car, you can use a ser­vice like Getaround, where you can actu­al­ly rent your neighbor’s car. In a city like San Francisco, a lot of peo­ple have cars that they might not use but say once or twice a week. Every day that your car is sit­ting in your garage is a day you’re pay­ing for some­thing and not get­ting use out of it, so why not ben­e­fit some­one else and also turn that into a rev­enue stream for yourself?

Anderson: So you’ve got trav­el, you’ve got cars, you’ve got gardening…

Stempinski: Yeah. And this is the area that I’m real­ly most pas­sion­ate about in that this rough time of eco­nom­ic strife we have a lot, espe­cial­ly a lot of young peo­ple, who are hav­ing trou­ble find­ing jobs. Even peo­ple that are col­lege grad­u­ates, highly-educated, and the shar­ing economy’s real­ly pro­vid­ing for these peo­ple. If you look at sites like TaskRabbit for exam­ple, TaskRabbit is a medi­um through which, say I need a ride to the air­port. I can go on TaskRabbit and I post my task say­ing, Here’s my flight num­ber. I need a ride to the air­port.” The mem­bers of TaskRabbit will see my task and they will bid on it. They’ll say, I’ll take you to the air­port,” for $20, or $30. So I’ll review their pro­file, I’ll see all their ref­er­ences, and I basi­cal­ly pick one.

That is going to take the place of say a taxi that I would take. So the taxi to the air­port would be $50. Ultimately we all know that the taxi driver’s only going to get, after all their expens­es, maybe twenty-five, thir­ty bucks of that. Instead of going through that, I cut out the mid­dle­man. I have some sin­gle mom or a col­lege stu­dent or even retirees that are on a fixed income come pick me up, dri­ve me to the air­port, we’ll lis­ten to music, hang out. It’s just like hav­ing a bud­dy come pick you up, and I give them thir­ty bucks and there you go. And they’re super reliable.

Anderson: It sounds like you’ve actu­al­ly done this.

Stempinski: I do it all the time. I do it almost every week, I do TaskRabbits.

Anderson: Wow.

Stempinski: And I use TaskRabbit not every sin­gle week, but I’d say 80% of the time for air­port trans­porta­tion. I’ve used TaskRabbits to help me orga­nize par­ties. In the book that we’re writ­ing, I even hired a series of TaskRabbits to write the TaskRabbit chap­ter, because it seemed to me like that would be the most appro­pri­ate way to ana­lyze and speak about TaskRabbit, would be from the view­point of TaskRabbits.

Anderson: When I think of past shar­ing economies, I think of things that are old. I think of old sens­es of com­mu­ni­ty in ear­li­er cen­turies. I think of barter. I think of com­mu­ni­ty favors and things like that. Things like fra­ter­nal or reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions. This seems dif­fer­ent. What is this?

Stempinski: So, let’s let’s look at the last shar­ing econ­o­my that we had. During World War II, we had government-imposed rationing because we were send­ing the bul­lets, beans, and ban­dages to our troops over­seas. And there was all the pro­pa­gan­da that if you don’t share your car with some­one, you’re shar­ing it with Hitler and all of that, because you don’t want to use all the extra fuel, etc. That was a government-imposed shar­ing econ­o­my where we had to ration, and those short­ages led peo­ple to come up with kind of inno­v­a­tive, cre­ative, home­grown ideas. You know, every­one had their lib­er­ty gar­den, and so they were able to grow a lot of their own food because they couldn’t get a lot of stuff with the rationing sys­tem. So if you want­ed to have any of those extra treats, you would grow those things. Or you want­ed to have some extra stuff to barter with with your neigh­bors, you would grow those things. And a lot peo­ple did com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens on fal­low land. That’s a real­ly good exam­ple of what I don’t want to hap­pen this time around, because that was forced and imposed upon the pub­lic due to shortages.

And that real­ly brings me to why I am so pas­sion­ate about this right now, is because if you real­ly want to look at the UN pop­u­la­tion esti­mates, by 2050, we’re going to have nine and a half, ten bil­lion, peo­ple on the plan­et. So in my life­time, before I die, assum­ing I live to see 2050, the world pop­u­la­tion will have dou­bled since the day I was born. It will more than have dou­bled. But the resources that we have haven’t dou­bled. And our rate of con­sump­tion hasn’t real­ly changed any since the 80s. I mean, I def­i­nite­ly see a dystopi­an future, and it’s not very far out.

Anderson: Okay. So that’s kind of the fork in the road I’m sort of curi­ous about where we start push­ing for this shar­ing econ­o­my. If we don’t do some­thing like this, tell me a lit­tle bit more about the dystopi­an future, and then we’ll switch to our utop­i­an future.

Stempinski: Sure. The dystopi­an future is basi­cal­ly going to be a future of huge wealth imbal­ance, where you’re going to have a small hand­ful of peo­ple that are able to sub­sist. And they’re going to have a lot of peo­ple basi­cal­ly on wel­fare because there’s not going to be enough resources to go around. It’s going to be rationing all around. It might not be like liv­ing in tents, but it’s essen­tial­ly going to be okay, the gov­ern­ment goes and gives every­body coupons.

Anderson: So you see are a real pinch com­ing at some point.

Stempinski: Well, this is exact­ly what hap­pens, right. You go to the late 70s, we had a pinch in gas. What hap­pened with gas? We had to ration gas. Go to the 40s, every­one got coupon books. In the Great Depression, soup lines. That’s what gov­ern­ments do. In times of emer­gency they step and they take over. And once we have so many peo­ple fight­ing over so few resources, you can’t fix that. So, maybe there’ll be some pop­u­la­tion con­trol mea­sures. I mean, the pos­si­bil­i­ties of how bad it could be are endless. 

But that’s the issue, is that why does have to be painful, before we start? You shouldn’t have to touch the stove and burn the shit out of your hand to real­ize it’s a bad idea to touch the stove. So I am pas­sion­ate about avoid­ing hav­ing to do it because oh no, if we don’t do it we’re screwed. I think we should start doing it (once again long-term think­ing) now to avoid hav­ing the prob­lem in the first place. Because if we keep on this mind­set of as a soci­ety we only make changes when there is an emer­gency at hand, then we’re always just man­ag­ing by emer­gency. You’re always just clean­ing up your mess. You’re basi­cal­ly just doing enough to avoid dying, nev­er real­ly advancing.

Anderson: Do you think that’s kind of what we’re trapped in as bio­log­i­cal crea­tures? Like, do we actu­al­ly only act when we hit a cri­sis? Do you think we can real­ly intel­lec­tu­al­ly see for­ward and fore­stall, or do we need the emo­tion­al tug of going, Oh no, we made it real­ly bad!”

Stempinski: No, I don’t think that we’re trapped that way. I just think over the last fifty or six­ty years, we real­ly haven’t advanced much, espe­cial­ly here in America. But then in the new mil­len­ni­um, you know, I think that we have a bit of a new awak­en­ing. You get con­cepts like glob­al warm­ing that have gained a lot of pop­u­lar trac­tion. And that’s def­i­nite­ly a forward-thinking idea. That’s not an imme­di­ate grat­i­fi­ca­tion, that’s imme­di­ate pain for long-term ben­e­fit. You get a lot of con­ser­van­cy ideas. And you’re start­ing to see peo­ple real­ly want to make efforts to make the world a bet­ter place. It’s not just a small group of fringe folks and every­one else say­ing, Oh, you’re just a dreamer.”

So, that means that in the future, we have to change the way we look at con­sump­tion. That’s why I’m such a big pro­po­nent of the shar­ing econ­o­my. Because it’s not an issue of if it’s going to hap­pen, it’s when it’s going to hap­pen. And I’d rather peo­ple vol­un­tar­i­ly adopt it now and start real­iz­ing the ben­e­fit of it now while we’re still in this kind of rel­a­tive land of plen­ty, than be forced into it lat­er when all of a sud­den there’s not enough water to cov­er Phoenix any­more because it’s a huge city in the mid­dle of a desert and they have to go on water rationing.

My time­frame is long, and if you’re an ear­ly adopter and you get a good sys­tem in vol­un­tar­i­ly, it mon­u­men­tal­ly beats a government-imposed sys­tem based on emer­gency sit­u­a­tions. Because ulti­mate­ly if there was a mar­ket­place for every­thing that you have that you’re not using…I mean there are peo­ple here in San Francisco that lit­er­al­ly don’t have to work. They’re peo­ple that that use a com­bi­na­tion of Airbnb, and then Getaround for their car, and then TaskRabbit for odd jobs. And that basi­cal­ly gets them through grad school. The starv­ing artist doesn’t have to starve anymore.

Anderson: It seems like this is a very new thing, and it seems like it’s sort of facil­i­tat­ed by peo­ple using tech­nol­o­gy in real­ly new ways. Is it some­thing that once every­one kind of gets into the cir­cuit then it ceas­es to be so profitable?

Stempinski: I think in a small pic­ture, it’s not as scal­able. If every­one were only rely­ing on Airbnb, it’s not scal­able. But the thing is that it’s not so much an issue of scal­a­bil­i­ty in depth, because once a lot of peo­ple get on each indi­vid­ual ser­vice, the val­ue propo­si­tion is going to get nar­row­er and nar­row­er. But the breadth of all of these dif­fer­ent ser­vices and the vari­a­tion in these ser­vices and the com­mu­ni­ties that they sup­port, is grow­ing every sin­gle month. And so you get the ones where every­one can use, but there’s lots of so many cool niche ones that will focus on peo­ple in rur­al areas, or peo­ple in coastal areas, or fish­er­men, or log­gers, that they want to har­vest wood on someone’s land that they would nor­mal­ly clear because they’re build­ing and that wood would get thrown away. 

And so there are these peer-to-peer mar­ket­places where we’re basi­cal­ly uti­liz­ing the tech­nol­o­gy to turn all of this waste into some­one else’s profit.

Anderson: Is this a fun­da­men­tal­ly new type of econ­o­my that we couldn’t have even devel­oped or orga­nized before?

Stempinski: One of my coau­thors, she likes to use the term new shar­ing econ­o­my” for that exact same rea­son. Because pre­vi­ous­ly, shar­ing economies were lim­it­ed by basi­cal­ly your econ­o­my was the peo­ple you imme­di­ate­ly knew. So, I share with my neigh­bor, I share with my cousin, I share with my grand­moth­er. In the new shar­ing econ­o­my, it actu­al­ly encour­ages you to deal with peo­ple you don’t know. And that’s the real­ly cool side-benefit of it, is that it builds com­mu­ni­ties. Because what we don’t have today that we did have sev­en­ty years ago is a sense of neigh­bor­hood and a sense of com­mu­ni­ty. If you ask your grand­par­ents and I ask my grand­par­ents when they were our age how many of their neigh­bors they knew, how many peo­ple in their town they knew, and then com­pare that against our answers, the sim­ple fact that I live in a sixteen-unit build­ing and I might know four oth­er peo­ple in this build­ing and I’ve lived here for six years, it’s the essence of of iso­la­tion­ism in mod­ern society. 

And this fix­es that. Because how can you not get to know some­body when they’re dri­ving you to the air­port every week? And how can you not get to know some­body when you’re join­ing up with their cool ad hoc tour that they’re throw­ing around town? I’m try­ing to get our gen­er­a­tion to verge away from our par­ents’ generation’s mind­set of, if I don’t already know you I don’t want to know you.

Anderson: A while ago I talked to a guy named Andrew Keen, and he recent­ly wrote a book called Digital Vertigo, and it’s about Facebook and Twitter sort of dimin­ish­ing our inter­per­son­al com­mu­ni­ca­tions. It seems like you see ways to make the dig­i­tal world cre­ate phys­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty. Can you tell me a lit­tle bit about that?

Stempinski: Yeah. So, the new shar­ing econ­o­my is the antithe­sis of his argu­ment. He’s posit­ing (and I don’t put words in his mouth but this is just my assump­tion because I’ve heard it from a thou­sand peo­ple) that we now over­share. We have no bound­aries, but we do it all in an imper­son­al way online. What I’m try­ing to do, and the word I’m try­ing to get out, is let’s over­share with a bunch of peo­ple we don’t know just like we do on Facebook and Twitter, but let’s take it offline.

Everything in the new shar­ing econ­o­my, the econ­o­my part of it is all peer-to-peer. I hire a TaskRabbit, I meet that per­son. I see them face to face. I couch­surf, I stay in someone’s home. I take a ride-share, I take a ZenRide up to Lake Tahoe, I’m in a car with strangers. It’s using the Silicon Valley tech and all this awe­some devel­op­ment, but bring­ing it back to an actu­al real-life com­mu­ni­ty that brings real tan­gi­ble val­ue, not just this dig­i­tal mas­tur­ba­tion of throw­ing stuff out on Facebook and Twitter and sit­ting alone in your room all day. it’s going online just long enough to set some­thing up real­ly awe­some and then get­ting back out and expe­ri­enc­ing the world, using the tech­nol­o­gy giv­en as a step-stone to do so.

Anderson: Is this just kind of a flash in the pan, or do you think this is going to be a new trend?

Stempinski: If you look at any of the growth pat­terns this is def­i­nite­ly not a flash in the pan. Just for the val­ue propo­si­tion alone, the inter­est is there, And it’s intrin­si­cal­ly there. It’s not just like, I’m hip, I’m cool, I’m like a Silicon Valley tech guy so I’m going to be on the cut­ting edge of every­thing. I could find a sev­en­ty year-old grand­moth­er that would at least hear me out.

Anderson: Does the finan­cial ele­ment make the com­mu­ni­ty ele­ment dif­fer­ent than ear­li­er say, com­mu­ni­ty net­works? Like, if you’re in World War II and you just have to share a ride with some­one, does that cre­ate a dif­fer­ent rela­tion than now where you’re pay­ing them? Does some­how the injec­tion of mon­ey into the sys­tem detract from the sense of community?

Stempinski: No, I think it actu­al­ly adds to the sense of com­mu­ni­ty, because peo­ple are doing this vol­un­tar­i­ly. And when you look at the matu­ri­ty mod­els of all of these ser­vices, they all at first start off as a save money/make mon­ey val­ue propo­si­tion. But then as they advance and they become sta­ble and prof­itable, you see they start putting up forums, and groups, and they have off­site mee­tups. And so now on Airbnb it’s not just I rent my place out to some­body or I rent some­one else’s place, There’s actu­al­ly a forum where peo­ple can chat and they can post trav­el guides, and they have mee­tups of local Airbnb-ers.

Which also brings me to anoth­er thing. The phrase that I used, Airbnb-ers or couch­surfers… People iden­ti­fy by these ser­vices. People have nev­er done this in the past. People have nev­er labeled them­selves by a ser­vice that they use.

Anderson: Community comes up a lot in this project, and it comes up in a lot of dif­fer­ent ways. Tell me why com­mu­ni­ty is good.

Stempinski: That’s a real­ly inter­est­ing ques­tion because every­one seems to think com­mu­ni­ty is good, just right off the bat, like peo­ple think that cur­ing can­cer is good. Even though when you real­ly think about it, you know, with the pop­u­la­tion prob­lem maybe it’s not so good. But the big thing about com­mu­ni­ty is that when it’s done in the right way, when you build com­mu­ni­ties around social respon­si­bil­i­ty, when you build com­mu­ni­ties around peer-to-peer mar­ket­places, you actu­al­ly do sig­nif­i­cant, tan­gi­ble, mea­sur­able good for the world. So it’s not just about the warm fuzzy feel­ing that you get. It’s not just about hav­ing a group of friends. But it’s about hav­ing a strong com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple that will loan you or rent you their unused goods or ser­vices. People that aren’t afraid to trust peo­ple. People that aren’t afraid to share.

Anderson: Trust seems like a huge element.

Stempinski: In the book, there’s an entire chap­ter on trust. Once again, go back to our grand­par­ents’ age. Humans haven’t evolved in the last sev­en­ty years to a point where we’re just inher­ent­ly evil peo­ple. But we trust each oth­er so much less. The spread of mass media, in my opin­ion, is real­ly kind of to blame for that. Of all the kid­naps in the US, only 8% of them are com­mit­ted by peo­ple that the fam­i­ly has nev­er met, com­plete strangers. 92% are by either fam­i­ly mem­bers or asso­ciates. So look at those num­bers. You should be more afraid of your fam­i­ly mem­bers and all those than just some ran­dom stranger. 

But what we have? Stranger Danger, a huge cam­paign telling kids from a very young age if you don’t already know some­body, they’re a bad per­son.” And so that cre­ates this iso­la­tion­ism, that cre­ates this inher­ent mis­trust of think­ing everyone’s bad.

Anderson: So we lose some­thing there, you would say.

Stempinski: Yeah, we do. We lose some­thing. From a very young age we become very cyn­i­cal about the soci­ety we live in. We assume that every­body is a bad per­son unless you’re part of my imme­di­ate family.

Anderson: The shar­ing econ­o­my threat­ens a lot of tra­di­tion­al eco­nom­ic play­ers. Like, you men­tion tax­es ear­li­er, or hotels. Seems like all of these peo­ple have got a lot to lose.

Stempinski: You’re right. You go to cities like New York where the hotel lob­by actu­al­ly tried to make Airbnb ille­gal. San Francisco, they did the same thing. So now all the Airbnb hosts in San Francisco have to pay a 15% hotel tax.

So yeah, they’re fight­ing against it, but that’s just the nat­ur­al evo­lu­tion of busi­ness. The tele­phone put the tele­graph com­pa­nies out of busi­ness. Cellphones put the land­line tele­phone com­pa­nies out of business.

Anderson: But this is almost like lit­tle peo­ple threat­en­ing to put big peo­ple out of business.

Stempinski: Exactly, and that’s the way it should be.

Anderson: I mean, the big peo­ple are orga­nized and have a lot of eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal pow­er. Do you think it’s going to be a square fight, or is it going to get reg­u­lat­ed away?

Stempinski: That’s the real­ly inter­est­ing thing, is that how could it be reg­u­lat­ed away? Because there are so many ser­vices, it’s online, which is noto­ri­ous­ly dif­fi­cult for any­one to reg­u­late. And peo­ple are pret­ty much just uti­liz­ing their own prop­er­ty that they already own. Nobody can stop me from doing it. And either these large busi­ness­es can fig­ure out a way to adapt, or they become the Betamax. They become the tele­graph. Businesses don’t have infi­nite lifes­pan, espe­cial­ly in ser­vices that rely on some sort of technology.

Anderson: Does it leave any­one behind? It seems like you have to real­ly focus on your­self being out there.

Stempinski: Yeah. I mean, the peo­ple it’s going to leave behind of the peo­ple that aren’t tech­no­log­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed. You see places like in the third-world coun­tries where they don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have reli­able Internet access, it’s going to be a chal­lenge for that to launch. But give it a cou­ple decades. It bog­gles my mind to think that by the day I die, say in 2050, that there won’t be easy Internet access every­where in the world.

Anderson: One oth­er thing I want to ask you about. The Conversation, the premise of this project. Do you think this is a moment where we need to be hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about the future?

Stempinski: I don’t think there’s ever a bad time to be hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about the future. The more present you are in the future (by present I mean like men­tal­ly present, think­ing about it) the bet­ter you shape that future.

Anderson: Do you think this is a par­tic­u­lar­ly unique moment in his­to­ry, where we need to be hav­ing that con­ver­sa­tion more? I mean, you men­tioned resources.

Stempinski: I think this is par­tic­u­lar­ly unique and not nec­es­sar­i­ly because of resources, because if you look at the grand scheme of things we still have, at least for the next ten or fif­teen years, ample resources, espe­cial­ly here in the States. But the real­ly inter­est­ing time right now is because we are at this for­tu­itous moment of great tech­no­log­i­cal advance, and we have this huge influx of real­ly intel­li­gent young peo­ple who are will­ing to take finan­cial risk to start up new businesses. 

And that’s cou­pled with the fact that we’re in a bad eco­nom­ic state. It cre­ates this real­ly awe­some, fer­tile ground for peo­ple to launch all these real­ly cool ideas that will change the future, and have them just for their val­ue propo­si­tion alone get a lot of ear­ly adopters. And hope­ful­ly, with evan­ge­lists like myself spread­ing the word, we can help these ear­ly adopters or peo­ple that want to become ear­ly adopters, fig­ure out how they can uti­lize this whole mesh of resources to bet­ter their lives and change the way they think about con­sum­ing smart­ly, and uti­liz­ing oth­er unused resources to help oth­ers, and vice versa.

Anderson: We have a lot of dif­fer­ent peo­ple, some of whom are on board with us, some of whom aren’t. A real­ly diverse, com­pli­cat­ed coun­try, a more diverse globe. Do you think we can actu­al­ly bring these peo­ple togeth­er to talk about the future? Or are we beyond a point where one can even have a con­ver­sa­tion like that? Are we just mov­ing for­ward because things are chang­ing so fast?

Stempinski: No, peo­ple are talk­ing about it all the time. If you have a minute I’d like to point you to share​able​.net. It’s an online shar­ing mag­a­zine. You’re start­ing to see top­ics like col­lab­o­ra­tive con­sump­tion show up at TED Talks, and Build Conference, and Digital Life Design con­fer­ence. There’s a lot of big name, inter­est­ing peo­ple that are active­ly try­ing to have these con­ver­sa­tions. It’s not just tech, it’s not just soci­ol­o­gy, it’s not just finan­cial, it’s not just com­mu­ni­ty. It’s all of those things. 

We have a group called Sharers of San Francisco. We do essen­tial­ly an event almost every week, and the vari­ety of peo­ple I’ve met is just through the roof. And it’s real­ly made me think a lot about my own life, my own habits, the way I live, because I’ve real­ly been exposed to a much larg­er cross-section of soci­ety. Start up founders to col­lege pro­fes­sors to house­keep­ers. We have all sorts of peo­ple show up because it’s just a real­ly intrigu­ing, cool thing and every­body has some­thing inter­est­ing to say about it.


Aengus Anderson: Gabriel Stempinsky. Sharing econ­o­my. What do you think?

Micah Saul: Very cool. He’s an evan­ge­list for this for a rea­son. He knows how to talk about this.

Anderson: He cer­tain­ly does, and I almost went and sold myself on TaskRabbit. 

Saul: Let’s step back and tie it into the broad­er pic­ture, and let’s talk about the good.

Anderson: The good, which is a lit­tle hard­er to get from this one because I mean, we didn’t direct­ly attack at like we have in some of our oth­er con­ver­sa­tions. But man, there is an idea of the good that per­me­ates all of this.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: And it seems like they are actu­al­ly two ideas of the good. Because for Gabe, these sites are valu­able both for their eco­nom­ic qual­i­ties, but also for their com­mu­ni­ty qualities.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: What’s the good for the eco­nom­ic side?

Saul: I think he says it very well. We all of us have things that we are not uti­liz­ing. Be that that our car, be that the extra couch, be that that bit of fal­low land in the cor­ner of our plot in Kansas. And if we can make mon­ey by let­ting oth­er peo­ple use it, that’s a win. 

Anderson: It seems like you can’t get away from that there’s a strong free market—

Saul: Oh, absolutely.

Anderson: Okay. So that’s the eco­nom­ic good. Individuals freely offer­ing and exchang­ing ser­vices. How does that square with the com­mu­ni­ty side, right? Which is the notion that we’re too indi­vid­u­al­ized, and we do these things to come togeth­er and to gain these sort of intan­gi­ble com­mu­ni­ty ben­e­fits like, okay sure there’s an eco­nom­ic ben­e­fit to com­mu­ni­ty. But there’s also a lot of psy­cho­log­i­cal ben­e­fits. Society just works bet­ter, peo­ple are hap­pi­er. We know that. We’ve got the studies.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: Gabe is an evan­ge­list for this not just because it makes peo­ple mon­ey or because it makes the world more effi­cient, but because it’s fun.

Saul: Right. No, exactly.

Anderson: So how do you have the indi­vid­u­al­ist ideals of this real­ly free mar­ket, and the sort of like, Hey, but that’s also cre­at­ing this real strong com­mu­ni­ty,” sense. Can those coexist?

Saul: I don’t know.

Anderson: I did not spot that when we were hav­ing the con­ver­sa­tion. This is one of the things in ret­ro­spect I would love to ask more about.

Saul: Totally.

Anderson: But I think that’s cer­tain­ly— For me, those ideas still seem in ten­sion and maybe I’m just think­ing about them wrong.

Saul: Okay, so I sup­pose you can cre­ate some sort of…

Anderson: Balance.

Saul: —between these two things.

Anderson: Which seems…possible.

Saul: And I think on on a local lev­el, I can eas­i­ly see that working.

Anderson: I think all of his argu­ments show that right here, right now [crosstalk] in San Francisco, it’s working.

Saul: It is work­ing. Right. Is that scal­able? Right now, it’s being used by the ear­ly adopters. The ear­ly adopters of the peo­ple that rec­og­nize the ben­e­fits of both things and are like the peo­ple like him, who say this is an eco­nom­ic boon, and this is a social boon, and are able to indi­vid­u­al­ly strike that bal­ance in their head. 

Anderson: And have access to the knowl­edge to get into this, have access to the tech­nol­o­gy. There’s a real class assump­tion. There’s a bar to entry to all of this that a lot of peo­ple can’t meet.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And maybe the com­mu­ni­ty works bet­ter in this case because right now there is a scarci­ty of labor so it’s worth your while to do the sort of menial jobs for oth­er peo­ple, or to share stuff. But if every­one floods into the com­mu­ni­ty does it just become a more effi­cient way for us to exploit poor peo­ple? The shar­ing econ­o­my on its sur­face looks like a huge threat to our tra­di­tion­al economy.

Saul: Absolutely. And I think big indus­try views it that way. Like, the hotel indus­try cer­tain­ly views that way. I think the evan­ge­lists of the shar­ing econ­o­my view it as a big eco­nom­ic shift.

Anderson: Yeah. It looks like it could be this mas­sive democ­ra­tiz­ing agent. It could bring a lot of pos­i­tive change. I could unseat a lot of ossi­fied com­pa­nies. But here’s what I’m going to argue: I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.

Saul: Why?

Anderson: I think the shar­ing econ­o­my could make us far more effi­cient. But let’s just assume that it actu­al­ly doesn’t get bought out and co-opted and reg­u­lat­ed. Let’s say it keeps going on as it does. I think it would be a fun­da­men­tal change if it actu­al­ly ques­tioned the under­ly­ing log­ic of our eco­nom­ic sys­tem. But I don’t think it does. I think though it makes us more effi­cient in our use of resources, it still encour­ages an eco­nom­ic mod­el that is based on growth. The free mar­ket good that is under­neath all of this is still there. And that is still a mod­el that says, Go out, pro­duce more.” Its val­ues are ulti­mate­ly phys­i­cal­ist values.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: In a way, this, though it seems to be a revi­sion is in many ways part of com­mon sense. It’s a new take on it. It’s kind of a threat­en­ing change, it’s a shake up, but it’s still com­mon sense. The com­mu­ni­ty aspect’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. But under­neath it, it just wants to grow. We know the free mar­ket song and dance. 

Saul: I ful­ly agree that it is based on the same foun­da­tion that may or may not be slip­ping away under­neath us. But, iter­a­tive change is good. Obviously with this project we’re look­ing for the huge new ideas that com­plete­ly shake things up and tear things down to the foun­da­tion or even fur­ther. And that’s real­ly scary.

Anderson: I don’t actu­al­ly know if we’ll find many of those.

Saul: Right. This seems like an idea that is much much eas­i­er to get peo­ple on board with. It’s not a sil­ver bul­let, but it’s a real­ly good band-aid.

Anderson: It is a real­ly good band-aid. And I won­der, could this sort of tech­no­log­i­cal imple­men­ta­tion of how we allo­cate our resources coex­ist with a dif­fer­ent sort of cul­tur­al atti­tude on resources? Maybe it could. Maybe there’s a strange con­ver­sa­tion to be had between some­one like Jan Lundberg and Gabriel Stempinksi. Or Tim Morton and Gabriel Stempinksi. 

Saul: Yeah.

Anderson: Maybe there are dif­fer­ent fun­da­men­tals that this new shar­ing econ­o­my mod­el could real­ly work with. I don’t know. I think that’s where the con­ver­sa­tion gets interesting.

Saul: I com­plete­ly agree.

Anderson: Let’s see if we can cap­ture them and put them in a room together.

Saul: I thought we decid­ed not to do that. I thought that’s why you were dri­ving around the country.

Anderson: This is too impor­tant impor­tant to be hin­dered by morality. 

Saul: I think that’s as good a place as any.

Anderson: Probably where I need to be stopped.

That was Gabriel Stempinksi, record­ed June 5, 2012 in San Francisco, California.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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