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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