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Yours, mine, ours

The sharing economy nudges ownership aside

The act of sharing opens a door into our interior life, revealing a self that we usually don’t access in our day-to-day experience. When we share ourselves or our possessions, we lay bare our vulnerability. Risking our self-image or a possession imbued with personal significance is what makes these moments memorable and carries us over a threshold as we experience the new domains created within the sharing economy.

That wash of good feeling about sharing sweeps us into these new, still-evolving forms, challenging long-held notions of ownership. Apps expand access to information and services, connecting us to sources that satisfy what we need or desire. The generation that grew up protesting conservative postwar institutions spawned a period of vast consumption of resources as well as a younger generation that is now inventing its own counterculture.

Common threads of the sharing economy are the embrace of an entrepreneurial spirit, an awareness of resource scarcity, and the abandonment of nonfunctioning institutions as sources of leadership and innovation. Some examples include food trucks that share public spaces and create lively dining options; racks of Hubway bikes and Zipcars parked on city streets available for hourly rental; and, most recently, Uber and Lyft, defended as a cheaper convenience by a population of new users unconcerned about the disruption of the taxi business model. In the generational transformations natural to changing priorities and values in American society, the sharing economy is recalibrating how we consume resources and services.

Airbnb, where private property is rented out to a paying public, is causing a stir among condominium owners. Investor-owners in developments without strict, enforceable regulations about the minimum length of rentals are in conflict with occupant-owners seeking to control the stability of their community and access to their private property. Occupant-owners see high turnover as a potential for higher condo fees, less familiar faces, and a more transient community. Investor-owners, however, see Airbnb as the highest and best use of their unit, maximizing its value through short-term rentals in addition to normal appreciation.

As a culture, we have adapted to smartphones, tablets, and laptops that allow us to access the services of the new sharing economy anywhere in the world. At the same time, these devices help us minimize large personal collections of books, records, and photographs. Our mobility is enhanced tremendously: We can pack our charger and take our favorite things with us wherever we go.

Similarly, social media link us with our friends anywhere in the world without leaving the comfort of our bedroom. Anyone can “connect;” the chance encounter is no longer coincidence but engineered. Staying home after work is a matter of a choice rather than the outcome of not having made plans. Fewer possessions and social networking have influenced the actual square footage of new micro-units, where shared gathering lounges are designed in a nod to the reduced need for individual living rooms. In a previous generation, the micro-unit model was the single-room-occupancy or residential hotel that included social spaces such as dining rooms and lounges. Real estate movers and shakers are sanguine about renewing this housing option, where higher rent for less space is a winning combination.

The sharing economy is felt in the workplace, too. The private office, long the symbol of privilege in a hierarchical organization, now feels like a relic. Office interiors have been replaced by shared resources, including movable workstations, glass walls, work bars, and team rooms. All these speak to an attitude of openness, of paperless and transparent organizations. Team leaders circulate among employees or use standing desks to overlook their charges. Technology and cloud sharing has hatched a generation of “consultants.” You see them in coffee houses and fast food restaurants all over the city. Cheap by any commercial real estate standard, these independent workers appropriate seats for their private enterprise with no more rent to pay than the price of a cup of coffee. Telecommuters or laptop cowboys who may need the periodic support of the “mother ship” come into a “hotel space” in the office. Commercial space needs diminish, and the flexibility to adapt to new projects is much less costly.

The sharing economy was taken to court in 2000 when Napster showed how the tech-savvy could appropriate music without paying royalties to artists or recording companies. Before the legal case was settled, hackers outsmarted the entertainment industry and forced it to rethink its distribution models. Twentysomething app inventors and clever hackers have acquired counterculture hero status and have been catapulted into the ranks of the super-rich, possibly without ever having owned a suit.

A trend among a younger cohort is placing higher value on experience than on ownership. There is a subculture, too, of “freegans,” anti-consumerists, or dumpster divers who perceive their access to unearned goods as a legitimate exercise. They defend their actions by asserting that they are hurting no one and merely taking advantage of the surplus that exists and would otherwise go to waste.

Perhaps the most revolutionary example of the sharing economy, however, is found in cases such as Kahn Academy and MOOCs, or massive open online courses. These are the wildflowers in education that have sprung through the cracks of ivy-covered walls. It remains to be seen what springs from the seeding of this fallow ground.

As entrepreneurs create modern models for businesses, cities grapple to create alternate models to finance the maintenance and upkeep of roads, buildings, transit systems, harbors, tunnels, and bridges whose operation is essential to commerce. Our infrastructure’s decaying condition is irreconcilable with the unwillingness to bear the shared cost of repairs through traditional methods of taxation. The new strategy? Public/private partnerships that finance the maintenance and upgrading of necessary infrastructure.

Some find the sharing economy a refreshing break from relentless consumption. Others see reckless destruction of established business norms. Like a cat standing on the threshold looking in at the party, we feel a societal skittishness, perhaps defined by which generation we identify with, about embracing these new businesses until we know which will survive. What is inevitable is that today’s innovators will spawn yet another generation that will create — and share — its own counterculture. ■