This is my review essay on “The Age of Sharing”, published in Culture Digitally.
Nicholas John’s fabulous new book The Age of Sharing dives into the concept of sharing as the key metaphor of our moment. Sharing, John argues, has come to refer to “our technologically mediated social lives; about our economic lives as producers and consumers; and about our emotional, interpersonal lives.” (4) That one concept now stands in for so many different realms—imperfectly and incompletely—is part of John’s argument and what he sets out to explore. Sharing metaphorically links practices of consumption (sharing music) and production (sharing in coding and editing projects). Sharing also links communication (sharing a story) with distribution (sharing my beer). John argues that these distinct practices have fundamentally different implications for understanding the digital economy, but in part Silicon Valley’s use of the language of sharing for all of them prevents the distinctions among them from being easily recognized. Unlike cheerleaders for the sharing economy, John does not see how or why sharing things on social media prepares the way for a society of hourly car rentals, self-catering apartment rentals, and unlicensed and unregulated taxi rides. In John’s words:
“If this is the sharing economy, then its message is pure neoliberal ideology: if you have any spare resources (including your time, that drill you are not using right now, your spare bedroom) and you are not monetizing them, then do not complain about being poor. There is a part of the sharing economy that turns us all into microentrepreneurs, and that looks mercilessly upon those who refuse to participate.” (69)
John’s examination of sharing lays bare a larger ideological project. As a concept, sharing captures a kinder, gentler kind of interaction—one that John covers at length in sections on childhood and the so-called natural state of human economic behaviour (tl;dr – there is no kinder, gentler state of human of nature). His argument is convincing. And it is an argument should have economic sociologists interested in this book, opening up ways to extend his argument further.
John does not use Émile Durkheim’s notions of mechanical and organic solidarity to describe the work that the concept of sharing does for contemporary economic life, but he very well could have. Pre-modern society worked on “mechanical” solidarity: small communities with tight social ties ensured that our economic transactions will be repeated, lowering any chance that one side will cheat the other and creating community-based mechanisms for dealing with it when they do. Durkheim suggests that modern society is the opposite: everyone has a job to do within a complex division of labor, and we no longer need to rely on trust and community ties to ensure fair exchange. The problem with the sharing economy, in John’s rich description of it, is that it seeks to re-enchant the modern economy with these kinds of pre-modern ties described by Durkheim.
“This is the age of sharing, then, because sharing stands for both the cutting edge of our digital media-saturated capitalist society and economy, including the way we interact online, and a critical position vis-à-vis this society and economy. Sharing is both supportive and subversive of hegemonic (digital) culture: supportive in that the more you share updates and pictures on social media, for instance, the wealthier those platforms become, and subversive in that the more you share actual stuff with others, the less everyone needs to buy. Moreover, some say that sharing—be that of the distributive or communicative kind—leads to true and deep human connections.” (2)
The message of the sharing economy, according to John, is that “technologically enabled sharing is somehow a return to an older and better way of living” (83) and “that sharing will help us regain a paradise lost.” (81) We should all be doubtful and cautious when powerful business interests promise to restore our lost innocence.
Which raises, for me, the question of solidarity. The Silicon Valley versions of sharing promise to recreate small communities of like-minds in which any natural altruism is modulated carefully through online platforms—for a small fee, of course. This kind of solidarity is mechanical solidarity at its worst, recalling the ways in which pre-modern communities remained close to outsiders and difference and relied on the basest logic of crowds and gossips. Durkheim’s solution was something that looked more like the solidarity of today’s big urban areas, a sense of belonging to a place that relied on each of us being an important piece of a very large system that needed different kinds of jobs, different kinds of skills, and different kinds of consumption. Durkheim’s metaphor for modern society was not one of sharing, but of reliance—just as a body relies on different organs, so too a modern society needs different people to function.
Sharing is polysemic, John concludes, because people evoke the different meanings and values of the word in ways that can be read in differently by different audiences. John’s examination of the difficulties of using sharing as a metaphor for a kinder, gentler economy could not be better timed than when scholars are questioning how social media may contribute societal fragmentation. (Sharing fake news, anyone?) Questioning sharing is the first step. Next is rebuilding a true sense of solidarity as part of, or after, the so-called sharing economy.
This is a dialogue I helped organize between myself, Mary Gray, Laura Miller, and Tom Streeter about his new book, The Net Effect. This is my review.
Bruno Latour famously appealed to scholars to investigate the “socio-technical assemblages” that comprise our contemporary technologies. He is also famously vague about how to do that, and that’s precisely what Tom Streeter teaches us in The Net Effect.
The Net Effect covers a broad span of the things, procedures, ideas and cultures that make up what we call “the internet”–microcomputing, technical standards development, and open software, yes. But also ideologies, cultural beliefs, and historical antecedents. As a result, the history of things plays second fiddle here relative to the history of ideas. This is too bad, because that’s really where Streeter shines and adds a refreshing new lens on our ability to think through communication media.
The Net Effect is reminiscent other great social histories of communication media such as Claude Fischer’s America Calling and Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture. Streeter’s history is just as impressive in its cultural scope as these two, but surpasses them in his reach for a much bigger and unbounded object, “the internet.”
The Net Effect is almost – I stress almost—too broad in scope, and at several points as a reader I wanted more from the book on all of these topics. The ambition of this book is both its key strength along with one of its few shortcomings. There are the roots of three different histories in this book, and I can only hope that Tom will decide to take those up for his next projects to produce a three volume set on the histories of the internet.
The strength of this broad scope of The Net Effect is that it allows Tom to draw connections across the “assemblage” of what we call internet. It reminds me of the project that Thomas Hughes, the comparative historian of technology, sets out for himself in Human-Built World: that technology development in the US and German traditions can be understood as culturally rooted in relationship to our competing desires to control our world and to let God make the plans. Like that book, this one is as ambitious in its scope and impressive in its ability to build a rich cultural history that links ideas, literature, and discourse. Streeter’s focus is on the role in computing of the romantic individual, “a self that is understood as the source of a dynamic, inner experience that calls on us to live creatively beyond the bounds of predicable rationality.”
I was left wondering how Streeter makes sense of the particularly American cultural imprint on the internet when the contemporary practices are global. From China to Facebook, we have multiple practices that now comprise this thing we call the internet. I was left wondering what how expansive and elastic Streeter’s historical explanations can be for contemporary experiences.
Streeter carefully traces what he calls “thrilling ideas,” and herein may be his single biggest contribution. I would like to propose that The Net Effect is enormously useful as a methodological guide for doing cultural, sociologically informed work on technology and ideas. Theoretically, we have long known that ideas and ideologies of technology shaped by communities, culture, and institutions and social structure. The Net Effect is instructive in how to do this by tackling the “microstructural problem of the interplay of idea and institutions by looking at connections on three levels: shared felt experiences association with technologies; cultural traditions that people draw on to make sense of those experiences; and articulations between those linked traditions and experiences with political ideas, particularly political ideas that shape policymaking around internet structure.” In this, Streeter creates a textured look at the connection between objects and institutions, and anyone wanting to reproduce this method would be well served to look at how he lays out the rise of personal computing.