What I've been reading: What's yours is mine

It used to be quite common for people to draw a distinction between the online world and what they called “the real world”. Indeed, judging by the way some people put just about every aspect of their private lives on social media, not everyone understands even today that that distinction is a false one.

If you harbour any doubts about this, consider the so-called “sharing economy”. Armed with just a smartphone and a few well-chosen apps, you can arrange to have your home cleaned, a meal delivered, a place to stay on vacation and a car to take you to the airport.

The most famous examples of such services are, of course, Airbnb and Uber, but there are many others. I’ve always had my doubts about such services because of the horror stories one sometimes reads about in the newspapers, such as cab passengers being sexually assaulted and poor attention to health and safety in holiday accommodation.

But, as this well-researched book makes clear, these are not the only costs. The providers of such services, by which I mean the people actually driving the cabs or delivering the meals, often make less than the minimum wage. To add insult to injury, they have no workers’ entitlements such as sick pay, holiday pay or pension schemes.

There are often community costs as well — costs that have led Berlin to ban whole-property rental on Airbnb.

This book is good at digging out the connections between people and corporations that are by no means obvious. Also, it doesn’t deal only with the big players, but smaller ones too, and other, related, aspects of this phenomenon. A case in point is open source software, which is promoted as a great community enterprise in which everyone contributes their labour free of charge, for the greater good, but which in fact turns out to be quite lucrative for some.

I think the book is required reading if one is to guard oneself against what the author calls “the naiveté of twenty-six year old CEOs [and] the hubris of their venture capital advisers.” It is also useful to be able to help your pupils see beyond the world of apps, and to appreciate that there are often unintended and unforeseen consequences of innovation. You may think that the sharing economy is entirely beneficial, but as a great economist once said, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

My only criticisms of the book are as follows. First, that it seems one-sided. After all, many people, consumers and providers alike, benefit enormously from the sharing economy. Secondly, that the author offers no solution to the problems he identifies beyond a bit of wishful thinking.

Nevertheless, a book that is filled with facts, and eminently readable, What’s Yours Is Mine is highly recommended.

You can buy the book from here: OR Books.

This review was first published in the Digital Education newsletter, which has amazing content, and is free -- what's not to like?!



Please note that I was sent a copy of the book to review.