Episode 12: Gabriel Stempinski
Gabriel Stempinski is an evangelist of the new sharing economy, author, documentary producer, and San Francisco city ambassador for CouchSurfing. We spoke about how new, sharing-themed tech startups are reshaping the economic and social landscape. Environmental and population issues are at the heart of our conversation and community makes more than a cameo appearance. Gabriel responds directly to Andrew Keen’s critique of social media, but there are also some indirect connections to Jan Lundberg’s sense of an energy crisis and Alexander Rose’s discussion of long-term thought.
Ah, Ængus, my old friend, I do believe you hit the proverbial nail on its proverbial head. Although I will concede that Micah is indeed correct by stating that this new sharing economy is a laudable band aide for the current wounds plaguing the system as a whole, it hardly goes far enough to correct the systemic problems which lie at the heart of our troubled outlook. The “sharing” of the sharing economy seems to be much more of an economic regression to an earlier form of capitalism, which, on the surface, might seem to be more community-oriented and beneficial to those involved, but, in truth, is little more than a nostalgic and half-hearted attempt to (re)create something that is no longer plausible. In a way, it is the economic equivalent of wearing bell bottoms and claiming with extreme gusto that disco will never die. I would even go so far as to say that this form of niche activity is only possible in a capitalist system which has reached our current stage of specialization, wealth, and leisure. I call it an activity, because that is what it is. It is a first world, bay area hobby which has no chance of replacing anything other than itself when it goes out of fashion. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from engaging in such an activity, though, so long as it provides them with a sense of enjoyment. My argument, however, would be that if you want to fundamentally change the way capitalist economics works, this is not the place to start. You need REALLY big ideas for that, ideas that affect every area of the economic landscape. But if you will excuse me, I need to get back to reading some Marx.
I would have to disagree with the “no longer plausible” and instead say it’s more plausible than ever before. In the past the only community you had were the people that you already knew, you had your tiny villages, your family, your friends and amongst those groups you could share and share alike to reduce the real economic burden of living life comfortably. With the state of technology the community is now worldwide. To assume this is a “First World Bay Area Niche” is about as far off base as you can get.
Just look at Airbnb alone. Valued at over a $1,000,000,000. Over 1,000,000 nights booked so far. 65% annual growth globally. Membership growth rates are the highest in developing countries (upwards of 1000% in countries in Latin America for example). Furthermore, the truest test that this isn’t just a fad is the fact that there are massive corporate lobbies trying to shut it down because of the threat it poses to the current establishment
(just google the words “airbnb hotel lobbyists” if you want to see for yourself).
I can give the exact same flavor of example for the new forms of Open Education, Technology, Media, Transportation, Work, Food and Travel. This isn’t just an idea to keep us from a bleak future, it’s THE idea. Peer to peer marketplaces go a lot further towards the development of economic parity, reduced consumption an end to wage slavery and corporate monopolies than anything else out there. I’d love to hear what you would consider a “REALLY big idea”. It’s a big change and it does come off seeming a little “hippy” to a lot of folk who don’t get it. If you’d like to extend the conversation on this topic reach out and let me know.
I would like to start by saying that I think it’s awesome that you are getting involved in the conversation here on the website. As far as I know, you are the first of the contributors to do so.
I really do appreciate the arguments that you make, but I still find some of what you posit to be problematic. First, I think that we need to be a little bit more careful, or more specific at the very least, as to how we use the term community. (I think that this observation isn’t just germane to this topic, but has ramifications for all of the conversations posted thus far). You seem to define the historical community in a rural, almost preindustrial way: a small, isolated group of people who must rely on one another for their mutual survival and betterment. Although I know that this might be the platonic community that pops into everyone’s head when they hear the term, I would argue that it is at best a nostalgic oversimplification, and at worst an erroneous reference to something that never existed in reality. Even in communities that predate the industrial revolution, or even the modern period for that matter, there existed an impressive amount of interconnectedness with the rest of the world. Then there is also, of course, the issue of scale. Community doesn’t need to refer solely to a cluster of homes in the countryside. There are national communities which collect taxes, build and regulate infrastructure, and wage war; there are communities of faith (to steal an idea from Rev. Fife) that span the globe and unite their members not only spiritually, but practically and economically as well – think of the Amish, the Mormons, or the Jews in Antiquity or the Middle Ages; and there is the public sphere (to steal an idea from Habermas) which has existed since the rise of periodicals and reasonably priced correspondence, and has served as an intellectual and international common ground for centuries. Communities have never really been closed systems, and for us to view them as such is to do them and their complexity a disservice.
I also appreciate the fact that some of the companies and organizations in the sharing economy have been highly valued by the market and have been targets of lobbying groups and corporations, but I do not necessarily view that as proof of the model’s durability and potential impact. As we can all recall from recent events, Facebook was valued at something like $104 billion, proving that such valuations are rather chimerical. As to the issue of attacks by the establishment being a sign of danger to the establishment, I would like employ as an example the legal troubles experienced by the McMunchies sandwich shop, which was sued by McDonald’s for copyright infringement in 1996. We all know that a small privately owned restaurant in Buckinghamshire, England posed no great threat to the multinational mcmonster, but, as a matter of principle, Ronald had to put is big, red shoed foot down. Lobbying groups and the legal arms of corporations are much like antibodies that attack any real or imagined threat that might come their way, and their actions are, in most cases, a poor indicator of how imposing a new development in the marketplace might actually be.
I don’t really see this new peer to peer marketplace, as fun and empowering as it might be, as the solution or an alternative to the current unsustainable, growth-oriented capitalist debacle we find ourselves in. In the end, we still see what we have often seen: people looking for the best deal. This is no change in the mindset that permeates the world’s economic and financial systems. It might help starving artists to eat and graduate students to pay for school, but these are examples that almost exclusively exist on the periphery of first-world economies, and have very little to do with the larger issues of resource use and industrial scale pollution. You asked me what I considered to be a “REALLY big idea” that might address some of these issues. One idea would be to transition to a planned economy which would balance sustainable resource use with the actual material, intellectual, and interpersonal needs of the collective. This might seem to be impractical, impossible, and even tyrannical to many, but it certainly would be a big change from the current system. Not to worry, though, the revolution isn’t upon us. Not for the nonce at least.
Really enjoyed this one. I just used Airbnb to stay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for 5 nights. Cost me $55 per night to stay in my own room with my own bathroom. The host was fantastic. She had a lot of ideas for things to do in Rio and even invited me out with her and some friends. The alternative was staying in a fairly basic hotel room for at least $150 per night (not including all the taxes, fees, etc.). So I saved quite a bit and took business away from “big business.” I plan on using Airbnb for most of my trips moving forward. A good friend of mine just left Japan and is now in India. He’s been using CouchSurfing (which saved him a ton, especially in Japan). As large as some of these sharing services are getting, I do think they are going to start posing a real threat to the global hotel chains. If anything, it might pressure them to at least lower their insanely highly, nightly rates.
Interesting statistic on child abductions. Even at 8%, I still think it’s a good idea to warn kids about strangers when they are small. I have a 3 year old son. My wife and I have encountered at least 3 older men in our neighborhood that took way too much interest in our son (staring the whole time at the grocery store, one who was sitting on his steps and repeatedly told my son to “come here,” another that passed us and commented several times about how good looking our son was and he knew “even from behind us, that he’d be good looking.”). These were not just passing, “he’s so cute” comments. They were seriously creepy, pedophile type comments/actions.
These sharing services won’t topple established hotels or taxi companies. There are plenty customers who value a professional driver highly enough to pay the cab fare, or a desire a solitary room with a full time staff to pay the hotel bill.
Hopefully these small upstarts like task rabbit or airbnb push the established business to focus on that professional value, rather than use regulation to maintain their exclusivity.
I have to say I really disagree with the claims being made for the “sharing economy” in this interview. I feel there is a serious place in The Conversation for a discussion of new models of collaboration and action enabled by digital communication technologies. Movements like open source software and commons-based peer production are having a tangible effect on our world and will have more of one in the future.
However, the “sharing economy” looks, to me, to be an attempt to appropriate some of the goodwill and excitement of these changes for what is essentially simply an upgrading of the efficiency of traditional market capitalism. Information makes markets more efficient. Sites like Airbnb and Task Rabbit are marketplaces — and relatively efficient ones because of the effectiveness of their technologies. Their existence does not change the fundamental relationships between seller and buyer in the marketplace. For every enthusiast like Mr. Stempinksi there are many customers of these marketplaces who use them more anonymously than the pre-existing models. Think of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, for example, whose very name comes from its practice of hiding human labor behind an invisible machine-like interface. Culturally, I think this is much more the norm in these kinds of services. I’ve used Airbnb without ever meeting the apartment owner.
And simply increasing market efficiency is not only not transformative, it is in fact likely to increase the inequalities of the market. Airbnb is most valuable for existing propert owners. I’ve seen in New York (and have heard stories in SF) of owners renting out entire buildings through Airbnb without ever converting them into apartments officially. The main result being higher prices and a complete lack of traditional tenant rights for renters.
I think that these changes — an evangelical belief in a more efficient market and cultural changes that favor the well-off — and their utopian wrapping is not especially surprising as it is the signature position of the libertarian ideology of much of Silicon Valley. As a former entrepreneur and working technologist I am frequently frustrated to find my fellows following espousing this ideological line. I think it is a betrayal of much of what was best of the collaborative, public good-seeking, publicly funded utopian technologists and scientists who began the Silicon Valley project back in the 50s and 60s.
That project started life as an improbable marriage between military industrial pragmatics and the consciousness raising counterculture (Fred Turner’s book about Stewart Brand, From Counterculture to Cyberculture is a terrific account of this period). This combination is what made the rise of digital technologies so revolutionary, enabling them to do more than just make the existing system more efficient and entrenched, but instead to open the way to a possible new one.
That project (and it’s current standard bearers) would be an excellent topic for The Conversation, as it’s surely one ingredient of the future world we’re looking to discuss.