Great book I read last Fall about the new dynamics of sharing and the societal forces behind it. What follows is an outline that covers the main ideas as I’ve gleaned them, along with topical cross references. It may not always flow nicely since this is a personal reference guide. And as usual, this summary can’t give you the stories and context behind the notes provided below, so I do recommend reading the book if you’d like to learn more. Similarly, you may want to check out my summary of Lisa Gansky’s book, “The Mesh”.
I. Backstory to Present Day
The authors discuss the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and how it represents a concrete effect of world’s systemic lifestyle, going on to explain the emergence of “throwaway living”. Disposable products came about for valid health reasons, like the Dixie cup, and Kotex sanitary napkins (adapted from military badges). Everyday goods that could be thrown away, as opposed to cleaned and dried, were marketed and considered by folks as more “convenient, time-saving, and hygenic.”
During World War II, much production and consumption shifted to industrial sectors. Yet following 1945, the consumer products goods and food industries jumped into full gear as people could spend money again, have lots of babies, and make their lives easier with the houses and major appliances that jobs and higher disposable incomes enabled.
With increasing scale, this new way of life carried many unintended consequences and unforeseen after effects, including high volumes of manufacturing material waste, and increased embodied energy in products. If economic costs were so low, municipal waste systems made trash go “away”, and buying new items eventually became easier and cheaper than to clean & repair existing items, then it’s simply no wonder how we came to where we are today.
I’m keen to believe that people have always never liked to part ways with personal possessions; simple loss-aversion is at play. If we can store it away somewhere, we can derive value from it again sometime in the future. But with increased disposable income, and the ability to buy things on credit, material affluence has never been easier. To save civilization from running out of physical space and the pain of selling, giving, or throwing away belongings, the self-storage industry came to the rescue. The authors give some startling statistics about how much storage space there is for rent in the U.S., and how after 6 months, the cost of space rental has often exceeded the fair-market-value of the stored items. With the option for people to automatically pay the rent through a bank or credit account, it’s insane how much money people are spending without rationally considering the true costs involved. Thanks Rachel and Roo for dramatically bringing this subject to light!
Attachment, Loss Aversion, Comfort, Opaque Cost
A couple years ago, I watched a 6 part documentary series called The Century of the Self, which chronicled the development of advertising through the influence of Edward Bernays, and the rise of hyper consumerism. In essence, satisfying desire could be an endless game that people don’t necessarily choose to engage in. Advertisers, social trends, and norms helped put people on a metaphoric hedonistic treadmill. One could get off temporarily, but we’d have to get back on knowing that a “new & improved” version is out there as part of our vision (is it really ours?) of an aspired lifestyle.
The authors describe 4 big forces shaping it:
Ed Bernays got people “to buy not what they needed but what they desired, connecting not just to who the consumer is but what he or she wanted to be…unmet desires have no fixed limit”.
Additionally influential was Earnest Elmo Calkins. From Wikipedia,
One of his theories featured in the book of the same name was that of “consumer engineering,” or the artificial creation of demand for a product using design and advertising. He described the situation in 1929 that the speed of production had “outstripped consumption”. His answer to this problem is not to slow production, for “that would be backward.” He instead suggested manufacturing demand for product through planned obsolescence. He wrote,
“Goods fall into two classes: those that we use, such as motor cars and safety razors, and those that we use up, such as toothpaste or soda biscuits. Consumer engineering must see to it that we use up the kind of goods we now merely use.
In other words, he said, “Why would you want last year’s hand bag when this year’s hand bag is so much more attractive?” He asked, “Does there seem to be a sad waste in this process? Not at all. Wearing things out does not produce prosperity. Buying things does.” He pioneered the concept of the “soft sell,” or impressionistic advertising, which stresses less immediate results, and focuses on building goodwill and creating a brand, relying more on the “creative process” to produce an advertising message.
Lastly, peer pressure and culture are significant persuasive factors driving new purchases and consumption. Social regard, group belonging, acceptance, and self-esteem can sometimes be reasonable. Oftentimes not. Related to this is the Diderot Effect by social anthropologist Grant McCracken, which discusses how clusters of artifacts are related to group identity, how their symbolic meaning outweighs their functional utility, and how we relate to these artifacts on and off in life, as we ponder their reflection of self-identity. (I think I got that right!). Here’s a quote the authors provide, “We’ve been persuaded ever since the 1920s that we need complementary groups of possessions (color, style, or the up-to-dateness of an item).”
Ah yes, the convenience of borrowing money. Important for many purposes, particularly business and international trade. But personal credit? It’s enabled me to do some fun and fantastic things in my life, but oftentimes I ended up buying things (instead of experiences) that I really don’t need and can’t afford. We all know the story Availability and willingness to pay later with non liquid assets we can’t touch and don’t own. And lenders don’t want us to see nor understand the consequences of increasing debt from variable interest rates and only needing to pay a minimum balance. This desensitizes us to the cost of additional purchases or living a particular lifestyle.
3) Law of Life Cycles
Desire for new products & editions, Planned Obsolesence, and product quality degradation are the influencing factors to update/renew to same or new models. Can we be irrational or is there intended behavioral design in motion?
4) Just One More Factor?
An excellent point the authors bring up. “Just in case”. “You can never have enough”. “Could be useful in case…”. This is satisfaction from having more of the things that are similar to what we already have. With more usage choice in a personal asset library, there’s more freedom and dynamic happiness we can generate. Like extra capacity to enjoy in the future, without the trouble of buying/getting it. Another motivational factor: “It was on sale.”
From “Gen Me” to “Gen We“
Michael Wesch best describes this phenomena in this video presentation and my accompanying summary. I won’t summarize it for you Go check the link if you haven’t already.
The authors describe 2 phenomena and various examples of each:
- A values shift to “simplicity, transparency, participants”. As I see it…meaning, community, and experiences.
- Materialism’s lost opportunity cost in social relationships
The Rise of Collaborative Consumption (CC)
I’m prone to believe there’s a certain happiness in sharing some things with strangers. I think the larger movement is about economizing and exploring how IT and communication tech can both facilitate marketplaces and provide better user experiences. As the authors say, “we are relearning how to create value out of shared and open resources in ways that balance personal self interest with the good of the larger community. People can participate without losing their autonomy or individual identity.”
2 Participation forms: Peer “Provider” or “User”
CC Systems: sharing networks for products/services
- Product/Service system: pay for use, not ownership.
- Redistribution markets: pre-owned goods, give away, swap, or sell.
- Collaborative lifestyles: service exchange (free/premium). Requires trust systems.
4 CC principles:
Critical mass is necessary for momentum, better logistics and response time, greater choice, relevancy, and enough supply to meet random demand in a system. One needs:
- Social proof
- Idling capacity
- Belief in commons
- Trust between strangers
Access & experience is really what people want, not necessarily ownership which entails financial cost, financing, insurance, disposal, maintenance, repair…
- Usage – Ex: high idling capacity, limited use because of changing tastes, temporary need, depreciating appeal after usage, high fixed or setup costs.
- Extended life – where service like maintenance, repair, upgrades are covered. Ex: highly technical, expensive, frequent updates needed.
In P2P renting, idling capacity is available and personal transactions are feasible. There are some hurdles though:
- Sharing has to be convenient, secure, and more cost-effective than ownership
- Security and trust
Items or the service can’t necessarily be sterile or merely utilitarian. Personalization and feeling temporary ownership, and connection are important.
Enabled by networked participation and falling transaction costs
newly meeting supply and demand
increased utilization rate through the item’s valuable life
point systems; quid pro quo not necessary
Craigslist story – radical simplicity + interaction time efficiency
for “knowledge, time, workspaces, creativity, money, homes, gardens, social spaces.”
marketplaces as brokers/facilitators with fee or earned points
time banks, local exchange trading schemes (currencies)
social money lending; Zopa, Prosper
collaborative workspaces; Bay Area Hub, New Work City, Green Spaces
communities; neighborgoods, SkillShare
On/Offline Community; couchsurfing, hospitalityclub.org, globalfreeloaders.com, place2stay.net
design research, empathy, systems thinking
Ezio Manzini – I’ve downloaded numerous papers of his. See this video presentation of his I covered earlier for greater insight.
collaborative systems vary by necessary effort to participation
Lots versus low willpower scale
Manzini on designers’ role: “Reduce the threshold of effort so that regardless of willpower a user may have, the system can achieve its purpose.”
fluidity of use
diversified access/receipt options yielding same user benefits
enhanced communications support
Design Principles: longevity, disassembly, modularity, upgradeability, platforms
Community as Brand
Ex: Nike Plus, Skype, Meetup
brand community power + membership
letting go, and allowing people to personalize and make the experience and community their own (passion brand principles?)
changing consumer mindset
reputation and social capital
new value. GDP is old as are value chains. Value cycles are the future.
This book is important for its contribution to the backstory of consumerism, how we ended up where we are, and the future that’s possible for those willing to participate. Personally, I feel anyone under the age of 35 probably feels either frustrated/cautious with debt (various sources), and doesn’t want to maintain personal physical inventory. Remember how Tyler Durden from Fight Club said, “The things you own end up owning you”? I totally believe it. If we can make our lives easier through alternative consumption patterns that offer the same experience with additional social/other benefits, less hassle, and for less money, we will adapt appropriately.