Back to the Future: Why Collaborative Consumption Is So Retro

Once upon a time, ordinary middle-class families used to rent extra rooms to lodgers, on a peer-to-peer basis, to help make ends meet. They relied on a network of personal recommendations and references to build a climate of trust, so both they and their tenants knew what they were getting into. In 1880, Cassells Household Guide offered the following advice to people looking for “lodgings”:

A lodger has the right to use the knocker and door bell, the lights and windows in the approaches to his apartments, and the water-closet and other conveniences. If he has any doubt about some things, he had better stipulate for their reasonable use, as a garden or outer yard.

All persons who take apartments, whether furnished or not, will be prudent to make various inquiries before entering upon an agreement. These inquiries may include the solvency of the landlord, the character of his house and of its inmates, the respectability and healthiness of the locality, the proper supply of good water, and the condition of all the fittings and fixtures, and furniture, if there is any.

Formidable as the foregoing enumeration may appear at first sight, it will on consideration be found to include little to terrify those who intend to live in lodgings. People must live somewhere, and wherever it is, they will, if they inquire, find themselves surrounded with liabilities. There are many who are well able to rent houses for themselves who prefer to live in lodgings, and it is not uncommon for them to remain years in the same place.

These sorts of arrangements became outmoded as the 20th century progressed, with the rise of private ownership as a middle-class ideal. But in a post-industrial economy where telecommuting is ending the strict separation between home and workplace, and with concerns about climate and carbon footprints now on the rise, new ways of using space are emerging. Companies like AirBnBSpareFootSpinlister, and of course ShareMySpace are letting people make connections and rent each other equipment and spaces. The internet is facilitating the communal and collaborative use of space — which brings us, in some ways, full circle.

Sharing spaces

So a lot of that quaint old Victorian advice might feel pretty familiar. For example, in a recent TED talk, Rachel Botsman explained the role of reputation in a collaborative economy. When we interact online, we build trust by posting ratings of our interactions — did a certain item arrive as described? Was this seller respectful and trustworthy? This record creates the climate of trust that collaborative economies depend on:

It’s only a matter of time before we’re going to be able to perform a google-like search and see a cumulative picture of our reputation capital. And this reputation capital will determine our access to collaborative consumption. It’s a new social currency, so to speak, that could become as powerful as our credit rating. . . . I believe we’re actually in a period where we’re waking up from this humongous hangover of emptiness and waste and we’re taking a leap to create  a more sustainable system built to serve our innate needs for community and individual identity.

A “new” social currency that’s actually very old! Or, as I like to think of it, retro-Victorian chic.

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Photo credits:  Neil Kremer / / CC BY-ND;  Victor1558 / / CC BY