The ‘Sharing Economy’ as Disembedding Mechanism

As some reading this may be aware, I’m fairly critical of the account Giddens gives of late modernity, seeing it as a wrong-turning for many qualitative researchers who sought to situate their findings in a socio-historical context. Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking recently about the concept of the disembedding mechanism and how it might allow us to theorising the ‘sharing economy’. This is how Rob Stones summarises the concept in the abstract for an encyclopaedia entry:

Disembedding refers to the way in which contemporary social practices can no longer be primarily defined by their grounding, or embeddedness, in the local context of a restricted place and time. Social practices are now, in large part, removed from the immediacies of context, with the relations they involve typically being stretched over large tracts of time and space. Local experiences and events are shaped by processes taking place on the other side of the world, and vice versa. These are processes, moreover, that are primarily impersonal and abstract.

What Giddens describes as “the ‘lifting out’ of social relations from local contexts and their rearticulation across indefinite tracts of time-space” give rise to a “tremendous acceleration in time-space distanciation” which he sees as characterising modernity. He identifies two types of disembedding mechanism, symbolic tokens and expert systems. The former are mediums of exchange which have a standard value across contexts, thus disembedding valuation from a local context and fixing it in terms of much broader processes, as well as disembedding obligation from temporal unfolding within that context by facilitating credit. The latter are forms of expert knowledge and technical capacity which have validity independently of those who make use of them, leaving situated interaction shaped by processes of knowledge production and specialisation far away from it.

It strikes me that the ‘sharing economy’ represents a new form of disembedding mechanism. The business model here seems reasonably clear: find a social interaction which already is or could be monetised, develop a digital platform which can be inserted as an intermediary within that interaction and rely on network dynamics to scale the new model in a way that will ultimately squeeze out any instances of the interaction which are unmediated or reliant on an older form of mediation e.g. local taxi dispatchers. With the growth of the ‘sharing economy’, larger tracts of human interaction are governed by the technical architecture and social imperative of large corporations based many thousands of mile away, whose local operations are concerned at most with recruiting new workers & safeguarding the platform against regulatory pushback.

It’s useful to consider the ‘sharing economy’ in these terms because it takes us away from a fixation on technological possibility. Certainly, we could not have had Uber and Airbnb without a particular configuration of mobile computing, cloud computing and ubiquitous social networking. But we also need to consider why these platforms are capable of scaling in the way they do. Part of the issue is undoubtedly about coordination, with a technical capacity to identify resources and make them accessible in an unprecedentedly precise way. However the more interesting issue concerns trust, or rather its decline in late modernity. Trust in the platform becomes plausible when trust in each other begins to break down. What will the political consequences be of the radicalisation of disembedding which the sharing economy represents & the new orientation towards trust which participation in it begins to engender?

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