Aim of the project
The aim of my research project is to shed on the question as to how we may direct the online sharing economy onto a path of sustainable cooperation. This requires that we come up with adequate responses to the problems generated by the advent of the online sharing economy, while heralding its potential for economic and social value creation.
Online sharing platforms have often been heralded as the protagonists of a new economic paradigm―that of private individuals exchanging unused capacity of their time and/or belongings on an ever-increasing scale (e.g. Botsman, 2010; Fraiberger & Sundararajan, 2017; Munger, 2018). Indeed, after their swift advent into our daily lives, it is now hard to imagine a world without major sharing platforms, such as ride-hail and delivery platform Uber and accommodation-rental platform Airbnb. In the timespan of a decade, these businesses experienced spectacular growth rates in market valuations as well as in users. As such, they increasingly press their marks on western economies and people’s livelihoods―both to the good and to the bad.
From the outset, many commentators have hailed the platform companies epitomizing these developments, for reasons relating to economic surplus creation and the furtherance of social cohesion. In recent years, however, enthusiasm in the public arena for the emerging sharing economy has waned as it became clear that the nature and scale of the transactions that these platforms enable also raise a number of problems. The immense popularity of Airbnb in some cities, for example, has contributed to excessive nuisance for residents and further ‘touristification’ of already crowded tourist destinations (Frenken & Schor, 2017; Oskam, 2019). Also, ‘gig’ platforms such as Uber and TaskRabbit have been scolded for encouraging the replacement of fixed employment relations by flexible contractor arrangements, thus allegedly adding to the ‘precarization’ of already vulnerable workers (Ahsan, 2020; Coyle, 2017; Davis, 2016; Scheiber, 2017; Schor, 2017).
It is of pressing importance that light be shed on the question as to how we may direct the online sharing economy onto a path of sustainable cooperation. This requires that we come up with adequate responses to the problems generated by the advent of the online sharing economy, while heralding its potential for economic and social value creation. A major step in this endeavor will involve a normative evaluation of the sharing economy in terms of backward-looking responsibility―i.e. blame (or praise) for past events. Adequate attribution of this type of moral responsibility may further the development of feedback mechanisms for preventing future harm, by sending signals about the appropriateness of behaviour (Braham & Van Hees, 2018). Attributing responsibility can thus be “a powerful tool for motivating better practices” (Nissenbaum, 1996, p. 26). Moreover, it may provide valuable input for an account of forward-looking responsibility, which ideally establishes a fair and/or effective distribution of obligations regarding future events (Fahlquist, 2009; Herzog, 2016; Van de Poel et al., 2012). In addition, a clear and adequate distribution of responsibility may serve as an indication as to how (institutional) contexts may be modified such that they better facilitate the exercise of moral agency (Herzog, 2019; Young, 2006).
In my research I draw on philosophical, economic and organization-theoretical literature. It involves an in-depth analysis of the nature of sharing platforms and the transactions they facilitate (i.e. an ‘anatomy of sharing platforms’), as well as their economic and social impact. In addition, I develop a conceptual apparatus of moral responsibility, which I subsequently apply to the online sharing economy, illustrated by multiple concrete cases. After having taken stock of how far the ensuing distributions of backward-looking responsibility brings us in terms of the aim to abate the problems associated with the online sharing economy, I indicate avenues for improving the normative architecture surrounding this new realm of economic value creation.
University of Groningen, Faculty of Philosophy
February 1, 2019 - January 31, 2023