David Rowan over at the UK edition of Wired has an article about the advantages of renting out what you own:
There are assets all around us with high “idling capacity” that are essentially like an ATM machine. People use the extra cash for everything from offsetting car payments to taking the holiday they could not otherwise afford. Collaborative consumption is an easy way to become a micro-entrepreneur.
Rowan argues that the Internet is fundamentally changing the way that people think about ownership:
Now that collaborative spirit [of the sort that launched auction website eBay] is spreading to all sorts of other industries as ubiquitous internet connections bring us together in creative new ways. The peer-to-peer model has lately moved from auction houses and online classifieds to car-sharing, jewelery lending, even online banking — and each time it’s cutting out a traditional incumbent.
In an era when environmental concerns are making conspicuous consumption harder to justify, start-ups are targeting customers keener to pay for access to goods and services rather than actual physical ownership — and new web-based networks are letting all of us be both lenders and borrowers.
As the articles notes, however, such systems can only thrive within an environment of robust trust. It’s one thing to sell a used laser pointer to a total stranger with the expectation of payment (like eBay’s first sale). It’s quite another to open one’s dwelling to total strangers who find you through Couchsurfing.
One thing that the Wired article doesn’t address is the official legal barriers to much of these sorts of collaborative activities. Hospitality, car rentals, banking: these are highly regulated industries with a host of rules designed to protect incumbents by erecting barriers to entry. While this may not be a large issue currently, it will be interesting to see how established industry players (or revenue-starved state and local governments) start responding if and when “collaborative consumption” becomes a truly major economic force.