MUCH EXCITEMENT has accompanied the rise of the “sharing economy” as facilitated by digital technologies, but so too has critique. If the dominant discourse celebrates this economy for its entrepreneurial ability to utilize spare capacity (usually with regard to for-profits like Uber and Airbnb rather than nonprofits like Freecycle), skeptics focus on the neoliberal erosion of labor rights and safeguards and the commercialization of communitarianism. Gary Hall (2016, 17), for example, points out that
even if this form of economy is presented as a revival of community spirit, it actually has very little to do with sharing access to goods, activities and services, and everything to do with selling this access. . . . It thus does hardly anything to challenge economic inequality and injustice.
What Mike Bulajewski (2014) finds unpalatable is the way in which the utopianism expressed in populist studies like Yochai Benkler’s (2006) The Wealth of Networks and Clay Shirky’s (2008) Here Comes Everybody, as well as in rhetoric accompanying the sharing economy more generally, “conflates political action and market transaction.”
The use of the term to refer to a range of platforms and apps that facilitate the harnessing of surplus time, skills, goods, and capacities is only the latest incarnation of sharing’s articulation within the digital context. Nicholas John (2013) lobbied for “sharing” to be considered as a keyword for understanding digital culture, in the tradition of Raymond Williams (1976). Subsequently, “sharing” is included in Culture Digitally’s Digital Keywords. John’s (2014) contribution to that project mentions sharing in terms of three examples. First, he calls on computer time sharing, which was developed during the late 1950s and early 1960s to make efficient use of expensive processor time. Second, John includes file sharing, which informed the U.S. Department of Defense’s development of ARPAnet and was strengthened by the introduction of Transmission Control Protocol (TCP)/Internet Protocol (IP) in 1973, based on the network guiding packets to their destination. Subsequent protocols, such as Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), develop the concept that networks can facilitate direct connections and transfers between hosts. Recent peer-to-peer file-sharing techniques present the latest evolution of such logic (see Johnson, McGuire, and Willey 2008, 2). Third, John mentions data sharing as the term that has, after Snowden, come to denote the simple transportation of data. Though all three of these make an appearance, John chooses to focus on a fourth instance: one embedded in the logic of Web 2.0. In this discussion, he turns to the way in which social networking sites have appropriated the term sharing to refer to the imperative and logic of communication and distribution. Because posting, linking, and liking are all termed “sharing” on social networking sites, John (2013, 176) claims that, in effect, “sharing is the fundamental and constitutive activity of Web 2.0.”
This imperative toward sharing, and the implicit interpolation involved, is well satirized by David Eggers (2013) in his dystopian novel The Circle. Mae, a new employee and rising star at the eponymous Google-like behemoth, invokes the aphorism “Sharing is Caring” (302). After a number of coercive, disciplinary encounters in which the company’s expectations (to “share”; to be transparent; to contribute to the data set) are made explicit, Mae also comes to believe that holding back one’s experiences, even those previously classed as “private,” from the network is tantamount to theft (303). If one does not share digitally, if one does not acquiesce to the datafied subjectivity imagined by the Circle, one is denying the possibility of commensurability between data and world; the full saturation of digital knowledge banks; a comprehensive big data set enabling predictive health and policing; absolute cognitive mapping for a digital totality—what the CEOs of the Circle refer to, somewhat chillingly, as “completion.”
As The Circle makes clear, in addition to acting in the service of communication, sharing data also has to be understood as a form of distribution. Human and nonhuman actors are involved in the dissemination of data, documents, photos, Web links, feelings, opinions, and news across space and time. Such an obvious point is worth making because it allows us to think beyond the dominant, morally inflected imperative to share or connect with others in a network through a confessional–communicative style toward circulation in a purely spatial sense (albeit one with ethicopolitical implications). It might be useful here to think about such a process as one of spatial differentiation—a term borrowed from economics and that refers to the uneven dispersal of resources, goods, and services. Differences in natural and human resources lead to inequitable access to inputs and outputs. I want to retain this inflection—of inequality, disparity—with the intention that it will open the way for a broader discussion of the politics or ethics of (data)veillance, distribution, and sharing, in the context of the state rather than private platforms.