Collaborative consumption should be understood, above all and beyond increases in efficiency in consumption, as an element of cultural change, as the experience of a possible world… which, however, is being decided upon and built somewhere else.
Let’s take an example. You and a neighbor work in the same business. He has a car, so he offers to share it, to go back and forth to work together. One fine day, you discover that another workmate also lives in your building. The extra cost from taking him is negligible. For all intents and purposes, zero. Additionally, you could go from three to four, and even from four to five, without the increase in people who enjoy the service meaning an increase in total costs.
What’s happened? We started with a situation where only one person was going to work by car and changed to another where everyone has as much as they want of the product “go to work by car,” and the cost of doing so has been zero. We have had a glimpse of abundance and discovered a simple, everyday example in which the marginal costs are zero.
But if we think about it carefully, what we have is really little more than a mirage. If another co-worker moves into the neighborhood, providing him with the service would mean buying a new car. If we write out the marginal costs, we would find that they are zero between one and five people, and rise—by the price of a car—by going to six; then they return to zero from six to seven and will continue on at zero until the eleventh person we want to carry, at which point we would have to buy another new car. And so it would continue indefinitely—between each multiple of five and the following, we’ll have a pretty significant marginal cost.
That is, if we think about growing, about providing for a community or a network of certain size, we cannot think for one moment that we are living in a world of zero marginal costs. And above all, though the ideas is functional for a small community, we are putting the focus on the mere optimization of the use of what already exists and taking it off of what abundance truly means: the development of the capacity to transform our setting to the point of being able to satisfy everyone’s needs.
The moral of the story
This is why collaborative consumption should be understood, above all, beyond the increases in efficiency in consumption, as an element of cultural change, as the limited experience of a possible world which, however, is begin decided on and is built somewhere else.
To look at sharing from the point of view of marginal costs also illuminates some dark corners of the community phenomenon. We know that one of the keys of the capacity for resistance and resilience of the community experience throughout history has been sustained by the ability to enjoy those “glimpses of abundance” continuously. We also know that even though the Dunbar number puts a total limit of 148 members on the size of a real human community, really existing communities tend to have “thresholds” in their growth, the so-called sub-Dunbar numbers (6, 12, 20, 30, 60, 80). Might the sub-Dunbar numbers be related to similar thresholds in our example?