First Published in the Huffington Post 06/16/2015 5:40 pm EDT
In the third century BC there were few things in the world more valuable than books. The “books” of those days were actually handwritten papyrus scrolls and only the highly affluent had access to them. This was before the invention of parchment and subsequently paper. It was long before the development of the printing press. The Internet, Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Indigo had yet to be conceived of.
Enter the Library of Alexandria. As Alexander the Great consolidated his control of the ancient world, he tasked Ptolemny Lagides (one of his leading generals) with “collecting all the worlds’ knowledge” and then sharing it with scholars, royalty, and wealthy bibliophiles throughout the world. At its peak, the library of Alexandria contained over 400,000 manuscripts.
The word worth noting here is “sharing.” Books were handwritten, exceptionally valuable, and the only way for even the wealthy to have access to them was to share them. Many other scarce and valuable things were shared in the same era. Grape or olive growers would share the presses used to make wine or olive oil. Farmers or villagers shared grist mills and communal baking ovens for bread making. Communities shared responsibility for day-to-day activities such as hunting, raising children or tending herds of domestic animals.
Sharing was the backbone of humanity for much of history. It enabled scarce resources to be utilized efficiently, minimized waste, and very often represented the moral and social backbone of a community. Even when new technologies such as the printing press enabled scarce resources to be more easily replicated, sharing vehicles like libraries continued to flourish.
Then came the industrial revolution.
Beginning around 1760, mankind learned how to replace human labour with machines and alternative power sources such as water, steam or electricity. From textile production to manufacturing to transportation to agriculture, virtually every aspect of human life was transformed. Economies and populations soared and the standard of living for the average citizen began to increase substantially for the first time in history. The industrial revolution and the technologies that enabled it were building blocks for our modern global economy.
One side effect of the industrial revolution? The decline of sharing. The unbridled growth enabled by the industrial revolution created a world where more things were available to more people globally than ever before. In most cases this was a very good thing and economists applauded. An economy that delivered reasonably priced food, clothing, accommodation, transportation, education and entertainment was in our best interest.
However, there were by-products of this industrial economy. The process of making and delivering some of these new products sometimes had negative environmental, social and economic side effects. In addition, large quantities of the products we purchase are either not needed or seldom used. The average car is parked 95 per cent of the time. Both college students and seniors have accommodations they use for only a portion of the year before they head home for the summer or to warmer climes for the winter. The average power drill is used for 15 minutes over the course of its lifetime. We laughingly say “whoever dies with the most toys wins,” but unused products don’t really make us happier.
And so we arrive at today’s sharing economy.
If your car sits idle 95 per cent of the time, perhaps you could sell it and use Zipcar on the odd occasion when you do need to drive. Alternatively, you could keep the car and become one of the hundreds of thousands of people who have signed up to be Uber X drivers to provide additional cost effective transportation while supplementing their income.
If your home or apartment is going unused occasionally, Airbnb can bring in some additional income for you while providing reasonably priced accommodation for someone else.
If you have available time and the appropriate skills, use JobBliss to connect to employers who need those services and are prepared to pay a reasonable price to access them.
If you have a drill you never use donate it to the Tool Library, and if you occasionally need a screwdriver or router or 3D printer, borrow it from the same place for the low price of an annual membership.
The modern sharing economy gives us the best of both worlds. When we have occasional need for products or services that we value, we can access them when we need them. They’re less expensive, less wasteful, environmentally sound and increasingly available.
And one more thing. If you found this post to be thoughtful, then go ahead and share it. Alexander the Great would have.