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<nettime> Sherpas and Sahibs in the Sharing Economy
Don Anderson on Fri, 6 Nov 2015 04:06:46 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Sherpas and Sahibs in the Sharing Economy

   Here is another in a growing number of critiques of the corporate
   "sharing" economy:


         Share like a Sherpa: Class Inequality in the "Sharing" Economy

     By Anthony Kalamar

     The "sharing economy" evokes an image of free, socially-minded
     exchange among friends and equals. Yet, it is increasingly clear
     that much of what goes by this name today is dependent on, and
     exacerbates, social inequality. In truth, the sharing economy is
     divided into two classes: Sherpas and Sahibs.

     Last year, controversy erupted over the alleged gentrification
     of Burning Man by Silicon Valley tech money; among the wealthy
     elite's crimes against the Burner ethos was the use of hired help
     for many of the less agreeable aspects of the Black Rock lifestyle:
     setting up and taking down camps; preparing and serving food and
     drinks. Often experienced burners themselves, these workers were
     paid not just to make life easier for the noob-leet; but to help
     them pick properly unique and self-expressing outfits, to show them
     around Black Rock City, to get them safely back to camp after
     over-indulging, and, overall, to create and share an experience for
     their wealthy employers to enjoy.

     Sort of like a hired friend or mentor. They came to be called

     The sherpa phenomenon led to controversy because it is so clearly in
     contrast to Burning Man's shared ethic of self-reliance, radical
     inclusion, and decommodification. Yet Black Rock City is not the
     only place where the values of "friendship" and "sharing" are
     invoked to obscure underlying relations of inequality.

     The real Sherpas (with a capital S), are, of course, an ethnic group
     in Nepal, not a job category. But uses of the word similar to the
     meaning used at Burning Man can be found in tech culture ("network
     sherpas" and "web sherpas") and gaming ("game sherpas") and beyond.
     In the "sharing economy," it is represented by SherpaShare, a
     platform that provides statistical support for drivers for Uber,
     Lyft, and similar services.

     Part of the significance of the growing use of the word "sherpa" in
     the sharing economy is that it communicates that these workers, like
     the real Sherpas, do more than physical work; importantly, they are
     affective laborers who create and share in experiences for the
     on-demand enjoyment of others. As George Orwell said, language is
     "an instrument which we shape for our own purposes." "Sherpa" is a
     word that names a category, a kind of worker, who can then find an
     identity and a common interest with each other. Where the word
     "sharing" has been used to cover-up the underpaid, precarious
     situation of these workers, "sherpa," in response, can be used to
     clarify and make visible.

     The next step is to determine: what to call those who the
     sharing-sherpas work for? That should be easy; just turn to the
     history of the original Sherpas, and extend the metaphor an
     additional step: sherpas work for sahibs.

     The real Sherpas live in the vicinity of Mount Everest. Many of them
     make their income by working for extreme tourists--wealthy "job
     creators" who make seasonal treks from the richer nations of the
     world to climb the famous peaks of the Himalayas, probably for the
     purpose of self-discovery or some similar El Dorado. The Sherpas'
     job is the sharing of knowledge and experience; it requires the
     development of trust, and an intimately shared experience in the
     face of the thrill and the danger of the ascent. Helping their
     wealthy clientele reach the summit, Sherpas risk injury, extreme
     cold, and often death; it must be like working in a coal mine where
     the product is adventure.

     For decades, the Sherpas addressed their mountaineering employers as
     "sahibs," which means "master," a word dating from the British
     Empire. They stopped using this word in the 1970s, as part of a
     movement to attain greater respect from their employers; but
     anthropologist Sherry Ortner, who studied the Sherpas, decided to
     keep using the term "sahib" to mark the enduring ethnic and class
     distinction between Sherpas and their employers. As she writes,
     the word "sahib"

     "places the sahibs in the same frame as the Sherpas, a single
     category of people being subjected to ethnographic scrutiny. And...
     though I do not accept the implication of superiority embodied in
     the term (which is of course why the Sherpas stopped using it), I do
     not think it is possible to avoid the (ongoing) fact of sahibs'
     power over the Sherpas on expeditions; my continuing, somewhat
     ironic, use of the term signals this continuing fact."

     The sharing economy needs just such a term, to place those who
     benefit from the cheap affective labor of the sherpas "in the same
     frame" and subjected to the same scrutiny as the sharing sherpas
     themselves. Recognizing the two classes of the sharing
     economy--sherpas and sahibs--means recognizing the built-in
     inequality, the continuing complicity of consumers in the
     exploitation of precarious workers, that is the real engine of the
     so-called "sharing economy."

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