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 "sherpas."
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."