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A Boring Technical Detail Regarding the Sharing Economy

October 5, 2013

How, one might ask, would the sharing economy* actually work, from the point of view of a customer walking into a store to obtain an item? How, exactly, would it be determined whether the customer is in a sharing economy with the producer of the item, in which case the product is free for the taking (or rationed equitably by some means democratically determined), or if the producer and the customer are not in the same sharing economy, in which case the customer would be out of luck (although possibly able to barter something for the item)?

I can imagine it happening this way. (If computers are not available as they are today, then read in this footnote** how a low-tech method might work.) People in a sharing economy get an identification card, like a person's driver's license today, with an identification (ID) number. The item in the store (or the service being offered) has attached to it the ID number of a sharing economy that produced the item, or will provide the service, much like a price is attached to these things today.

The customer's ID is inserted into a device (much like the way our credit or debit cards are inserted into a device when we use them to shop today) which is connected to a large database, and the store clerk also scans or types in the ID of the product's sharing economy. The database is searched to see if there is a sharing economy that includes both the customer and the producer of the item, or not. This search returns a simple yes or no answer. If the answer is yes, then the customer can take the product or receive the service for free (or have a chance to obtain it for free if it is so scarce that it is equitably rationed according to need.) If the anwer is no, then the customer can only obtain the product or service by offering (to the sharing economy that produced the product or provides the service) something in exchange for it, i.e., by bartering for it.

How feasible is this, technically speaking, in terms of how large a database would be required?

I think it is very feasible, because of the following considerations.

1. Let's assume that there are 30 billion people (much more than the current 7 billion.)

2. Let's define direct and indirect membership in a sharing economy this way: If one is a member of sharing economy A, and A is a member of sharing economy B, and one belongs to B only because of one's membership in A, then one's membership in B is indirect because it is based on one's membership in A. In contrast, one's membership in A is direct if it does not depend upon membership in some other sharing economy. Most people would probably only have direct membership in one sharing economy, although it would be possible for a person to directly belong to more than one sharing economy.

3. Let's assume that everybody is a direct member of ten sharing economies (a wild overestimate in all likelihood.)

4. Let's assume that there are 4 billion sharing economies all together, many of which are smaller ones that are members of larger ones. Here's why this is probably an overestimate. If a sharing economy has, on average, at least ten members (where members may be individual human beings, or smaller sharing economies) then there would be at most four billion sharing economies (of any size). This is evident if one considers that 30 billion people forming 10-person sharing economies would result in 3 billion (3,000,000,000) sharing economies. If each of these joined nine others like them to make sharing economies each consisting of ten smaller sharing economies, then there would be 300,000,000 of them. And if each of these joined 9 others like them to make larger sharing economies, then there would be 30,000,000 of them. At the next similar step there would be 3,000,000, and then 300,000 and then 30,000 and then 3,000, then 300, then 30 and then 3. Add these all together and one gets 3,333,333,333 which is less than 4 billion sharing economies in total.

How large, then, would the database have to be to have in it all the sharing economies that every individual human being and every individual sharing economy are direct members of? And would this size be large or small compared to datasets that are routinely used today?

First, let's estimate the size of the dataset in terms of "petabytes," which are the units used to measure the size of huge datasets used by Google and such organizations.

Think of the database as having rows and columns. Say there is a row for every human being and also an additional row for every sharing economy (no matter how big or small). There would be 30 billion rows for the human beings and another 4 billion (likely less) rows for the sharing economies, for a total of 34 billion rows.

In each row, there will need to be ten IDs for the ten sharing economies that the person (or sharing economy) represented by that row is a direct member of. This means there would need to be 34 billion times 10 or 340 billion ID numbers in the data base.

In order for each ID to be distinct, they would require 12 digits. So the total number of digits would be 340 billion times 12 or 4080 billion, or 4.08 trillion digits. Each digit requires one computer "byte" so the data base would require 4.08 trillion bytes, or about 4 terabytes. A "petabyte" is a thousand terabytes, so 4 terabytes is 0.004 petabytes.

So, is 0.004 petabytes large or small in the realm of computers today? The answer is, very small. One can see just how small by going here to see listed the number of petabytes various organizations routinely use today. The game World of Warcraft uses 1.3 petabytes. Google, for example, processes 24 (versus our 0.004) petabytes per day--that's six thousand times the size needed to store all the sharing economy data. Facebook has a single "HDFS cluster" with more than 100 petabytes. IBM has a storage array that stores 120 petabytes. The CERN search for the Higgs Boson used 200 petabytes. A supercomputer by Cray, called Blue Waters Supercomputer began being constructed in 2012 and it will have a capacity of 500 petabytes, dwarfing what a global sharing economy computer would ever require 100,000 fold!

A computer with the sharing economy database (which could be located in many computers operated by many different people around the world) could say whether a customer was in the same sharing economy as the producer of a product (or provider of a service) by simply using the database to create a list of all the sharing economies that the customer directly belonged to plus all of the sharing economies those belonged to, etc.; then it would likewise create a list of all the sharing economies that the sharing economy of the item belonged to. Then it would see if any sharing economy in the one list was also in the other, and if so the customer and the producer of the item are members of a common sharing economy and the price to the customer is free; otherwise the customer is out of luck.

If there were ever just one huge global sharing economy, a computer would not be necessary at all. People's IDs would only need to say "member of the sharing economy" or "not member" and the product would need an ID that said if the producer was or wasn't a member, and if and only if both were members the price would be free.

The main point here is that even in the unlikely case that the relationship between sharing economies (i.e., which smaller one is a member of which larger one) is very complex, it would still be easy for people to shop much as they do today, using an ID card to enable a store clerk to know whether the product or service was free to them or not. The advantages of being a member of as large a sharing economy as possible would be very evident to all. Those in only very small sharing economies (i.e., not even an indirect member of a large one) or in no sharing economy at all, would have no guarantee they could acquire products and services and their only hope would be if they found a producer of the desired product or provider of the desired service who was willing to barter it for something that unfortunate customer had to offer. Everybody who was willing to contribute reasonably to the economy would have every reason in the world for promoting the trust and solidarity that would enable small sharing economies to merge into larger and larger ones.



* As discussed in detail in "Thinking about Revolution" and "What Replaces the 'Free Market' in a Sharing Economy?"

** If computers are not available, here's a low-tech way of determining if an individual or organization is a member in good standing of a given sharing economy. Each sharing economy could create new membership cards periodically (monthly perhaps) and distribute them to each member in good standing (in most cases by providing the cards to the economic enterprises for them in turn to give them to its workers.) These membership cards would, like money currency today, be hard to counterfeit (and illegal to counterfeit, of course), would identify the sharing economy that issued it, and would have its expiration date on it. A person or organization would simply present their membership card to receive for free a product or service provided by their sharing economy.

To make the cards useless for anybody who stole one, the policy could be for the rightful person to sign the card when he/she first receives it. Then when the owner of the card wants to prove to the person working at a store that he/she is the true owner all he/she needs to do is demonstrate that he/she can write an essentially identical signature on a piece of paper. This is how traveller's checks worked before the days of internationally acceptable credit cards.

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