Recently, together with Jeanette Hofmann, I have been discussing a research proposal on sharing cultures. In this context, we were asking ourselves whether the notion of “sharing” has shifted in the digital realm. Sharing knowledge is different from sharing a cake. George Bernard Shaw is ascribed the following quote, illustrating this difference:

“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”

This leads to the conventional wisdom that sharing immaterial goods is different from material goods. In the digital age, more and more goods can be easily shared in form of perfect copies. And even when the economic value of a digital good might depreciate if it is shared freely, sharing can at the same time generate indirect returns (for examples see Anderson 2009). Consequently, authors such as Lawrence Lessig paint the picture of a “hybrid” or “sharing economy“, which they deem to be beneficial for all parties involved. Prerequisite for such a sharing economy to work is a sharing culture, which includes practices such as giving attribution or using open formats and licenses.

This made me think of other examples of mutually beneficial sharing practices outside the digital realm. Are there instances of sharing material goods that are also beneficial for all parties involved? What came to my mind is the practice of profit sharing between capital and labor (for a classic economic article on this issue, see Weitzman 1985). In the period between WWII and the 1980s, wages rose with productivity; productivity gains were shared between capital and labor. In a way, the prerequisite for this profit sharing had also been a sharing culture in industrial relations. And this sharing culture began to erode since the 1980s, as has recently been demonstrated by Berkeley’s Robert Reich with an impressive graph in the New York Times:

Interestingly, even the top fifth did not profit from ending the previous profit sharing regime. In a nutshell, mutually beneficial sharing practices might far from being restricted to the digital sphere. And a return to historic sharing practices and cultures might be a way out of current economic turmoil.