Maximum Happy Imagination: What Rules Should Structure the Sharing Economy?

By Roosevelt Institute |

This week, the Roosevelt Institute’s Next American Economy project is releasing a series of thought briefs in which experts examine how the economy will change over the next 25 years. Read the introduction here.

“You have to be an optimist to believe in the Singularity,” she says, “and that’s harder than it seems. Have you ever played Maximum Happy Imagination?”

“Sounds like a Japanese game show.”

Kat straightens her shoulders. “Okay, we’re going to play. To start, imagine the future. The good future. No nuclear bombs. Pretend you’re a science fiction writer.”

Okay: “World government…no cancer…hover-boards.”

“Go further. What’s the good future after that?”

“Spaceships. Party on Mars.”

“Further.”

“Star Trek. Transporters. You can go anywhere.”

“Further.”

I pause a moment, then realize: “I can’t.”

Kat shakes her head. “It’s really hard. And that’s, what, a thousand years? What comes after that? What could possibly come after that? Imagination runs out. But it makes sense, right? We probably just imagine things based on what we already know, and we run out of analogies in the thirty-first century.”

—Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel (2012)

Besides the rote doomsday scenario, can you imagine what the world will look like in five years? Fifteen? What about 25? 2040 isn’t far off, but when it comes to thinking about work in a technologically advanced economy, it might as well be a millennium away.

Today we see a mixture of full-time, part-time, contingent, and undocumented work, each offering varying degrees of economic stability. With the rise of the “sharing economy,” work has become easier to find, but it has also become ever more precarious, underlining both the pros and the cons of independent contracting. We need to seriously consider the policy challenges posed by a modern economy and start working to address them.

When the Roosevelt Institute asked me to write about online, peer-to-peer marketplaces, they were the first to push me to imagine what the world would look like if all of my recommendations for worker support were implemented. Going back to Kat: If 2040 is where our imagination runs out, then we cannot wait 10 years to seriously consider the legal structures that surround work and the need for change.

In my thought brief, I play my own version of Maximum Happy Imagination: I recommend policy amendments to the independent contractor status, including a third worker classification in the liminal space between “employee” and “independent contractor”; I proffer policy ideas around data ownership and periodic collective bargaining over platforms’ Terms of Service; I recommend easing income penalties by reducing taxation on a certain percentage of peer economy income and considering providers as small businesses once they exceed that minimum; I also imagine the rise of creative financial products that help manage household income without extracting it.

The portrait I paint in this paper still doesn’t get beyond Kat’s 31st century, but I hope it provides a good starting point for some of the many necessary steps along the way. Maximum Happy Imagination opens up a world where we don’t only react to the things we dislike but take charge to build the world we want.

Denise Cheng is an Innovation Fellow with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation. 

The Roosevelt Institute brings together thousands of thinkers and doers—from emerging leaders in every state to Nobel laureate economists. We reimagine the rules that guide our social and economic realities. Follow us on Twitter @rooseveltinst and like us on Facebook.