"More than machinery, we need humanity."
With some quick movements, a little panache, and perhaps a few silly words a skilled illusionist can make a person appear out of nowhere and disappear again just as quickly. This performance may delight those who are fortunate to behold it, leading some to puzzle over the intricacies of how it was done whilst others sit back to await the next trick. Whether it’s all done with mirrors or careful misdirection – most people recognize that this vanishing act is not genuine magic. Indeed, it may be that the experience of watching people magically appear and disappear has actually become rather mundane for many individuals today. After all, the illusionist could simply be using an app that makes a person show up at one moment only to vanish at the next – and who knows, perhaps when the show is over and the audience has left, this momentary interloper will return with the illusionist’s laundry.
As long as a person is willing to pay for the convenience, it seems that there is no shortage of things that an app will summon somebody to do. Alcohol or groceries will be delivered, your package will be taken to the post office, a chauffeur will arrive, a quality meal will be delivered to your door, somebody will be waiting to park your car, and the list goes on. Thus an individual with the right apps can revel in leaving the service economy behind as they indulge in a new servant economy. With a few taps of a screen a person can steal the illusionists ability for making people appear and disappear and instead of spending years perfecting the conjurer’s craft all that they will need to do is to make sure that the credit card they have connected to the app is up to date. Yet, unlike the illusionist who likely has an actual relationship with the assistants being made to appear and disappear, a person need have no relationship with the legion of app summoned assistants. Indeed, the relationship is with the app not with the people actually doing the work.
Though a person may be able to download these apps wherever their Internet connection is suitably robust, the fact remains that many of these apps serve a rather limited area – generally large cities. It would be a genuinely magical thing if a person living in McMurdo Station could tap two buttons and have fresh flowers delivered or products from a local shop dropped at their door – but for now these apps tend to work best in urban areas where there seem to be large numbers of individuals with disposable income and a sizable precarious work force. Of course, there is a certain irony to the fact that these apps are thriving in the types of locations where shops are plentiful and public transit is serviceable – after all, many a large city is flush with pizzerias, laundry mats, florists, shops, post offices, restaurants, taxis, parking garages and all of the other things which these apps liberate people from having to deal with.
Yet it seems likely that what most people are aiming to really purchase through the use of these various on-demand services is a combination of time and liberation from the experience of seemingly mundane tasks. In fairness, waiting in line at the post office can be annoying, spending an afternoon at the laundromat can be hot and loud, cooking takes time, cleaning does as well, and there is no reason to stand in line in a store idly tapping at a smartphone when that same device could mean that one need not stand in line any longer. While it seems rather obvious that using these apps can save a person a fair bit of time, this only serves to raise another question: so what do people do with the time saved?
Admittedly, this is a purposely provocative question, and it is one that is easily dismissed of by those who say that people can use this extra time for creative pursuits, mentally focusing on specific tasks, or spending time with loved ones. And yet, to continue being deliberately contrary, might the time saved by these apps not simply wind up vanishing down the rabbit hole of social media and online shopping? Does an extra thirty minutes mean that an individual will finally learn to play the harpsichord or does it mean that person will simply stream an extra episode of a television show while they wait for the knock on the door telling them that whatever they have ordered has arrived? Individuals may feel that they do not have enough time to accomplish all of the things they need, and may eagerly pay for services that will give them some precious time back. Yet it is worth looking askance at claims that being freed from the inconvenience of standing in line will automatically enable a person to become a more actualized human being. The philosopher of speed Paul Virilio has noted:
“The problem is not to use technology but to realize that one is used by it.” (92)
and when it comes to the mass of apps for on-demand services it is worth mulling over Virilio’s observation. Much of the appeal of these apps consists in how easy they are to use, but the individual who uses the app is still used in term. On one level this is obvious as Internet connected individuals are (or should be) aware that the information they feed into apps is tracked and sold. Yet the way in which these apps make use of individuals may be simultaneously more subtle and more nefarious – these apps may wind up making individuals ever more reliant upon their devices and the apps these devices run, making individuals accustomed to always having a legion of eager servants at their beck and call. But the more troublesome thing that these apps (well, the people who run these apps) accomplish is in blurring distinctions between what technology is doing and what actual people are doing. Whereas Neil Postman – in one of his rules for new technology – cautioned people to be aware of the ways technology alters language, these apps are craftily shifting the way in which labor is discussed.
After all, apps do not really deliver items, give massages, park or drive cars, or prepare meals. True, there are certainly people hard at work on drones and other robots that will do such things, but that is a different ethical quagmire for a different time (though it should not be forgotten). What these apps actually do is connect a human being with another human being who (potentially in concert with still other human beings) actually performs the required tasks. An app may free the app’s user from sitting in a hot laundry all day – but there is still somebody working in a hot laundry folding their clothes. What these apps are so successful at doing is connecting people with disposable funds to large companies that command a large, and largely precarious, workforce of individuals who will act as chauffeurs, deliverers, or support staff. These companies have funny names, bright friendly logos, and large PR budgets that exhort people to free themselves from inconvenient tasks by letting the app take care of it. But, at risk of being repetitive, the app is not taking care of anything. Actual people are. Uber or Lyft may help you to book a ride, but the app does not take you where you need to go – a human driver still does that. And as the relationship is ultimately between an individual and the app – as opposed to the individual and the actual workers – one need not really wonder about the workers welfare after payment (maybe even with a nice tip) is made. Washio does not wash your clothes, Uber does not drive you anywhere, Sprig does not cook you a meal – human beings do all of those things, the apps are just the companies extracting the value from their labor and paying them a pittance in return.
The case may certainly be made – sadly – that the person standing in line at the post office or sitting in the laundromat may not particularly care about the welfare of the workers in those locations, and it is likely true that people think of those businesses in similarly depersonalized ways as the ways in which they think about apps. And yet it may be that enduring some momentary inconvenience allows one to recognize that the people on the other end of a transaction likely experience all of the same inconveniences. Coming face to face with another person is still a different experience than pointing your face down towards your screen. Being able to summon an army of plucky, smiling workers (who are aware that their service is being rated) to handle annoying and time consuming tasks may seem like a boon to many – as if one has learned the illusionists skill for making people appear and disappear – but as with the sleight of hand there is some skillful misdirection at work here.
For these apps rely as much on skillful illusion as the stage magician. And behind the curtain these apps are simply a new spin on an old trick wherein the gee-whiz excitement of technological convenience hides the labor being done by actual humans; all the while allowing people to believe that they have been able to purchase more time.
More time to do what?
Virlio, Paul and Lotringer, Sylvère. Pure War. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008.