The Shut-In Economy

This is a pretty good article about how far things have developed in the new online service economy, how much further they may go, and how it breaks down according to class (as the tagline says, “In the new world of on-demand everything, you’re either pampered, isolated royalty — or you’re a 21st century servant”).

As with so many other developments with modern affluence, I’m fascinated that the promised benefits are so clearly just the opposite of what is actually delivered—and yet no one seems to notice.

So here’s the big question. What does she, or you, or any of us do with all this time we’re buying? Binge on Netflix shows? Go for a run? Van Ekert’s answer: “It’s more to dedicate more time to working.”

The very pursuit of what’s promised not only distances you ever further from the goal, but increases your hunger to reach the goal. Doesn’t this sound like the punishments meted out in Dante’s Inferno?

Alfred, maybe, is the inevitable end point of this system. It’s an on-demand assistant that coordinates all the other on-demand apps for you, and it’s aimed at two groups: people who want the benefits of various apps but don’t want to bother setting them all up, and the “air traffic controllers,” who already have so many services coming to relieve their burden that coordinating them has become a new burden all of its own.

With Alfred, you no longer have to open the door for the Instacart delivery: A worker comes into your apartment and stocks food in your fridge. You don’t hand off your dirty undies to a Washio messenger; Alfred puts the laundered undies in the drawer. This all happens by paying your Alfred $99 a month, plus the goods and services at reduced cost through Alfred’s hookups. Alfred won first place in the TechCrunch Disrupt SF conference last year.

One heavy consumer of these services observes:

“I have a strong work ethic and worked 24–7 in college and went to school at night, so I know how to get things done. You have to outsource things that someone else can do for cheaper. To save an hour a day, I would spend $25.” In one hour of chore time saved, Mallon estimates she can make $1,000 for her company.

I’m sure Mallon’s company appreciates the gesture. But in giving up that hour of doing chores herself, does she end up forfeiting more in value than her company returns to her? If they’re rewarding her with money, well, at the logical end point of this the only place she’ll know to spend money is on buying more hours … but to what purpose?

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6 thoughts on “The Shut-In Economy

  1. It seems that what our algorithms have bought is a society that measures everything by numbers, or by experiences that these numbers can buy, rather than by any measure of genuine peace made possible by a sense of restraint or gratitude. What I say sounds abstract, but that’s only because giving concrete examples would require a post of its own. They are plenty, and Mallon is one.

  2. Hmm. I’m suspicious of this as a synecdoche for how most people experience these things nowadyas or probably in future. I’m guessing that most consumers do not buy every service they could and are not buying services to coordinate other services. Also, the article seems very hostile to the notion of having household help, which is questionable historically (it was very common before the beginning of the twentieth century for households to have household help of some kind). A further point not articulated here, and one reason for the consumption of certain kinds of services (in my experience) is the (perhaps overly) sophisticated, complicated nature of many services we buy. In actuality, even though I try to keep my life complexity low, it would be hard for me to be an informed consumer of many of the things I consume. It’s my impression that one thing these services try to do for their consumers is to cut down complexities.

    When I was professor I did a lot of outsourcing (although not on this extreme scale); I had a cleaning service; I paid a graduate student to run campus errands for me and do secretarial and administrative tasks; I was a regular consumer of restaurant food (even though I love to cook, so that was a serious sacrifice); and had clothes washed. I would say I used most of time I gained to sleep (probably two thirds) and the other third would have been divided between work and entertainment. I knew a lot of people in similar situations. The problem was that the amount of work demanded at work could not be completed in the hours available. It would have been great if they would have hired more people to spread the work out; however, in the years that I worked in higher education, the public’s willingness to fund educational labor decreased noticeably and measurably year by year.

  3. It seems that what our algorithms have bought is a society that measures everything by numbers, or by experiences that these numbers can buy, rather than by any measure of genuine peace made possible by a sense of restraint or gratitude.

    Laura,

    Agreed, except that I’d suggest that our algorithms have only increased the potential (vastly) to do the measuring. The temptation to measure has always been there—and the consequences, as David found out when he counted his army!

    We mostly don’t have to participate, and those time we do we can at least go in with our eyes wide open.

  4. I would say I used most of time I gained to sleep (probably two thirds) and the other third would have been divided between work and entertainment.

    Servetus,

    My only worry (about such a situation, not about how you handled yours) is that people these days find themselves under great pressure to buy some of their time back—how did the seller end up owning so much of it?

    The problem was that the amount of work demanded at work could not be completed in the hours available. It would have been great if they would have hired more people to spread the work out; however, in the years that I worked in higher education, the public’s willingness to fund educational labor decreased noticeably and measurably year by year.

    You might enjoy reading David Graeber on this topic. (Graeber is the fellow who convinced me that the anarchist perspective was not only plausible but respectable.) I just finished his book The Utopia of Rules, three long essays in the “secret history” mode which look at how people are asked to expend their efforts, and why. In one place he writes:

    The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led all parties to adopt language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world. While this might have helped somewhat in speeding up the creation of immediately marketable products— as this is what corporate bureaucracies are designed to do— in terms of fostering original research, the results have been catastrophic.

    Here I can speak from experience. My own knowledge comes largely from universities, both in the United States and the UK. In both countries, the last thirty years have seen a veritable explosion of the proportion of working hours spent on administrative paperwork, at the expense of pretty much everything else. In my own university, for instance, we have not only more administrative staff than faculty, but the faculty, too, are expected to spend at least as much time on administrative responsibilities as on teaching and research combined. This is more or less par for the course for universities worldwide. The explosion of paperwork, in turn, is a direct result of the introduction of corporate management techniques, which are always justified as ways of increasing efficiency, by introducing competition at every level. What these management techniques invariably end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell each other things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of our students’ job and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors, institutes, conference workshops, and universities themselves, which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors. Marketing and PR thus come to engulf every aspect of university life.

    The result is a sea of documents about the fostering of “imagination” and “creativity,” set in an environment that might as well have been designed to strangle any actual manifestations of imagination and creativity in the cradle.

  5. Another good example of Graeber’s thinking on this is his short essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. He writes:

    Why did Keynes’ promised utopia – still being eagerly awaited in the ‘60s – never materialise? The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ‘20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.

    So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be).

    But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

    These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

  6. This (administrative creep) is really true in universities, because of the accountability movement. In my last job, the legislature passed an accountability measure that was surely well meant — although I was never sure that there was an actual problem in that area. The university had to hire three people to bookkeep it and ensure compliance. That meant 1.3 faculty could not be hired. But we could account for where every single piece of paper on that particular task was at all times.

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