Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> The Shut-In Economy
David Mandl on Fri, 27 Mar 2015 04:10:30 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> The Shut-In Economy

Living the dream: avoiding contact with other people, being able to work every minute of the day.



The Shut-In Economy
By Lauren Smiley

Angel the concierge stands behind a lobby desk at a luxe apartment
building in downtown San Francisco, and describes the residents of
this imperial, 37-story tower. "Ubers, Squares, a few Twitters," she
says. "A lot of work-from-homers."

And by late afternoon on a Tuesday, they're striding into the lobby at
a just-get-me-home-goddammit clip, some with laptop bags slung over
their shoulders, others carrying swank leather satchels. At the same
time a second, temporary population streams into the building: the
app-based meal delivery people hoisting thermal carrier bags and
sacks. Green means Sprig. A huge M means Munchery. Down in the
basement, Amazon Prime delivery people check in packages with the
porter. The Instacart groceries are plunked straight into a walk-in

This is a familiar scene. Five months ago I moved into a spartan
apartment a few blocks away, where dozens of startups and thousands of
tech workers live. Outside my building there's always a phalanx of
befuddled delivery guys who seem relieved when you walk out, so they
can get in. Inside, the place is stuffed with the goodies they bring:
Amazon Prime boxes sitting outside doors, evidence of the tangible,
quotidian needs that are being serviced by the web. The humans who
live there, though, I mostly never see. And even when I do, there
seems to be a tacit agreement among residents to not talk to one
another. I floated a few "hi's" in the elevator when I first moved in,
but in return I got the monosyllabic, no-eye-contact mumble. It was
clear: Lady, this is not that kind of building.

Back in the elevator in the 37-story tower, the messengers do talk,
one tells me. They end up asking each other which apps they work for:
Postmates. Seamless. EAT24. GrubHub. Safeway.com. A woman hauling two
Whole Foods sacks reads the concierge an apartment number off her
smartphone, along with the resident's directions: "Please deliver to
my door."

"They have a nice kitchen up there," Angel says. The apartments rent
for as much as $5,000 a month for a one-bedroom. "But so much, so much
food comes in. Between 4 and 8 o'clock, they're on fire."

I start to walk toward home. En route, I pass an EAT24 ad on a bus
stop shelter, and a little further down the street, a Dungeons &
Dragonsâtype dude opens the locked lobby door of yet another glass-box
residential building for a Sprig deliveryman:



"Sweet," Dungeons & Dragons says, grabbing the bag of food. The door
clanks behind him.

And that's when I realized: the on-demand world isn't about sharing at
all. It's about being served. This is an economy of shut-ins.

In 1998, Carnegie Mellon researchers warned that the internet could
make us into hermits. They released a study monitoring the social
behavior of 169 people making their first forays online. The
web-surfers started talking less with family and friends, and grew
more isolated and depressed. "We were surprised to find that what is a
social technology has such anti-social consequences," said one of the
researchers at the time. "And these are the same people who, when
asked, describe the Internet as a positive thing."

We're now deep into the bombastic buildout of the on-demand economyâ
with investment in the apps, platforms and services surging
exponentially. Right now Americans buy nearly eight percent of all
their retail goods online, though that seems a wild underestimate in
the most congested, wired, time-strapped urban centers.

Many services promote themselves as life-expanding--there to free up
your time so you can spend it connecting with the people you care
about, not standing at the post office with strangers. Rinse's ad
shows a couple chilling at a park, their laundry being washed by
someone, somewhere beyond the picture's frame. But plenty of the
delivery companies are brutally honest that, actually, they never want
you to leave home at all.

GrubHub's advertising banks on us secretly never wanting to talk to a
human again: "Everything great about eating, combined with everything
great about not talking to people." DoorDash, another food delivery
service, goes for the all-caps, batshit extreme:


Katherine van Ekert isn't a shut-in, exactly, but there are only two
things she ever has to run errands for any more: trash bags and saline
solution. For those, she must leave her San Francisco apartment and
walk two blocks to the drug store, "so woe is my life," she tells
me. (She realizes her dry humor about #firstworldproblems may not
translate, and clarifies later: "Honestly, this is all tongue in
cheek. We're not spoiled brats.") Everything else is done by app. Her
husband's office contracts with Washio. Groceries come from
Instacart. "I live on Amazon," she says, buying everything from curry
leaves to a jogging suit for her dog, complete with hoodie.

She's so partial to these services, in fact, that she's running one of
her own: A veterinarian by trade, she's a co-founder of VetPronto,
which sends an on-call vet to your house. It's one of a half-dozen
on-demand services in the current batch at Y Combinator, the startup
factory, including a marijuana delivery app called Meadow ("You laugh,
but they're going to be rich," she says). She took a look at her
current clients--they skew late 20s to late 30s, and work in
high-paying jobs: "The kinds of people who use a lot of on demand
services and hang out on Yelp a lot :-)"

Basically, people a lot like herself. That's the common wisdom: the
apps are created by the urban young for the needs of urban young. The
potential of delivery with a swipe of the finger is exciting for van
Ekert, who grew up without such services in Sydney and recently
arrived in wired San Francisco. "I'm just milking this city for all
it's worth," she says. "I was talking to my father on Skype the other
day. He asked, 'Don't you miss a casual stroll to the shop?'
Everything we do now is time-limited, and you do everything with
intention. There's not time to stroll anywhere."

Suddenly, for people like van Ekert, the end of chores is here. After
hours, you're free from dirty laundry and dishes. (TaskRabbit's ad
rolls by me on a bus: "Buy yourself time--literally.")

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."

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.

Shutting people out is an important part of being a shut-in: When
signing up, customers can choose the option of not seeing their
Alfred, who will come in when they're at work. Alfred's messaging is
aimed at sweeping aside any middle-class shame.

"We're trying to remove the taboo and the guilt that you should have
to do it," says Alfred's CEO Marcela Sapone over the phone. "We're
empowering you to let others do it for you. You're the manager of your
life. It's against the stigma of 'People use this because they're
lazy.' Absolutely not. They're using this because they're extremely

She's talking about people like Christina Mallon, whom the Alfred
folks put me in contact with. Mallon is a 26-year-old in New York City
who works as a branding sales consultant to tech companies, regularly
working from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Unlike the Silicon Valley tech campuses
she works with, Mallon has no worksite cafeteria, so she uses food
delivery apps for lunch and dinner. Her old West Village building has
limited hot water, she says, so she gets her hair blown out three days
a week using Vive, a subscription hairdresser service, for $100 a

When Mallon gets back to her apartment at night for about a precious
hour of free time before heading to bed (her boyfriend, who works in
private equity, doesn't make it home until 1 a.m.) Alfred has handled
the rest. Gluten-free groceries from Whole Foods in the cupboards, her
laundry hung, her packages picked up, others delivered, her bed made,
her kitchen table tidied--and a note asking what she needs for next

But the three hours she estimates Alfred saves her each week also buys
her time to get out âshe no longer has to wait at home on Saturdays
waiting for TaskRabbits or FreshDirect groceries to appear.

"My mom and dad worked a lot, so we grew up on fast food and had a
cleaner come once every two weeks," Mallon says. "I had to do my bed
every morning and everything had to be clean. No allowance. 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. Tech companies have long realized that if you hook up
your employees with everything on site, they'll work longer, more
industrious hours. And if apps deliver that same to the home,
corporations keep benefiting. Employees can work even more
undistracted hours remotely or buy even more on-demand services (like
that Netflix binge). The perfect cycle of productivity and consumption
is createdâ and all without ever having to step outside.

In many ways, social class can be defined by the chores you don't
do. The rich have personal assistants, butlers, cooks, drivers. The
middle class largely do their own errands--with the occasional
babysitter, pizza boy, maybe a cleaner. The poor do their own chores,
and the chores of other people.

Then came on-demand's disruptive influence. The luxuries usually
afforded to one-percenters now stretch to the urban upper-middle
class, or so the technology industry cheers. But can you democratize
the province of the rich without getting a new class acting, well,
entitled? My parents made me put away the dishes not to "outsource"
their workload--they could have done it faster. They did it so I
wouldn't turn out to be a brat.

Now an entire generation is not just being served: It's having to work
out what it means when you buy someone to do it for you.

Katy Rogers is a 29-year-old account director at a social startup, and
a regular with laundry and grocery apps. But when the Homejoy app maid
shows up at her apartment, she feels uncomfortable. The class
implications of someone cleaning her toilet are jarring. "I feel like
it's a little bit awkward. I'm thinking, what do these people think of
me?" She also wonders about the workers. Rogers wishes the companies
were a bit more transparent about the payment structure. ("Some of
them say there's no need to tip. I'm like why? How much are they
actually going to earn?")

While Dungeon & Dragons grabbed his dinner eagerly, Rogers has found
herself tinkering with how exactly to interact with her hired help. By
the end of our chat, it seemed as if she had almost talked herself out
of the whole enterprise."Maybe that's something I should just do

Who cleaned her house growing up? I ask.

"My mom did everything."

That's the other side of this, the gender one. The errands being
served up by the on-demand economy--cooking, cleaning, laundry,
groceries, runs to the post office--all were all once, and in many
places still are, the jobs of stay-at-home mothers. Even now, when
women outnumber men in the formal workplace, they continue to bear the
brunt of that invisible domestic work, often for many, many hours a
week. So women--those who can afford it, at least--have the most to
win from passing that load on to somebody else.

So it's not a surprise that 60 percent of Alfred's clients are
female. One mother I know told me she has no time to cook while
wrangling two kids under two, so she uses EAT24. Uber is an easy way
to get out of the house with an infant, another told me, saying the
driver helped her strap the baby seat into the black sedan.

The invisible work handed off by some women simply becomes
visible--oftentimes for other, less wealthy women. Despite the name,
75 percent of "Alfreds" are women.

Last year the venture capital firm SherpaVentures--whose offices are
just down the street from that apartment building full of Ubers and
Squares and Twittersâ released a sunny study on the future of our
on-demand world. They have a stake in making it go big , of course:
they're seed investors in Shyp and Munchery and have $154 million to
invest in on-demand businesses. As the desire for more instant,
app-based services expands up the economic chain, the report argued,
entrepreneurial freelancers--everyone from grocery deliverers to
cleaners to accountants to lawyers--will have flexibility to monetize
their time when they want to and pursue their
passions. Brick-and-mortar stores die out, and so do their low-wage
retail jobs, which it suggested would personalize the world, away from
the sterile anonymity of big-box stores to a "21st-century village
economy," in which we're "united" by cellphones.

So who are we uniting with in this scenario?

Some workers in the on-demand economy are hourly employees with
benefits. Many others prefer an army of free-roving freelancers. Uber
released a study purporting that the drivers (or "partners") are happy
with this: more than 70 percent of its drivers preferred setting their
own hours over a traditional job. Other drivers dissent on this point,
filing lawsuits.

In the stream of delivery workers coming into the 37-story apartment
fortress next to Uber HQ was TaNica, a Sprig contractor. She had been
out of the work force for three years when she started with the
app. "This is a job I need, but I actually love," she says. She likes
driving around--she works every day and tries to get in 50 hours a
week, at $16 an hour. Not all the workers were so happy, though. The
Google Express contractor in my lobby told me she'd earned a college
degree in criminology and hopes to find a job in her field. Another
bicycle messenger showed me in his phone's settings how the app could
track him at all hours, which he found Orwellian. He talked for a few
minutes about how he's just doing this part-time between creative
gigs, and hoped to get out soon. Before we finished talking, his app
flashed a message: "Let's move!" and he pushed off.

The SherpaVentures report didn't mention shut-ins. It did, however,
point out that grocery delivery has taken off massively in hyper-dense
developing countries, where huge income disparities allow
upper-middle-class citizens to turn the rest of the workforce into
their personal delivery network. In Mexico City, the study noted, 20
percent of grocery orders are made remotely.

As income inequality increases, the shut-in model is tailor-made for
the new polarized extremes.

After all, either you're behind the door, receiving your dinner in the
tower. Or you're like the food delivery guy who, while checking in
with the concierge, said, "This is my dream place to live." He's the
opposite of a shut-in. He's stuck outside, hustling.


Dave Mandl
dmandl {AT} panix.com
davem {AT} wfmu.org
Web: http://dmandl.tumblr.com/
Twitter:  {AT} dmandl
Instagram: dmandl

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mx.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} kein.org