All my friends love Uber for its convenience and it helps put freelancers to work who otherwise might not be able to find a more conventional profession. I like these things. But I won’t use Uber because I don’t think it is healthy. Too much is at stake, namely, the very concept of a “job.”
A small handful of technologists have profited immensely – the company is now worth $50 billion, more than the GNP of Costa Rica — from acting as an intermediary without bearing sufficient costs or risks associated with the service that is being provided. There are real assets – people’s cars – being deployed and depreciating in this service. There are real jobs being destroyed. And while customers may value the convenience of having a driver on call, what are the lasting costs: to the driver, to the community, and to buses and subways?
A similar problem exists for TaskRabbit, the site that allows you to summon a freelance handyperson to your house to mow the lawn, paint the eaves, trim the hedges or whatever else might need doing. I used and loved it. It was mundane stuff like refolding linen closets, packing away extra knick knacks, straightening bookshelves, tightening loose screws and knobs, and such. I was able to hire an energetic, enthusiastic, capable adult who was in between jobs and would have otherwise gone without wages at a wage that she set. We were both more productive. It was a one-time experience and for both of us a win-win. Or was it?
Labor scholars have long lamented the exploitative nature of “day labor,” which is common in communities with large numbers of migrants. Street corner haggling leads to laborers undercutting each other in attempts to secure the work. And in the virtual street corner of the Internet, workers tend to self-exploit.
We’re now entering an economy where concierge apps such as Shyp and Washio depersonalize routine services like going to the grocery store or doing laundry. Tasks once done by connected people in communities may now be done by bought-off strangers: the new workers in the service economy. While some have described them as “free agents,” others see them as a “precariat” — a whole class of workers clinging precariously to temporary jobs over the precipice of insolvency.
There are indisputable inefficiencies in the old system of overpriced taxis and infrequent buses. The demand-driven pricing of Uber suits everyone. And the taxi industry is hardly run by angels: I see how incumbent medallion owners exploit immigrant workers as well as desperate customers. Same for bus systems: entrenched bureaucracies burden transportation systems such that they can neither be profitable nor efficient.
But the actual number of high quality well-paying jobs that are created directly by these new apps are quite trivial. And the indirectly created independent contractor jobs epitomize “bad jobs” – low wages, no benefits, on-call, unstable and without opportunities for training or advancement.
We also must ask what is lost in this new app-enabled concierge economy? The necessary boundaries between work and life. The need to connect with neighbors and communities. The need for local social connectedness. The cohesion that comes from shared experiences – even if the shared experiences are parking lot traffic jams or long checkout lines.
Research suggests that workers in these unstable on-call jobs almost universally would prefer a better job with higher wages, benefits and predictable hours. Is the concierge economy only possible when there are armies of under- and unemployed workers? I can’t help but see a convenient synergy between the kinds of investments made by leading venture capital firms in robotics and the app-enabled concierge economy. Soon we may kill off that human factor entirely.
Technological utopians talk about creating better lives. But what if we are simply creating longer work hours for everyone and an army of low-status, low-hope jobs for those who really deserve better? I can’t shout back the digital sea, but for now, I can refuse to take Uber.
Diane Burton is a professor of human resource studies at Cornell University and a 2015 Public Voices Fellow of The Oped Project.17