Wealth Inequality and the Human API
“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.”
- Jean-Jaques Rousseau, The Social Contract.
If you dwell in (or on) modern Silicon Valley, you’re likely aware of a rising trend. In the past few years, we’ve seen the launch and success of multiple services designed to commoditize human labour. From the “Get anything done” of TaskRabbit to the “Executive assistants” of Exec; the “Help you find anything” of Zaarly and “Everyone’s private driver” from Uber - we’re using mobile technology to create a new class of jobs.
I grew up in a large, brick house built in Birmingham, U.K. during the heyday of the Victorian era. It was built to house members of the growing middle classes - people who moved up to fill a new segment of society neither buoyed by independent wealth nor anchored by grinding poverty. It now housed my family - comfortably middle-class, brought up from humbler roots by the free higher education of a bygone era.
The house had been stripped and renovated multiple times, not always with historical preservation in mind. Some of the original features were gone. Under the floorboards, however, remained one vestige of what made this the Nineteenth Century equivalent of a “Smart Home”. A series of thin metal wires, riding on pivots and pulleys, wrapped their way around the building like a system of nerves. Like tributaries of a river, individual wires begun in the various rooms of the house and made their way, gradually converging, to their nexus in the downstairs entrance hall.
Many years ago, at the top of the high-ceilinged hall hung a rectangular wooden plaque. At regular intervals along the plaque, there was a bell, attached to the end of a spiral spring. One wire terminated at each bell. The other end of each wire was attached to a pull-handle in one of the rooms. The inhabitants of these rooms had merely to tug on said handle to cause the corresponding bell to ring, the signal passed through the building by mechanical force. The ring of a bell would send servants rushing forth to the indicated parlour, ready to assist.
As a teenager, I lived in the converted attic of the house - what had been the old servants’ quarters. Despite modern insulation and central heating, it was freezing cold in winter, scorching hot in summer. I’d sometimes lie there and shiver and think of the people who lay there before me.
So; America. The land of opportunity, where hard work and dedication can take the poorest refugee as far up the social ladder as they are willing to go. We’re entering a new phase of the modern economy - where mass availability of credit has been swept off the table and reality has begun to set in.
The backdrop of a global recession seems a strange one for this new crop of businesses. Despite the first faltering of growth in personal disposable income in recent history, there’s somehow a growing market for what might a few decades ago have seemed extravagant application of human labour - but may have seemed familiar to inhabitants of the Nineteenth Century
This graph of wage and salary disbursements by industry offers a hint. Since the 1980s, salary disbursements in the service industries have vastly outstripped those in industries that represent the traditional US core - the manufacturing and distribution of consumer goods. This has led to the greatest wealth imbalance since the “Gilded Age” - the tailwind of the Victorian era.
This chart shows the share of the richest 10% of the US population in total income. That middle segment - rapidly reduced inequality, caused in part by a world war and in part by FDR’s New Deal - represents something highly significant. Those are the golden years of America; the time your parents look fondly back to, where Man stood on the Moon, the poor became comfortable and nobody locked their doors.
Leaving rosy-tinted views aside - this is the era that gave black citizens equal rights, that let women into the workplace, that opened doors to the acceptance of minorities of race, religion and sexuality. The powers of the atom and electron were unleashed; science and education brought new hope to millions. It’s the era that made American freedom the dream of the world and brought immigrants flocking to her doors. These four decades are what put the flutter in your Fourth of July flag.
Those days are over, now. With rocketing unemployment, mountainous debt and a growing sense of unrest, inequality has returned with a vengeance. However, like everything else in America, it brings with it new opportunity.
The Human API
As the clock creeps forward, we’re witnessing the rise of products and services which commoditize and automate human labour. A step beyond the outsourcing of factory and call-center jobs, individuals are empowered to take others temporarily into their employ. ZipCar splits the cost of a car across many thrifty urbanites; Exec does the same for what amounts to a manservant.
Most of us grew up with the myth of the Robot. Asimov’s intelligent, capable and generally obedient artificial humanoids, who promised an era of prosperity and relaxation for all. Robots would take care of mundane tasks and leave human minds to higher purposes - study, relaxation and scientific progress.
Like many, this dream proved tough to realize. AI research stalled; the power of the Atom proved harder to control. Robots entered society, but in hideous, claw-armed form; built for a single task and hidden away in distant factories. The dream of an automated household was far beyond reach.
In Britain, a welfare state with a high minimum wage, a ‘carwash’ is a cuboid structure of metal and glass. You drive your car in, turn the stereo up and wait. Robotic brushes descend from the ceiling, spraying water and soap and sloughing off dirt. You emerge, minutes later, conspicuously fresh and new.
In Southern California, carwashes look much the same. You drive your car in, sit down and wait. Yet, there’s one crucial difference. Rather than robots, your windows are buffed by immigrant labour.
These new labour markets are much the same. We wanted automated help for household tasks. We craved AI assistants who would help with our homework. Enjoyment and prosperity for all! We put our heads together and built dishwashers, vacuums and Google - but they’re cheap substitutes, less than what was promised.
So, in lieu of real Robots, we built them out of flesh.
New Modern Ethics
We’re witnessing the rebirth of an industry. Domestic servants have existed across the world since time immemorial, but the Twentieth Century saw vast reduction in their use. Either few of us were wealthy enough to pay for them or too few of us felt the need to work in that way, but Do-It-Yourself became king.
It’s possible that a culture that rejected domestic service would fare worse than ours in a recession. If the rich are free to pay others to do what they won’t do themselves, there’ll be more jobs available in times of imbalance. What’s more, services like Exec and Uber aren’t exclusive to the very rich - they’re available to all, at the tap of a button.
Most of us, products of the reign of the middle classes, have barely been exposed to this kind of social relationship. Having other humans at our beck and call - wrapped in the glossy anonymity of an iPhone app - is new, exciting and full of potential. Likewise, the ability to trade your time on an open market is an attractive proposition. Like any new capability, there are many hidden implications. I’ll list just a few.
Social mobility - or the dream of it - is what made America great. When everybody dreams they can be anybody, innovation and entrepreneurship flourishes. Is this dream compatible with widespread domestic service? Traditional middle-class jobs involve a perceived career path; through hard work, you can improve your quality of life. Did this ever really exist? Could a life of performing menial tasks for those who can afford to employ you damage your vertical mobility, keeping you trapped at a lower socioeconomic level?
Like the heroic powers of pop-culture and legend, the ability to command human labour comes with great responsibility. I opened this essay with a quotation from Rousseau. It suggests that the ability to perceive oneself as the master of another is what makes one subject to slavery. If we accept that anyone else can live in a state of servitude, we accept that we ourselves may do so - and our acceptance of that is what kept us locked in the strict social strata of the pre-Modern era.
As we get used to the new powers available to us, might we fall back into an earlier rhythm, becoming more comfortable with the servitude of ourselves and others? Although they live a life of luxury, we do not tolerate from our leaders such excesses permitted of the monarchs and autocrats of old. If attitudes shift and wealth continues to unequally accumulate, how long before this starts to change?
In the full span of human history, it is likely that a million Einsteins have perished in the churn of poverty. We believe our society to facilitate the rise of those with special intelligence or skill. We tell ourselves that those who rule us do so because they have proven themselves worthy.
For centuries, people have dreamed of a world where we are freed by automation to achieve our full potential - the ability to explore, learn, enjoy and imagine without the boundaries imposed by our physical nature. Is it right for some to achieve this at the cost of others? Can we shift the burden of inanity onto those born less privileged without paying a fundamental price? Will a society based on these mechanics provide enduring stability, productivity and quality of life?
It’s unclear where all this leads. It’s currently a fledgling trend in Silicon Valley. It may grow, it may die; it may blossom into a new global industry. My bet is on the latter, and I hope it may do so with fairness and dignity.
It is tempting to think that since the Victorian era, our understanding and empathy for one another have made great strides. I’d hope that those who employ others to help oil the cogs of their lives can do so with humility and grace; a drive to make the most of their time for creativity and innovation rather than the pursuit of decadence. I hope that working conditions remain fair, and these new kinds of jobs can restore the stepping-stone to success that has been torn out for so many.
Realistically, we’re entering an era of renewed divides - where one moderately wealthy family may command a staff of many people. The tensions and ignorance that such situations breed may be a peril to us all.
After a large and messy party, we had a few of our friends chip in a couple of dollars. I’d been waiting for an excuse to try out Exec. Tapping a few buttons, I called someone out to help us with cleaning. He arrived in twenty minutes, smartly uniformed and friendly. The same age as me. Standing in the kitchen, there were beer bottles everywhere and the floor was unpleasantly sticky. Feeling awkward and imposing, I helped clean the apartment while my friends sat and watched TV.
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