IT’S FUNNY TO think that a broken gearbox could lead to a physics student folding T-shirts in my lounge room, but that’s the internet for you.
My addiction to outsourcing began when my car gave up the ghost in exactly the wrong place and I gave in to the temptation to hire a little help. But before I knew it, I was onto the hard stuff: rubbish removal, handyman jobs and eventually, to my shame, my clean-laundry pile.
In my defence, I’m busy. Aren’t we all? My particular brand of busy-ness is distinguished by its multiple fields of endeavour. I am not busy like a novelist deep in a manuscript, or like the mother of ten children, or like a researcher trawling the archives for the solution to a 100-year-old mystery, or like a trophy wife trying to keep herself nice, or like a property manager maintaining and collecting rent on a real-estate portfolio spread across the suburbs, or like an athlete training for a marathon; I am busy like a little of each, as well as being the executive assistant who co-ordinates all their schedules.
I write. I’m grinding away on a PhD. My kids are five and fifteen. I’m obsessive about exercise (due to a past brush with cancer, and to finding that exercise relieves the stress caused by my lack of time, even as it consumes it). I’m somehow still married after nearly twenty years of all this. I do a little Airbnb as my side hustle. I take the dog to the vet, and last week when she got cancer, I organised her final appointment and dug exactly half her grave. Every now and again, everything falls apart – either because it really does (as with the gearbox in my car, which died on a family holiday 200 kilometres from home, just, of course, as we were setting out for an expensive, unrefundable, long-scheduled event reachable only by car, an event my children had their hearts set on), or because I inconveniently lose my usual ability to look through the mess and undone tasks.
When things fall apart, more and more often I’m pulling out my phone and throwing money and bytes at the problem. I’m opening an app, posting an ad, sending an email: getting someone else to fix it.
In the case of the gearbox, after I somehow salvaged the day itself, we faced a six-hour drive two weeks later to retrieve the repaired car. First we’d have to drive back to the town where it died, then in convoy another 150 kilometres to my home town to return the car we’d borrowed from my brother, and finally back to Melbourne, all with a teenager and a preschooler in tow. The thought of it made me feel ill; then lightning struck: I could find someone to do it for me! I registered for a ‘gig economy’ app, Airtasker, described my situation, and put a price on it. Within a day, I found a professional driver who was willing to catch the train and a bus from Melbourne to Apollo Bay, then drive our car back home, for a price that seemed cheap given the alternative. The relief was like a drug.
A few weeks later, my office mates and I used the app to find someone to remove an unwanted desk as we scrambled to vacate our workspace. Then it was feeding our guinea pigs while we were on holiday, calling a restaurant in Japan to make a booking in the local language, and at last, after that trip to Japan, exhausted, desperate to get some sleep and maybe even have time to play with my kids, with my husband still overseas, I bought my way out of the chore of folding my own darn washing (an enormous post-travel pile that would have kept me up until midnight). The young man who arrived at my house to fold, vacuum and do a surprisingly good job of cleaning the windows was, he said, a physics student. He was just the sort of person that the gig economy is supposed to employ: a time-rich person swapping his free hours for some of my dollars. I might have been exploiting him, but he seemed pretty happy to be there, and the hourly rate for working in my warm, well-lit house was well over what the fast-food delivery companies pay their riders for humping hot-packs of pizza in the rain on dark, busy roads.
Airtasker hasn’t been my only fix: I’ve trawled Gumtree and eBay for tickets to shows that I forgot to book for, and treated the ‘free stuff’ categories as my own personal hard-rubbish disposal service. But it’s got to the point where the internet is the first thing I turn to when a problem pops up, and I wonder what that says about me and people like me.
IN THE CORROSION of Character (WW Norton, 1998), Richard Sennett writes that modern work management relies on ‘loose networks that are more open to decisive reinvention…the system is fragmented’. It’s this fragmentation that digital disruptors from Uber to Airbnb exploit: they take what was a coherent, complete service and break it down into raw units of labour. Taxi companies handle all aspects of personal transport; Uber just connects you with a driver. Sennett was writing in 1998, before the iPhone, but he notes how software allows a corporation to ‘see what all the cells in its institutional honeycomb are producing’ and edit them accordingly. Workers in the gig economy become mere bees in a virtual hive (more so, anyway, than corporate employees already are); for the user of the labour (the corporation, or me), the work becomes a commodity, lacking in texture or inherent value. Digital slicing, dicing and allocation of work extends the existing function of money in turning human labour into something to be bought.
As a worker, I never had much of a problem with this; I had a role to fill and I filled it, as long as I got paid. As a student in the 1980s I washed dishes, waited tables, made telephone survey calls. These days, I’m sure I’d be looking for dog-walking and cleaning gigs on Airtasker. When I became a journalist I (generally) wrote what my editors told me to write, with varying degrees of autonomy. I worked freelance for a while, so there’s nothing about ‘gigging’ for a living that I don’t get: the uncertainty, the need to fit the means to the end, and of course the battle to be paid. Now that I’ve become a buyer of labour, though, I wonder what it says about me as a person, parent and, I admit, housewife, if I reduce my daily chores to the status of a financial transaction. Does it make the rest of my domestic work simply a kind of self-employment: am I only cleaning and cooking for my family because I can’t afford to pay someone to do it? Then there’s the question of exploitation: are ‘gig’ platforms better because payment is often held in escrow to guarantee workers’ payments, or worse because the relentless competition drives rates down?
The gig economy may not be changing the face of work as much as we think it is. The Melbourne Institute’s Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia report examines how we spend our time, money and domestic resources. (The report is named HILDA for short, a name befitting a good reliable housekeeper, like Alice on the Brady Bunch.) The 2018 HILDA report suggests that despite the gigging boom, rates of self-employment aren’t rising overall: since 2005, the self-employed have constituted just below 9 per cent of all workers. Rather, the way the self-employed work is changing. In other words, sites like Airtasker and Gumtree are making it easier to find those self-employed people and get one of them to fix my dodgy fence. ‘Gig’ workers no longer need to put ads in the local paper, drop flyers, or hang out a shingle saying what they can do. The paradigm has shifted so that the hirer defines the task: anything I can describe as a list of tasks to be completed becomes a job. This doesn’t mean, though, that the workers themselves are winning. HILDA’s authors point out that fragmented piecework employment lacks security: ‘The prospects of “gig” workers growing their businesses thus seems remote given the nature of their dependence on the intermediary for access to end users.’ (That end user would be me.)
Airtasker is of course just one of many supposedly ‘new’ businesses cannibalising existing labour. Just as Uber Eats and Menulog do what restaurants’ in-house delivery systems used to do, but for a huge cut of the dollars, Airtasker connects those of us who are time-poor or skill-deficient (busy and/or incompetent) with willing workers, and charges a big chunk of the transaction’s value to do so. Depending on the size of the payout, Airtasker can take upwards of 20 per cent.[i] Airtasker sprang from its Australian founders’ need for someone to help them move house: a firmly non-digital task for which, being geeks, they found a digital solution. Within months of the site’s launch in 2012, journalists were writing articles headlined ‘Airtasker Lets You Outsource Your Entire Life’.[ii] Which, I suppose, would give ‘you’ more time to spend on social media. Since then, the site has grown to 2.5 million registered users and 35,000 tasks posted every week: house moving, domestic work, ‘handyman’ tasks and gardening top the task lists, along with marketing, administration and content writing.[iii]
Here’s another confession: I’ve never cheated on a test or essay or piece of writing in my life. Never made anything up in a story, or got someone else to write something for me, or smuggled a bit of paper with scientific formulae or keywords written on it into an exam. I guess I never understood why you would. The point of assessment, as I saw it, was to be assessed. If I failed, that told me I wasn’t cut out for it. (This is not to say I am free of all dishonesty ever; we all have small moments in our past that make us blush, but we all hope to be better.)
So why is it OK, when facing a pile of housework or a challenging piece of administrivia, or a sickening drive with whingeing children, to just opt out? It feels illicit – like I’m getting away with something – every time I cross something off my to-do list without actually doing it. Is it okay because life isn’t a test, but an exercise in survival? As I search for workarounds and shortcuts and life hacks in my day-to-day existence, I’m constantly judging the tasks: is this something I should do, or merely something I need done?
And as I stumble towards the bitter end of a PhD experience that hasn’t been all it could have been – for so many reasons, but partly because constant changes in supervisors and even departments have altered what I’m working on into a hybrid beast that suits everyone except myself – I’m almost tempted… I wonder if, for a thousand bucks, I could find some smart cookie worded up in Derrida and historiography to throw around the right buzzwords and quotes and make my draft a thing of academic beauty. After all, I think, this document isn’t really mine anymore. It’s something I need to submit to escape this maze of mirrors, and who cares how that happens, as long as it does? For the first time, I can see the logic of cheating.
WRITING THIS, I logged onto Airtasker as a guest and clicked ‘browse tasks’. The first and most recent task on the list was headlined: ‘Pass my maths test for my diploma course entry’. This was the task description:
My new course provider has an entry level maths test that requires passing before I can submit the last unit (as previously studied through another provider before they got shut down unexpectedly) of the current diploma. My skill set does not lie in this area and I require someone to help me achieve this. Should take about 10 minutes.
In the post, ‘Kristan K’ offers $20 for the job. Kristan doesn’t excuse the cheating. Rather, the post implies the unfairness of the situation – it’s not Kristan’s fault they have to sit this ridiculous test – and Kristan weasels out of mathematical shortcomings with words like ‘skill set’. Within minutes there are several offers, one from someone claiming to have a bachelor’s degree in actuarial studies and a diploma in financial planning. He’s literally in the profession that is supposed to help weed out fraud. I wonder: what’s Kristan studying for? And if you get one qualification with a $20 fraud, what’s the next step from there? The trend of gaining qualifications online makes it all too easy to do this kind of thing. You no longer have to front up in person, with all the security that provides, not to mention the extra moral hurdle to your cheating. It seems less real when it’s just pushing a few buttons on your screen in a café.
There’s a whiff of Protestant work ethic about my thinking, I know. I would never have considered trying to fix the broken gearbox myself, but the six-hour drive with the kids felt like it was my cross to bear. And I did grow up in a vaguely Protestant (Uniting, by then) church, but all I really recall from church as a child was the Christmas fete and the Sunday morning obligation to go to church itself. Once I was a teenager, I was excused from church; once I was a mother, it dawned on me that my own mother regularly stayed home on Sunday morning while Dad took the three of us away for a few hours. The house must have been so quiet for those hours.
Thinking about that now, I remember that a couple of years ago, my youngest child attended a brand-new childcare centre that used a booking app called KindyNow. I used to delight in showing people at parties how fast I could nab an extra day of childcare if some work came up; it took about fifteen seconds to secure a space. That’s not exactly advertising the care of my baby on Gumtree (there is a whole category on Gumtree for that) but nor is it the slow, reciprocal work of community-building that is, say, a babysitting club, getting to know the neighbours, or negotiating care with the extended family. Airtasker, KindyNow and their ilk haven’t invented the outsourcing of duties, but they’ve put them in our pockets.
In The Corrosion of Character, Richard Sennett defines ‘work ethic’ as the ability to use self-discipline to work towards a goal that requires delayed gratification. In modern terms: you need to suck up some pain to get where you’re going. The gig economy – the easy availability of qualified actuaries to sit your maths test for you – says otherwise. It promises that you can pay for things you used to have to work for, and skates over the question of whether that means those things are really yours.
Reading the job titles on these sites is like reading a collective to-do list: ‘Assemble new garden shed’; ‘Risk assessment for a photoshoot’; ‘How to speak English’; ‘Create commissioned graffiti art’; ‘Buy and deliver Coles shopping’. Most of it needs doing right now. Among the ads I notice: ‘Tow my Suzuki Swift 2 klms’. Broken gearbox, of course.
LAST WEEK, I hired a graphic designer somewhere in Australia – does it matter where? – to design a T-shirt for a friend’s birthday. It was a simple job, just whacking an image I knew she’d like onto a cheap garment, using an online printing site, but I’ve never been any good at crafty stuff, and I guess I felt intimidated by the prospect of figuring it out. But in retrospect, doing it myself might not only have been more personal, but would have forced me to learn new skills, to operate outside my comfort zone of words and domestic chores. Then, this week, a friend’s daughter came around to visit. I had a gift for her – a cheap flat-pack wheelbarrow to celebrate her new share house and the kitchen garden she’s planting. I hadn’t expected her to open it then and there, but she did, and along with my fifteen-year-old son (whom she used to babysit once a week – another complicated mix of love and paid labour), we spent a strangely enjoyable evening assembling the wheelbarrow, puzzling over odd-shaped metal rods and seemingly superfluous bolts and washers. Halfway through, she said: ‘If this next bit doesn’t work, I’m putting it on Airtasker.’ When we were done, I took a photo of her, beaming, holding the bars of the wheelbarrow we’d made together.
Another task I found on Airtasker was titled ‘I need organising’. ‘Max K’ of Elsternwick was offering $150 for ‘organising our clothes in our walk-in closet and our kids clothes’[iv] – that’s more than seven times what Kristan thought cheating on a maths test was worth. It was a title I could relate to: I need organising. Not my walk-in closet or even my kids’ clothes (though my non-walk-in closet and my kids’ clothes are a shambles), but my sense of priorities, my sense of what I can turn to the internet for and what is best done by my own hands in my own house.
This isn’t about becoming a modern cottager, weaving my own cloth or even growing all my own food. I just don’t want to become some sort of executive assistant to my own life: booking, scheduling, sending through payments and giving five-star reviews to people who are living my life for me. Still, the reality is that without those services, I might not have time to sleep, to think, even to write my own PhD.
The distinction between technology and the way it’s used is pertinent here. No one, after all, is forcing me to outsource my life. But the frictionless ease of the transaction that gets my washing folded offers no moment to pause and consider what it is I’m doing; these apps and websites imply that because it can be done this way, it should be so. Like any addiction, the urge to get a fix – literally a fix, in the case of the sagging latticework on my side fence – obscures the bigger picture.
In The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger denied that technology could ever be truly ‘neutral’. It was, he suggested, always a means to an end, and as such it represented, in fact sprang from, an instrumental view of the world. Considering things in terms of their usefulness (or otherwise) could very easily extend to humans, he suggested, and this view could prevent humans from perceiving themselves as they really are. (On transaction sites from Airtasker to Ebay to Airbnb, humans are already judged by their ratings from previous transactions: everyone wants to be ‘five star’.)
The question becomes: am I wise enough and, more importantly, strong enough to make the right choices, then carry them out? In a modern iteration of the Serenity Prayer, can I find the wisdom to know the difference between the things I should do myself and the things I can hand off to others? And for those things I should do myself, do I have the willpower to put in the time, the effort, the sheer muddling-through that is required by what the internet charmingly refers to as ‘real life’?
The executive function I need is not secretarial or organisational; it’s philosophical and experiential. Each time I make a choice about a task – whether to do it myself or pull out my phone and find a gigger to take it off my hands – I’m deciding how to spend my time. And how I spend my time, in the end, is who I am.
[iii] Airtasker statement, 15/11/18