The Cost of Convenience
Andrew Callaway on Service Work in an App-Driven Universe
By Jonah Hall
recently spent parts of two days (precious days off from teaching high school students) listening to the three-part series "Instaserfs" from Benjamen Walker's Theory of Everything podcast. While I went on mid-morning dog walks and Trader Joe's (smoked trout!) runs, I listened to Andrew Callaway's stories of working for Lyft, Instacart, Postmates, and Washio. “Instaserfs” focuses on Callahan's experience in the “sharing economy,” also known as “the 1099” economy, the “gig economy,” or, as Benjamen Walker calls it, “the demand economy” or “the exploitation economy.”
I worked for TaskRabbit in 2011 and 2012. For a few years, I regularly cleaned an apartment and did laundry for a place in the Mission my friend rented on AirBnB. One of the first things I noticed when entering an apartment with my cleaning supplies was that I was glad to be having the experience of having to completely humble myself and drag a vacuum and a bucket up the stairs and into the apartment of a group of young guys probably a year or two out of college. Of course, I wasn't doing it for years. I was dipping my toes into that world.
I chatted with Callaway about his month of sharing-economy work, the political ramifications of convenience, and the value of bathing (metaphorically) in the reality of public transport.
Jonah Hall: Are any of your friends in the tech industry?
Andrew Callaway: Yes, not most of them, but yeah, of course I have friends in the tech industry. If I think about where my bread and butter comes from—I pretty much work in the tech industry. I make videos for apps all the time. I do still participate in the "tech industry," even if I'm not a coder.
Hall: Did they listen to "Instaserfs?"
Callaway: As far as I know, none of the real "techies" that I know have listened.
Hall: Do you think the majority of young tech workers often have such a single-minded focus in their programming jobs that they take on a subconscious level of compartmentalization in their personal lives, which keeps those nasty things we call emotions from slipping in?
Callaway: I think that there are a lot of people working in the tech industry who see what they are doing as unambiguously good. I think a lot of what that has to do with is equating convenience as the be-all, end-all. I don't know that a more convenient life is necessarily a better life. I think there's a hyper-capitalist attitude that results in an "Every man for himself" way of seeing things which adds to the compartmentalization. How about this: most of the people who are doing well in the tech world are very hard workers, who perhaps have certain advantages over other people who are very hard workers. It seems to me like it's easy to assume that if you work hard and as a result make lots of money that other people who aren't making lots of money simply aren't willing to work hard! I'm trying to be as forgiving to the tech workers as I can simply because MOST of them are actually very nice people. Even talking to them in my car as I drove them around I could tell that most of them were very nice—but they also clearly had more respect for me once I told them I was working Lyft for a podcast and wasn't "just" a Lyft driver. I even found myself wanting to tell them that I was working on a podcast in order to feel like more of an equal to them.
Hall: I wonder if the slightly shameful feelings related to laundry being done for them is related to the fact their mothers probably did their laundry for them as recently as five-to-ten years ago? Not to mention the intimacy of having someone touch your underwear…
Callaway: I think it's just so obviously a luxury. Uber and Lyft are very socially acceptable. Washio is still new, so the idea of getting your laundry washed by the sharing economy isn't as common yet. But the whole sharing economy definitely ties into the whole man-child, have-a-mommy-forever idea. You can get people to buy your groceries, bring you food, clean up your messes, drive you around, and wash your clothes. All of that is stuff your mother would probably be doing for you as a child. I think with the laundry in particular, you're saying "My time is too valuable to waste doing my laundry!" but then being face-to-face with the person who's time isn't more valuable is more awkward than with Lyft or Uber where it's not necessarily a "My time is too valuable for this bullshit" idea, but where there are more justifications.
Hall: When I worked for TaskRabbit, one memorable job was driving nearly two hours north to Rohnert Park, near Santa Rosa, just to get three tubs of a specific flavor of frozen yogurt for a young Asian woman who lived in Nob Hill. She spent $70 for $18 worth of frozen yogurt. I made $58 for three hours of hassle-free driving.
One of my best experiences was driving a blind woman and her guide dog to Pet Camp (a pet-boarding facility in Bayview) and then to SFO. She was flying somewhere for work early in the morning. It was a surreal feeling driving home that winter morning as the sun came up. We ended up using Pet Camp for our own dogs. They take pictures of your dog running around and playing, which always comforts us when we're away.
What were some of your best experiences?
Callaway: Smoking pot with those tourists from Episode 1 was great. Those guys were awesome and it was really fun hanging out with them. A lot of my experiences driving for Lyft were really fun. There was a German tech bro who had just moved here and was totally amazed by San Francisco, and he made me laugh a lot. It's really great when your work is appreciated.
Hall: What was your employment history before you took on this new experiment in the "gig/on-demand/free-agent/exploitation" economy?
Callaway: For the past five years I've been a freelance filmmaker, doing film and video jobs wherever I could. That's the main reason I was so familiar with the independent contractor lifestyle.
Hall: Where did you grow up? Was there a moment you remember knowing you wanted to leave?
Callaway: I grew up in San Francisco! And I've wanted to leave for a while, but I just haven't found the right opportunity yet. Last year I left San Francisco for Berkeley, but that's just because the rent in SF was way too insane to keep paying.
Hall: What kinds of jobs did your parents have? Did they seem to enjoy those jobs? Tolerate them? Hate them?
Callaway: Both of my parents were Landscape Architects. My father truly loved his job more than anything, probably, and I've felt that way about film for a long time, too.
Hall: For me, one of the most important aspects of your podcast series was how much misinformation is out there. Most of these start-ups are 99% consumer-focused, and hearing about the lack of communication with the workers, the financial burden placed on the drivers, and the lack of awareness about how Uber and Lyft operate is more than troubling. I teach high school students and I've heard students talk about Uber allowing them to lease a car, but they don't know anything about 27% interest rate loans. These issues are real and will get worse without regulation.
Can you talk about the rating system and how it impacts Lyft and Uber?
Callaway: Well, the rating situation is fucked up because if your average rating falls below 4.7 out of 5 stars, you are removed from the platform—fired. As a result, the passengers have all the control. The rating system is essential to the sharing economy’s ability to function because the companies aren’t legally allowed to train their independent contractors like they would employees. They test workers in the field and drop those who get low ratings, which passengers can give for any reason. The venture capitalists at the end of episode 1 told me they didn’t like drivers who had a hard time with English.
Defenders of the sharing economy often tell me that they’ve talked to a driver who loves it! Many drivers do, but consider that, as a passenger, you’re going to be rating your interview subject—and that anything under 5 stars will bring the driver one step closer to getting kicked off the platform. That can have some major implications as far as how honest drivers are when their passengers ask about how much they like it. Depressing workers don’t get high ratings. Nobody wants to feel guilty about using an app they like, so you end up with drivers who are scared of their passengers. Drivers that aren't super charming or aren't native English speakers will often need to bribe their passengers to ensure that they can stay on the platform.
Hall: What are some of your biggest fears about work?
Callaway: As a freelancer, I'm just scared that the clients will dry up one day. Growing up in San Francisco, I've always seen homeless people on the streets and I've always been terrified that I would become one. I've always had a soft spot for the homeless just because I feel like it really could happen to any of us and I would hope that the people in my community would have empathy for me if I ended up there—instead of disdain.
Hall: Any other insights you feel like you've taken away from this experience?
Callaway: I feel like convenience is not our friend. I specifically try to avoid things that are "too easy" now because they're not rewarding. I'm trying to be as self-sufficient as I can be. I've always been a good tipper but I'm doubling down on that. Don't tip based on the value of the service provided but on the effort required to provide the service, if that makes sense. I guess the final thing is that it's hard out there for everybody. Whether you're an Uber driver or a programmer or whatever, we're all just trying to make it out in this world and we've got to have as much empathy for each other as we can. Nobody is the enemy. Well, except for Donald Trump.
Hall: Nothing to do with general work, but with your short film, "People Running for the Bus in Slow Motion." A straight up compliment: I love it. Hilarious and universal (especially to those of us who have taken a bus recently). I'm guessing some of those people were strangers, yes? It relates to the podcasts, because it emphasizes the universality of needing to make the damn bus, something that Uber and Lyft users probably haven't done in a while.
What worries me is that a certain class of person just doesn't want to take the bus because they don't like being around people outside of their social strata. Which I think is a very ugly point of view. I think there are a lot of people, though, who just are seduced by the convenience...which is fine and good, but you're missing out on a great part of living in San Francisco if you never take the buses. You’re missing out on how vibrant the community is, how many different kinds of people (even today!) still live there. Sure, there might be a smelly homeless person or whatever, but: Welcome to the city! It’s part of where you live and I think it's better to suffer through that kind of thing every once in a while than to completely isolate yourself in Ubers and Lyfts! Life's a risk, man. Live a little. Bathe (metaphorically) in the reality of your city in the public transport.
Jonah Hall writes about the NBA and many other things at www.darkoindex.com. You can follow him on Twitter @darkoindex.