Our washing machine is broken. Or, at least, the pipe it drains into is. Despite all my attempts to fix it, crawling around on my belly with a pipe wrench and a plumber's snake, all I have to show is a broken PVC pipe, a minor chemical burn, and a mountain of laundry that our family of four has piled up. So last night, I put in an order with Washio, an on-demand laundry service. And this morning, an extremely nice and highly professional woman showed up at our door, promptly at 7 a.m., took away our laundry, and left us with a chocolate pastry from a bakery in Oakland.
It was amazing, and I feel conflicted about it.
It's the same kind of feeling I have whenever I take an Uber, or Lyft, or use Instacart to pick up groceries, rather than going myself. I found myself apologizing to the woman who picked up our laundry. "Our washing machine is broken," I explained. "Well that's good business for us," she countered. And it's true, I guess. Why wouldn't she be happy to have work? A job is a job when you need one.
And yet my guilt stems not from whatever her own personal experience is as much as it does the remaking of the great American economy into a vast labor market of contract workers — the 1099 economy — whose days are dictated by the whims of mobile software and whose job security is often determined by the numerical star rankings of a capricious and harried market.
I spent a decade freelancing, a 1099 contractor, and it was fantastic. I had a freedom most people could only dream of. There was no boss to answer to other than myself. I made decent money too, not initially, but I hustled and worked hard and made it. The American way.
Of course, I had my wife, a nurse, to lean on financially during the lean times, and my parents to fall back on failing that. Thanks to a year-to-year magazine contract, I even had the luxury of a steady paycheck during much of that time. But I banked almost no money for my retirement during those years, even when times were fat. And as soon as our first child was born, you'd better believe I went out and got a motherfucking 9-to-5. One that would make sure I had a safety net if I were suddenly unable to work. One that came with a modicum of security in case of unforeseen unemployment, and health benefits, and even life insurance — because we are all going to die. You are going to die.
And the person who drives your Uber will die. And the person who brings your groceries from Instacart will die. And the person from Homejoy who cleans your home is going to die. And the person who shows up in a TaskRabbit T-shirt and hangs your TV and assembles the Ikea bed that's been sitting in a box in your garage for the past three months is going to die. Or maybe get hurt and leave the workforce. Or maybe the startup they work for will fail, as startups often do.
How are we, as a society, going to deal with that? Going to deal with them? What will it mean if we completely remake our workforce of laborers into contractors without the myriad benefits we associate with full-time employment? Who ultimately benefits when they don't?
Obviously the companies who employ (or, don't employ) contractors benefit. So too do their payment processors. Even the consumer does. That's certain. Here in San Francisco, where a corrupt and broken taxi system has long failed us, it's hard not to love Lyft and Uber's amazing degree of efficiency, both in how well they work and how little they cost, comparatively.
Yet the most ruthlessly efficient (and pleasurable!) delivery mechanisms are not always the ones that are best for us over time. Heroin, injected intravenously, is amazing. But it's probably better for most of us to take a Tylenol 3 for our pain. Yes, we can all be connected via apps and services now, but first, we are all connected as a society.
There are forces at work to put the brakes on all this. Current lawsuits in San Francisco, for example, seek to have Uber and Lyft drivers reclassified as employees. Because there are rules about who is a contractor, and who is not. We are a nation of law, and the law is not something arbitrary, given to us by God or kings, but rather it is something we have agreed upon, and that we can remake. Laws can be rewritten. And often it is the wealthy and powerful who write them. David Plouffe wasn't hired for his insight into complex dispatch systems.
Washio charges $1.60 per pound for wash-and-fold laundry. The wash-and-fold a few blocks away costs $1.25 for the same. The machines at a nearby laundry are $2 to wash and another $2 to dry, and I estimate it would take me about three hours all told to get our great heaping mass of laundry washed, dried, and folded up into piles sorted by size and function. When you factor in our children and our jobs and the pipe repair awaiting me in my basement, the extra cost I'm paying to have someone come get it and do it for me seems negligible. It seems like a bargain. The devil always does.
Mat Honan is the San Francisco bureau chief for BuzzFeed News. Formerly a senior staff writer at Wired, he has been writing about the technology industry and its impact on society for nearly 20 years.
Contact Mat Honan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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