Ill at Ease

The app-enabled economy sells a fantasy of frictionlessness at a human cost

As an amateur ethnographer of Silicon Valley storytelling, I’ve spent more time than is probably healthy on YouTube watching advertisements for every conceivable product and service. Regardless of the thing being sold, these ads tend to model a vision of seamless living, and provide an aesthetic and affective framework to match. A survey of videos from companies like Postmates, Uber, Stitch Fix, and Amazon finds a set of stories where the customer is the protagonist, and their quest — getting to their child’s graduation on time, finding an outfit for a big date — presents the narrative core. The logistics of the product or service disappear into the background, and this absence amplifies and deepens the personal stories of the users: with less time spent on minutiae, our characters can spend more time on everything else.

Domestic and reproductive labor are still very much the realm of human beings

Along with foregrounding their stories, these advertisements also literally center the customer: their faces are positioned in the center of the frame, and the camera follows their journey. Many of the ads highlight a sense of tactile coziness — our characters inhabit a world that’s soft and warm and sun dappled, often with diffuse or glowing light sources visible in the background. Along with smooth, shiny devices, and sleek, seamless service, this forms a unified aesthetic of frictionlessness: cozy, unencumbered by clutter, and free of dis-ease.

A frictionless life is the tacit promise of many of the last decade’s most “disruptive” technologies, companies, and services. From startups that promise to get your apartment scrubbed and tidy without having to set eyes on a cleaner or negotiate a tip, to clothes subscription services that send you perfectly fitted garments you didn’t even know you wanted, the app-enabled economy thrives by selling a vision of effortlessness and ease for users. The reality, though, is considerably different.

Narratives about the horror and difficulty of daily life’s indignities abound in the personal blogs of tech founders, coupled with speculations about how these frictions could be problem-solved out of existence. The ur-text of this genre might be a 2015 blog post by Rob Rhinehart, inventor of Soylent, writing about how he simplified not only his diet, but the entirety of his daily life. Rhinehart’s blog went offline in April 2017, shortly before Soylent began its Series B financing round, but it’s still available on the Wayback Machine:

First, I never cook. I am all for self reliance but repeating the same labor over and over for the sake of existence is the realm of robots … I have not set foot in a grocery store in years. Nevermore will I bumble through endless confusing aisles like a pack-donkey searching for feed while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils…I buy my staple food online like a civilized person.

He goes on to describe how he streamlines every aspect of his life — from rejecting car ownership in exchange for Uber and public transit to eschewing laundry by ordering regular shipments of near-disposable clothes direct from a wholesaler — and ends the piece with this:

The first space colonies will have no coal power plants. I am ready. For now though, as I am driven through the gleaming city, my hunger peacefully at bay, I have visions of the parking lots and grocery stores replaced by parks and community centers, power plants retrofitted as museums and galleries. Traffic and trash and pollution will evaporate, if only we are willing to adapt some routines.

What stands out here is the hysterical affective contrast between the horrifying description of grocery stores, kitchens, and retail shopping, and the vision of a smooth ride through the gleaming city, fed and watered by technology, safe from the traumas of reproductive labor that he would otherwise have to perform. Rhinehart’s utopian imaginings are interleaved with self-aware asides and practical advice on how to run your entire minimalist apartment off one solar panel, but the underlying drive is towards a stripping back of the chaff of life through relentless outsourcing.

Rhinehart’s rhetoric is knowingly extreme, but entirely genuine. While the desire for a life unencumbered by solid food may not be universal, most of us have wished for a break from the complexity and hassle of keeping ourselves alive and functioning in a world of long work hours, increasing precarity, and environmental breakdown. A scaled back version of Rhinehart’s gleaming city is presented to the rest of us through ads for Amazon and Uber and Postmates, in a series of prosaic fantasies that make frictionless convenience appear as something we all deserve.

A similar tone permeates other personal blogs by tech folks, including that of Y Combinator’s Sam Altman and Venmo co-founder Andrew Kortina, whose recent blog post describes the challenges of procuring a toothbrush with a similar horror. “Why are there so many choices but not the one I want? How am I spending over five minutes picking out toothbrushes?… The utter meaninglessness of this moment consumed my entire consciousness, and I just stood there, eyes widening with terror, or despair.” This quixotic hero’s journey is described in a fairly lighthearted and self-aware tone, but the “terror, or despair” seems genuine. This existential horror when faced with inefficiency and excess seems to be one of the motivating forces behind the technologies that promise to simplify our lives.

The stories laid out in these blog posts evince a longing for a sexy seamless world where there’s only one toothbrush, it gets delivered directly to your door, and it’s really, really cool. “In a world where technology can deliver the ride you need within five minutes wherever you are in the world,” says Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick, “just imagine all the other goods and services that you could one day get delivered quickly, safely, with just the single touch of a button.”

Ex Facebook VP Sam Lessin calls this hankering for a technologically-enhanced frictionless world  “FOMO for the future.” Lessin doesn’t elaborate on the specifics of this future, but his utopic vision board likely shares characteristics with Rhinehart’s description of a world of convenience, efficiency, cool shit, and clearly demarcated opportunities for leisure and self-improvement. This is a compelling design fiction, and it contributes to a sense of manifest destiny for entrepreneurs, so that “working backwards from a far-off tech utopia,” as Tech Crunch puts it, becomes the mandate for any ambitious startup. Soylent, Uber, and the rest of the convenience economy provide a set of hacks for sloughing off the frictive granularity of daily life, leaving more time and space for visionary world building or, more prosaically, for work — why waste time at the supermarket when you have a future to build?

This of course is only one vision of the future — from Ursula Le Guin to the Zapatistas, many other versions have been written, often involving a complete rearrangement of economic systems or social relations. Work toward these futures would require a different set of tactics, technologies, and economic arrangements in which frictionlessness may not be the defining logic. For the tech set, the imagined future likely involves a continuation of economic arrangements and systems of capital accumulation: a sleeker, more efficient version of today’s capitalism that sweeps away its consequences as a matter of design. Frictionlessness becomes both a moral imperative of manifest tech-destiny and an aesthetic framework for reverse-engineering a cool future.

Despite Rhinehart’s cri de coeur about “the domain of robots,” domestic and reproductive labor are still very much the realm of human beings. As many critics have pointed out, AI and automation are currently limited in their ability to replace human labor with unattended machine labor. “Frictionless” interfaces may mean that you don’t have to lay eyes on the person cleaning your house or delivering your groceries, but it’s still humans doing the job. In her essay “The Automation Charade,” Astra Taylor coined the term “fauxtomation” for “automation” that either relies on sneakily transferring tasks to customers — as with a self-check grocery aisle — or hiding labor, like with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. With fauxtomation, “work has not disappeared…  but the person doing the work has changed.”

In most of the smooth fantasies I’ve looked at, automation (if there is any) is only a small part of what’s really going on. Instead, the “innovation” is to make the friction occur somewhere else, out of sight of the customer: disappearance as a different kind of magic. In this way, the cozy narratives and ease of use encourage the displacement of difficulty, stress, waste, trash, and trauma, onto other people and places. This displacement takes place at two major geographic scales: the regional, and the global and hugely distributed.

The displacements of friction that take place at a local and regional level are perhaps easiest to comprehend, and many excellent critiques of the gig economy and rent-seeking platforms tend to focus on immediate geographic effects that “disrupt” cities and workers. The idea that “frictionless” services invisibilize labor might seem counterintuitive to those of us who live in cities where every second car is an Uber and every second shopper is doing an Instacart run. But the ability to avoid extended interactions or ongoing relationships with service providers allows consumers to opt out of a reckoning with their class position, and the technological intermediary means that the negotiations and responsibilities that come with hiring a full-time housekeeper or personal assistant are outsourced to the app, letting customers remain cheerfully helpless about the minimal rights and poor wages that the workers are afforded.

The cozy narratives and ease of use encourage the displacement of difficulty, stress, waste, trash, and trauma, onto other people and places

When you zoom further out, you find enormous global networks of extraction, logistics, manufacture, and transportation, along with sites of disposal, salvage, and waste. These networks are necessary to fuel the just-in-time manufacturing and seamless delivery of goods required for a frictionless life. In his blog post, Rob Rhinehart writes, “I get my clothing custom made in China for prices you would not believe and have new ones regularly shipped to me. Shipping is a problem…but it’s still much more efficient and convenient than retail. Thanks to synthetic fabrics it takes less water to make my clothes than it would to wash them, and I donate my used garments.” This arithmetic is designed to reduce laundry labor and decision fatigue in his own life, but what looks frictionless and efficient to him also requires raw fossil fuels for the polyester, manufacturing labor, fuel used and carbon emitted in transportation, and huge amounts of computing power. Once dropped to Goodwill, the garments go on to have a complex afterlife, requiring more labor and resources to be sorted, tagged, and resold, and eventually disposed in landfills or incinerators either in the U.S. or abroad.

These complex systems are mostly invisible to the end customer, but there can be disastrous effects for the communities that live alongside sites of extraction or refuse, or who labor under exploited conditions. Engineers and environmentalists talk about “sacrifice zones”: geographic areas that have been permanently impaired by environmental damage or economic disinvestment, often as a result of damaging extractive practices or poorly managed waste disposal. In a paper published in The Journal of American History, Geographer Craig E. Colten describes how the lower Mississippi river corridor, damaged by decades of petrochemical discharge and unregulated waste disposal, has become a “landscape of risk and injustice.” The sacrifice zone is seen as an acceptable externality, while the health and wellbeing of the people who populate the damaged landscape comes at a distant second to the pressures of expansion and profit.

As well as being literal geographic areas sacrificed in the name of capital, the idea of a “sacrifice zone” is also a rich metaphor for the things that we as citizens or consumers are willing to abnegate, or to betray, in the name of convenience and seamlessness. The technocapitalist sacrifice zone is the out-of-sight arena where our goods are produced and services are procured, conveniently hidden behind the scrim of frictionless technology. What looks like a smooth platform that brings us the things we need turns out to be a global network of people and things that stretches from the great Pacific garbage patch to the server farms that power our transactions.

Smooth minimalism relies on the outsourcing, and invisibilization, of all kinds of labor and extraction, from the complex logistics systems that get your products shipped to you, to the pit mine where minerals for your phone came from. This process is enabled by a proliferating cluster of platforms that connect customers and providers. As Leif Weatherby describes in “Delete Your Account: On the Theory of Platform Capitalism,” “platforms are raised areas that facilitate — and leave open — exchange and social activity.” This is the business model, but not the material reality. While life on the platform is imagined as a moveable feast, a cozy version of an electrical grid where you can plug in to get what you need, the metaphor doesn’t hold: a true platform also puts everything on the same level: a factory beside a yoga mat, a janitor beside a CEO. This degree of open plan horizontality is antithetical to the desire for frictionlessness, where part of the point is that we don’t have to see or spend time with the factory, the delivery driver, or the janitor.

The obscured logic of the machine is a disavowal of human responsibility

It’s not clear if the platform is a metaphor or a thing, says Weatherby. Most likely it’s both. We deserve, to start, a better metaphor: I’m proposing that instead of the platform, we think of frictionless logic as dependent on the membrane. The membrane flips the platform sideways, putting the customer on one side and everything else on the other, hidden behind a shimmering screen.

Eatsa, a recent restaurant tech startup, is an archetype for the technological membrane. Eatsa is a “restaurant operating system built for the digital era” that manifests in a modern automat comprised of a smooth white empty room, with a row of touch screens against one wall, and a grid of cubbies on the other. To use Eatsa, you order your food on a touchscreen and a few minutes later it magically appears in one of these slick cubbies for you to grab — no human contact required. It’s the perfect smooth fantasy.

Eatsa provides the illusion of automated customized food preparation, but the cooks and salad preppers are all human, obscured behind the row of cubbies. As well as obscuring the labor, this hiddenness also prevents relationship-building and shows of solidarity between customers and workers. The cubbies are the literal membrane through which product, labor, and money pass, but which hide those who perform labor and cope with environmental fallout from the customers who access the product. Fully automated luxury capitalism for some, air pollution and minimal labor protections for others. 

The more we allow our lives to be serviced by “frictionless” technology, the less we’re able to see what happens on the other side of the membrane erected by companies like Uber, Amazon, and Seamless; and when we can’t see it, it’s easy to let everything on the other side become a giant sacrifice zone. This invisibilization is exacerbated as machine learning and deep learning are baked into more and more technologies and decision making processes, which has the effect of further outsourcing responsibility for bad futures, labor abuses, and environmental destruction, by ceding decision making and oversight to algorithmic processes. The obscured logic of the machine is a disavowal of human responsibility.

Recently, I encountered a tiny rupture that gives me a bit of hope. My friend works in downtown San Francisco and sometimes gets her lunch from Eatsa. While it’s mostly a well-oiled machine, she told me that occasionally the timing is off, and you see the hand of a worker placing the food into your cubby. She isn’t the only one to notice. “Imagine my dismay when I actually saw a human hand place the food inside that glass box,” says one distressed Yelp reviewer. “I asked if the meals were assembled by robots, and he wouldn’t give me a straight answer,” says another. Instead of a seamless, futuristic experience, these customers were faced with the uncanny vision of a human hand emerging from the other side of the membrane: the return of the repressed, the realization that it’s not robots after all.

Experiencing a rupture in the membrane can be pretty disturbing, especially if you’ve bought into the smooth fantasy. But these moments of rupture can be the start of something, whether it’s hands touching hands through the Eatsa cubby, or a growing sense of solidarity, or the desire to destroy the smooth fantasy that keeps us separated.

Kelly Pendergrast is a writer, researcher, and curator based in San Francisco. She works with ANTISTATIC on technology and environmental justice, and she writes about natures, visual culture, and laboring bodies.