Earlier this week, after drinks with co-workers near The Verge’s New York office, I headed down into the subway for my commute home. The M train, like most New York subways, is often delayed. When the train mysteriously stopped somewhere under the East River, I found myself sitting across from a series of ads for TaskRabbit, a gig platform that lets anyone outsource menial labor to on-demand employees. Moving a couch? Weeding your abandoned garden? Cleaning out your underwear drawer? Even just waiting in a DMV line? There is, seemingly, no task too trivial for a "tasker."
There is, seemingly, no task too trivial for a "tasker"
The ads plastered up and down the subway car played on a single theme: depicting a series of wonderful activities you’d like to be doing while someone else takes care of the menial labor that life has, until now, required of you. One depicted a photo of a woman jogging over a grassy field, overlaid with text that read, "Running Errands." Other ads in the campaign show a child being hoisted into the air — the text reads "Heavy Lifting." In another a woman practices yoga — "Mopping the Floors." A shirtless man ascends a climbing wall — "Hanging Shelves." And under each image there’s the same tagline: "We do chores. You live life."
I’d seen the ads before, but facing them in an empty subway car they began to gnaw at me: "We do chores. You live life." In six words, the ads were saying something much more odious.
Read it again: "we" do chores. "You" live life. Who are we really talking about here? The gig economy promised a new type of classless labor dynamic — a world in which you can hire your neighbor and vice versa. Download an app and now you get to be the boss.
But viewed through a different lens, the gig economy is remarkably regressive. Speaking of the similarities between an outdated concept known as piecework and gig work, Sarah Jaffe writes, "It was common in the late 19th and early 20th century that, instead of working in a factory for a wage or a salary, workers sewed or assembled goods at home and were paid by the finished item rather than for their time."
"Life," according to TaskRabbit, is an endless parade of leisure and recreational activities
Instead of establishing partnerships within a community, the gig economy and TaskRabbit’s ads reaffirm a class divide, between the "You" — whose life is defined by recreational activities — and the "We," whose lives are devoted to doing your chores.
But this is about more than the ad copy. It’s about how TaskRabbit wants you to see your life. "Life," according to TaskRabbit, is an endless parade of leisure and recreational activities: yoga, jogging, taking off shirts and climbing up walls. Meanwhile, our quotidian obligations — cleaning floors, assembling furniture, hanging paintings — are nothing more than obstructive burdens.
To be clear, no one enjoys scrubbing their toilet. There is nothing admirable about screwing in a lightbulb or watering your plants. But these tasks are part of the necessary, if occasionally coarse, fabric of existence. What does life become when we sterilize it of every disagreeable, time-consuming, or less-than-thrilling task? What else is worthy of eradication, or at least delegation? Changing diapers? Attending funerals? Brushing our teeth?
I don’t bemoan a platform that can assist an elderly person in buying their groceries, or help the less able install a complicated shelving unit. But that’s not who these ads target, and not what they promise. Certainly ads are almost always aspirational, but when our aspiration is encapsulated by downward dogging while someone folds our laundry, we’ve reached a sad state of frivolousness.
It all reminded of Jesse Barron’s recent essay in Real Life Mag, "The Babysitters Club." Barron explores how in their advertisements, so many of gig services frame us, their intended users, as hapless, helpless adult babies, hardly capable of changing our own underwear.
We are not babies, but demigods
"If Seamless doesn’t believe I can spell what I eat, Yelp doesn’t think I know where to get it, or when I want it. Logging on at 4PM to find a liquor store, I find the app suggesting an afternoon snack. Have I eaten? Maybe Yelp is my mother."
TaskRabbit’s ads offer a twist. Here we are not babies, but demigods. Our purpose is noble — to better our bodies, to better our minds, to hoist our children up into the sky and onto jungle gyms. It’s a bizarre and vainglorious vision, but one perfectly aligned with the attitude commonly on display in Silicon Valley. What TaskRabbit is suggesting is so starkly opposed to the realities of the vast majority of the population that it’s completely delusional. As I walked down the subway car reading ad after ad, they drove me crazy.
Eventually, the train started moving again. I got out at my stop and went to the store. I was making ravioli, so I spent some time picking out groceries and standing in line at check-out. Then I came home, and spent another 20 minutes making dinner. According to TaskRabbit, my life during that half hour had been put on pause. I flopped down on the couch, plate of food in hand. I turned on the TV, put on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. I thought of nothing at all. Life had resumed.