Interchangeable human units (Otherwise known as ‘people’)

Something has been coalescing for me recently, around the sharing economy, on-demand economy, my study of motivation and team management, and my EMBA colleagues.

That something is a difference between people and humans, and it is the core of modern business and social ethics.

I promise this isn’t going to be another attack job on Uber. We know they do a fine job of illustrating their shortcomings themselves on a daily basis. However, given that they are the exemplars of the sharing economy and on-demand economy in the cultural mind at present, the impact of their approach on the zeitgeist is ripe for dissection.

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In Wired magazine’s UK June 15 edition, the cover feature lays out a number of pros and cons of Uber’s business approach. The two key aspects are nailed by Russell Davies, director of strategy at the UK’s celebrated Government Digital Service. He says “Treating the people who work for you as units of deployable resource lets you build great, scalable systems, but as soon as they can, those people will move elsewhere. Same with your customers.” Davies also points out that “Its errors over privacy and surge-pricing are fundamentally failures of empathy.”

This idea of interchangeable human units is an echo of the twentieth century’s conception of people as ‘human resources’ in business terms, and is pervasive in the on-demand economy of apps promising free or almost-no-cost instant deliveries or pick ups of anything from groceries, fast food, dry-cleaning and laundry, ironing, wine, beer, or coffee, to people getting from A to B. Even dating apps are starting to work this way, with the growth of Tinder.

(If you want a laugh, just google ‘dry cleaning app’ and marvel at the amount of effort, time, thought and capital that have gone into the competing apps.)

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In some important sense, the on-demand economy is just a subset of the sharing economy, except what is being shared is human effort and time rather than an otherwise-unused real-world asset.

The essential relationship in the on-demand world is between the platform, and the undifferentiated mass of demand and supply on either side of it. In order to grow, platforms are pushing prices down as far as they can go, often far below the cost of provision of the service.

In the older world of VC-backed companies, however, it was the company itself that absorbed the direct effect of that aggressive pricing to fuel growth. In the ‘sharing economy’, it is the providers of the service — the taxi drivers, the delivery people, the TaskRabbits — that are absorbing the pain of this pricing approach. The fact that the providers are not formally part of the app company means that they have no chance of sharing in the inevitable payday exit that these companies are aiming for. It is all downside for them.

And this ability to order up a human-provided service on our smartphones helps us consumers to depersonalise those who are on the other side of these transactions. And since there is a mediator, we can wash our hands of the ethical considerations — “well, if that’s what Uber takes from my credit card, then that’s what it’s worth”.

As opposed to good examples of the sharing economy, where underutilised physical assets such as cars or spare rooms (or entire homes) are made more useable by companies such as Zipcar or AirBnB, treating a person’s time in a similar way seems distinctly reductive. Are we really willing to say an hour of a person’s life is just the same as an hour a car is parked and unused?

With an app such as Tinder, we get into even murkier ethical waters, as the hopeful or desperate offer themselves up to be swiped left or right after about 1.2 seconds of consideration by a user on the other side of this potential transaction. Reducing sex to a transaction does not seem to me to be a laudable aim, but instead is the apotheosis of the depersonalising tech trend on the march in the last couple of years.

On the flipside to this, the motivation and management practices we are learning about on the Executive MBA course are all about treating those who work with you as people each with their own peculiarities — adjusting management style to suit their needs, thinking about team make-up in terms of preferences and personality types, even discovering our own strengths and weaknesses so that we can work with them intelligently.

Another part of the experience of the EMBA is getting to know that each of my class has a story within them — often utterly remarkable ones. Just a couple of examples involve a faked accent to get into university while their immigration case was being considered, and a leap within one lifetime from washing clothes in the river to attending Cambridge University and the EMBA. These stories are there in everyone, and understanding that ‘the finance guy’ is not just the finance guy (and ‘the driver’ is not just the driver), but has a hinterland, a history, some aspect of themselves that would make you gasp if you knew it, is just one illustration that the idea of interchangeable human units is so offensive and deeply contrary to properly ethical notions of personhood. It is something that has resonated with me the more I’ve got to know my classmates.

The EMBA class of 2014

The EMBA class of 2014

In the end, as Russell Davies noted, it comes down to empathy. These on-demand companies are doing their best to blur and distort the umbilical link between buyer and seller. When sales are made face-to-face, with cash, the calculations on either side are immediate and rooted in the real world. When mediated through an app that decides the price and takes the funds painlessly from your bank account, there is no direct exchange, no eye contact as money is handed over, and no chance for empathy to arise.

I do not accept that we should be stratified into those with money and power (‘people’) and those whose job is to run around to satisfy the whims of those with money and power (‘humans’) on-demand, as if servants in a stately home waiting for the bell to ring. The aspiration in this new technological age should be for all people to express their individual miracle through their whole life, including their work. With a bit of thought, effort and empathy, I believe it can be achieved. I also believe it is the small first step towards a less divided world.

Written while listening to ‘On The Regular’ by Shamir (XL Recordings) and ‘Yeah Right’ by Toro Y Moi (Carpark Records) Interchangeable human


One thought on “Interchangeable human units (Otherwise known as ‘people’)

  1. Marta says:

    Absolutely love your post. And because we are sociable intelligent animals, I believe that this first wave of applications will evolve to provide more empathetic interactions that deliver a ‘good feel factor’ in addition to the core service. In fact that may be their elusive competitive advantage in the face of fierce competition based just on price…


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