The employment of the future is here, and it's terrific for everyone except the people doing the work. TaskRabbit, which lets you outsource the things you don't want to do to people who need money, is at the forefront of this chore revolution, and it's already making some lives harder.
In 1994, professors Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio published a book titled "The Jobless Future," surveying sea changes in the way people work. It didn't look good: "Today, the regime of world economic life consists in scratching every itch of everyday life with sci-tech," they wrote. A big heap of trivial problems were being solved by a bigger heap of trivial jobs, marked by a trend "toward more low-paid, temporary, benefit-free blue and white collar jobs and fewer decent permanent factory and office jobs."
Twenty years later, we've nearly perfected this ephemeral gig machine with TaskRabbit, a software engine that does for labor what Snapchat's done for memories.
TaskRabbit's premise is instantly charming: Fill as much of your idle time as you want with temporary work, from assembling IKEA furniture and scrubbing floors to making photocopies and decorating parties. It offers lackeys on demand, and like its automotive cousin Uber, has raised big venture capital bucks and cemented a role as spirit animal of the "sharing economy."
But it wasn't always this way. For years, TaskRabbit's gophers —"taskers" or "rabbits," as they call themselves — were able to bid against each other to compete for client contracts that catered to their particular skills. The payoff for TaskRabbit spenders was clear — cheap labor commanded from your laptop! — and the payoff for TaskRabbit earners was there, albeit murkier — Well, at least you're not doing nothing! Time to go inflate some balloons!
TaskRabbit and its CEO, Leah Busque, were able to watch their popularity, revenue, and esteem among sharing economists exploded. From the outside, looking down from TechCrunch's panoramic view of Silicon Valley, it seemed idyllic: Rabbits and clients, working together, forming a community without bosses, salaries, or schedules. Then, TaskRabbit decided to change its entire business model without warning anyone.
As of two weeks ago, the company no longer uses the bidding system. Each Rabbit is pegged at an hourly rate, accessible only via smartphone, and expected to be available immediately, a la Uber. If you can't commit to a task within 30 minutes, it moves on to someone else, reassigned via computer. Tasks that don't fall within generic categories like moving, cleaning, or food delivery are discouraged. Rabbits are matched with people looking for help via yet another mystical algorithm, removing whatever personal connection eager users enjoyed.
Busque is preempting any guilt TaskRabbit users might feel with a big smile and white lies: "We just spent a week around the country talking to our TaskRabbit community," she told VentureBeat. "The Taskers doing this as a full-time job are excited."
Not true. The Rabbits are livid (the following was gleaned from comments forwarded to me, and from Reddit and Facebook groups run by users):
One wonders whether [an algorithmically assigned] job is the best available. Who knows where they will be "assigned?" There's no way to put days together geographically ahead of time. We must wait for the Bunny Lords to bestow life-giving work upon us from on high.
I cannot imagine any success for the NEW TR… they have replaced a community with an algorithm… and algorithms don't give good customer service… they don't make people show up on time with a smile… they don't deliver burritos, stand in line, design save-the-date cards or play ukulele. People do these things… and it is truly unfortunate for everyone that TR could not see this as they transitioned so recklessly from a dynamic people powered program to a soulless algorithm-driven app.
My bids were netting me between $400.00 - 500.00 a week. I have not had a single task assigned to me since this started. My income has been destroyed by the changes!
I have yet to receive an assigned task since they changed their format. I updated my availability so that I am free all the time in case there are virtual tasks that have flexible timeframes, yet I have still not been assigned. Taskrabbit used to be a good source of extra income, but now it is essentially unusable for me.
And the new platform is only available on pretty current smart phones. Now, from one figure that was quoted to me, there are about 30,000 active Rabbits. Many of whom do not have (and cannot afford) to upgrade to these phones. A good portion of which rely on this service for their incomes and their livelihoods. And they are now broken and devastated.
I haven't gotten one [task] since the conversion. Totally bummed as I need the money and am willing, ready and able to work!
I used to work everyday, several tasks. I haven't received any tasks since the change. My availability is completely open, I am highly rated and have been a a Taskrabbit for a year (level 16). My rates are as low as possible, setting a task to $18/hour to be competitive means a take home pay of only $14.40. I wasn't huge on bidding but I did do quick assign tasks all day long. Now there are no tasks to do :(
And so on. Another Rabbit added that the "biggest problem is we can't plan in advance." Before the change, Taskers could "stack several small jobs and have a full day and make 100s doing a handful of things for 15, 25 whatever dollars. Now, since we can't see what's coming, one might not want to take a decent paying one hour job at 1pm because you then might miss a big all day job that pays great." In the middle of the email he apologized for any typos, as he was in the middle of a TaskRabbit gig digging up rocks: "My fingers are tired and dirty."
He's not alone. There are paragraphs and pages of jilted people who'd embraced this as the future of employment, the next big step in labor. Maybe that was naive, but on the other hand, TaskRabbit pitches this worker's utopia right on their website. If the Rabbits were foolish, their foolishness lay in taking TaskRabbit at their word.
Though, true to their breathless mission statement, adorned with images of smiling white people lending one another a hand, TaskRabbit is "revolutionizing how work gets done." TaskRabbit presents a clear, elegantly designed future in which work is done at the absolute convenience of the haves by a legion of smartphone-toting relative-have-nots. It's an entire industry of doing shit people with more money than you don't feel like doing.
This sort of work has existed forever (cleaning services are nothing new), but the software of today makes for a working climate that's never had less stability or certainty (just ask UberX drivers who are now making 25% less than usual, without warning). There's no social contract — only vague terms of service.
If the company wants to abruptly, drastically change the nature of their work, it can do so at will, and its employees have zero recourse if their bottom line is slashed. That's because they aren't technically employees, but contractors, bereft of the same protections and benefits granted to full-time workers. Management is invisible. When Rabbits stormed the company discussion forum with complaints, it was shut down, while the company, like Uber, balks at the idea that it's an employer of any Rabbits at all.
TaskRabbit is a platform. TaskRabbit is a mediator. TaskRabbit is not a bad boss, because it was never a boss to begin with — it's just operating an algorithm. The notion of unionization in the "sharing economy" is of course preposterous and unheard of — not even Facebook has organized — so who needs collective bargaining when you've got trust, and community, and other ukelele-and-Vimeo startup platitudes?
And, as New York's Kevin Roose put it earlier this year, this kind of work has nothing to do with trust and everything to do with a weak economy, which makes people more likely to sign up for employment that gives hidden software bosses all the power. When decent, stable jobs with decent, respectable benefits are scarce, we can now count on companies beckoning you to drive your neighbors around, rent out your living room, or put together their new bookshelf.
At least until those companies change their minds.
Image by Jim Cooke