Sarah Kessler’s new book, Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work, is an account of the new generation of Internet businesses that have migrated from the Webvan model to the Instacart one. A deputy editor at Quartz, Kessler tells these companies’ stories not from the point of view of their executives, but from the vantage of the workers on the lowest rungs. If the Webvan era, at its best, was an attempt at a highly automated 20th-century capitalism, Instacart and its compatriots had their start in the years after the 2008 financial crisis, when no one was looking to pay semiskilled workers $30 an hour, let alone $45.
The new middleman-app companies never planned to build futuristic infrastructure the way Webvan did; while becoming profitable, they were not interested in helping to raise living standards for consumers and workers. What they were interested in, above all else, was increased efficiency. But instead of using technology to reduce the role of labor in production through automation and cybernetics, they perform what is essentially arbitrage with human life. If Person A’s time is worth $50 an hour on the market, and Person B’s time is only worth $10, Person A should have a strong incentive to hire Person B to perform life’s unpleasant tasks. This kind of shallow thinking is what current Silicon Valley fortunes are made of.
One strength of Kessler’s book is that she is not interested in the efficiencies created by this new economy so much as the conditions suffered by those employed in it. What almost all of these workers have in common is that, for whatever reason, their time is not worth as much as other people’s in the 21st-century labor market. That makes them potential candidates for gig work.
In the transition between the first and second round of Internet companies, we can see a clear adjustment of priorities. Now they orient their products and services toward a shrinking wealthy elite and draw their profits from a growing precarious subclass of workers. At its peak, Webvan had 4,000 employees and targeted budget-conscious consumers; Instacart has less than a quarter of that number and targets wealthier consumers who want other people to bring them stuff now. Genuine investment—especially in employee training—is to be avoided. Gig workers, as Kessler reminds us, do not compose a large segment of the world’s labor force, but neither did industrial proletarians when Marx and Engels started paying special attention to them. This category of workers who do more and get less will continue to grow in importance for the 21st-century economy. At this point it’s clear that this is mostly bad for most people.