The concierge economy

I’ve written about this before, but Anand Giridharadas is a very astute observer of it. In this NYT OpEd piece he recollects how, for the Indian affluent classes, everything was done by “sending your man” to do it.

The culture of send-your-man was jarring to me, having grown up in an America where even rather privileged people did many things for themselves, including things easily outsourced. They drove themselves and their children around, went to the supermarket themselves, contested their own parking tickets in person. While living in India, I remember seeing a photograph of a United States Supreme Court justice driving himself into work and thinking to myself: No lowly municipal judge in India would do that.

But as India’s economy has begun to surge and the country to modernize, send-your-man culture has foundered. As new possibilities open to those who might have been peons, the tiresome complaint at rich-people parties in New Delhi and Mumbai is how hard it is to find a servant. Well, they should come to America, because that, evidently, is where all the servants have gone.

Uber’s chauffeurs and couriers, Instacart’s grocery deliverers, Handy’s home cleaners, Zeel’s on-demand masseurs, Seamless’s bicycle warriors of takeout, Alfred’s butlers, Amazon Home Services’ electricians and plumbers — all of this is the slick, mobile-enabled, venture-capital-backed servitude of our time. As Lauren Smiley wrote in the online magazine Matter recently, “In the new world of on-demand everything, you’re either pampered, isolated royalty — or you’re a 21st-century servant.” Now in America, too, you can have yourself a man.

It’s a very good, insightful essay. For example:

Is technological innovation the handmaiden of progress? People tend to use the two concepts interchangeably. But it’s possible that we live in a peculiar age that, in America at least, is innovation-rich and progress-poor. Just as we came to learn that democracy and liberalism don’t necessarily go together, that there can be illiberal democracies (Argentina, Iraq), perhaps we are starting to discover something we might call regressive innovation.

This isn’t, on its own, dispiriting. It just means that innovation, like democracy, is without content. Democracy doesn’t automatically safeguard women and minorities. Those are layers we have to add. Likewise, perhaps, innovation doesn’t necessarily make the world flat, free and equal. It just gives us new ways of achieving the aims, good and bad, that have motivated us forever.