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Will the new killer ‘butler app’ kill our ability to fend for ourselves?

Editor’s Note: Last week we aired a segment about Hello Alfred, a service that, for $99 a month, would send an “Alfred” to your home once a week to complete your to-do list. In an extended interview with economics correspondent Paul Solman, Alfred CEO Marcela Capone explained why she created Hello Alfred. “Life is actually becoming unmanageable,” said Capone, “And the hours that we’re working are going up.” For those with demanding careers, Alfreds can take care of the cleaning, grocery shopping, dry cleaning, and daily chores that too many of us have a hard time getting around to. Alfred, then, is the perfect solution to giving us back time, right?

Maybe not. Evan Selinger, a professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, is skeptical of outsourcing apps like Hello Alfred. He urges us to look at the bigger picture. Is it truly giving us more time or just the illusion of it? What do we lose when we stop doing the little things?

Paul Solman sat down with Selinger to discuss his criticisms of outsourcing apps and why he believes they may hurt us in the long run. Below you will find Making Sen$e’s Hello Alfred segment as well as Selinger’s extended conversation with Paul. The text of Selinger’s conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.


THE BIGGER PICTURE

Paul Solman: What do you think of Hello Alfred?

Evan Selinger: By itself, Hello Alfred really doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing. People are stressed out, and they’re time poor. It seems to be a service that allows you to get more done that you don’t want to do, so you can focus on the stuff that you want to do. But the real story with apps like Hello Alfred is how they fit into the bigger picture.

Paul Solman: What is the bigger picture?

Evan Selinger: Well, the bigger picture has a number of different elements. I think the first important element for us to consider is that we’ve entered into a moment in time where people are feeling so overworked and so stressed out that it seems utterly sensible to outsource as many tasks as humanly possible. And when you want to outsource as many tasks as possible, you really have to look at those tasks as meaningless and insignificant, as drudgery to be avoided. So one of the things we need to be more sensitive to is whether those kinds of things are as terrible as we make them out to be, or whether there’s some sort of meaning and value in doing those things for ourselves.

Paul Solman: What do you mean by that?

Evan Selinger: Okay. Let’s take an easy example here. So we’ve got a service that allows a robot to to write handwritten thank you notes for you. You can email it what you want it to say, and then it’ll generate a handwritten note that you can pass off as your own. Now, for most of us, sitting down to write a handwritten letter really does feel like quite a chore in comparison to typing out an email. But the question becomes, if we’re really trying to give something a personal touch, but we’re disguising the personal touch by having a machine do it for us, are we losing out on that type of personal connection?

“We’ve entered into a moment in time where people are feeling so overworked and so stressed out that it seems utterly sensible to outsource as many tasks as humanly possible.”

Paul Solman: Okay, but that’s not dry cleaning or going to the grocery store.

Evan Selinger: Right. The question really becomes where the creep begins and ends, right? Because I do think we’re entering into a space where it’s becoming more and more desirable, or at least it’s being presented to us as increasingly desirable to outsource as many tasks as possible.

But if we wanted to focus on the specific things that say, Hello Alfred does, I do think there’s a little bit more than meets the eye. So take something like going to the grocery store.
The problem is I absolutely despise going when it’s busy, right? There’s way too many people, everybody’s preoccupied, and you really feel like you’re encountering humanity at its most privileged and inconsiderate.

To be sure, the idea of having someone pick up my groceries for me seems incredibly alluring and incredibly attractive. But what might be important to consider, is that despite the fact that going to a grocery store on the weekend is incredibly frustrating, it’s a frustrating thing that we all do together. It’s sort of puts us all in the same boat, right?

And, there is something democratic about the fact that we all suffer through this at the same time. And when you’re sitting there on line, and the little old lady in front of you whips out her checkbook instead of paying in credit card, you can’t not feel ‘Oh my God, how can this person waste another, you know, moment of my life!?’ But it helps you remember that there are different kinds of people with different interests and different things going on. These are moments to actually learn how to practice being patient and kind. I think these are essential to the fabric of being a human being.

Paul Solman: Is your reaction to apps like Hello Alfred that, we’re already losing public space and now this accelerates the problem?

Evan Selinger: Sure. The more that we have at our disposal, the more it it feels like everything that we need can be delivered to us, rather than us having to do it, we feel this friction. That’s what’s Silicon Valley’s trying to disrupt. Friction is something that is so burdensome it really should be avoided at all costs. And that sort of increases, I think, the allure of really being able to tune out the rest of the world as much as humanly possible.

DIVISION OF LABOR

Paul Solman: Hello Alfred is a classic division of labor, isn’t it?

Evan Selinger: My quick response to that, is that it’s sort of a red herring to be able to judge the significance of these things individually. So if you talk to a particular customer of this app, of course they’re not going to be looking at the big picture. They’re not looking at where we’re going with outsourcing, they’re not looking at where we’re going with predictive apps. They have a much more myopic view, right? I want to use this particular service, and I’ll tell you what I’m getting out of it, and that of course is going to lead you to a sort of economic version of opportunity costs and division of labor.

And of course we need a division of labor. No person is an island, right? There’s not the ability to be a Jack of all trades, or some sort of Jeffersonian ideal of being talented in all domains. That’s just not possible.

“How is it that we’ve all become so pinched, that we feel we can’t do very much for ourselves?”

But I think those kinds of answers do miss out on thinking about this from the broader perspective, including a perspective that asks, ‘How is it that we’ve all become so pinched, that we feel we can’t do very much for ourselves?’ In a way, instead of actually giving us our time back, these technologies just open up more time for us to be imprisoned in other ways, often for us to work longer hours. Who do we become? What kind of character do we develop, the more that we outsource? How does outsourcing more and more change our interactions with more and more people?

CONSUMERISM

Evan Selinger: Consumerism has always been driven not just by providing people with what they need but by creating false needs. That’s how the hedonic treadmill works. You convince people that if only you had this widget, if only you have this thing, suddenly your life will be so much better. You didn’t realize you needed it before, but man, fulfillment is just around the corner. And of course, that never happens. Then we’d stop buying stuff. So we constantly re-convince ourselves, or we’re constantly re-convinced that this will be the case, and we end up completely unsatiated.

What I think is so interesting about the model of this here is the idea that we’re not just doing what you think you already need us to do. You already signed up for the service going, ‘well, you know, maybe I’ll need a little laundry picked up, maybe I’ll need some groceries.’ But the explicit premise here is that the Alfreds will get to know you even better than yourself. They will help you figure out that you’re not nearly as satisfied as you think that you are. You would be so much happier if additional tasks were taken care of for you. There is a consumer creep that’s built into the idea of predicting on your behalf and selling it back to you. Not only does this provide multiple services, our Alfreds will do many things for you, but they’ll even do things for you that you didn’t yet recognize you needed to have done.

It’s also the fact that it sees itself as a service that can recognize your hearts desire before you even see it. And that’s where the tough calls need to be made. Is it that all along you really wanted these things to happen, but you weren’t in touch with yourself enough to know? Or, is it that when someone presents something to you in a certain way, it’s just easier—like a leading question in the courtroom—to go, ‘Yeah, that sounds about right.’

GARBAGE BAGS

Paul Solman: The guy we profiled last was tickled pink with his Alfred finding he needed garbage bags…

Evan Selinger: This is where I find the whole predictive thing fascinating. If we think about this from the perspective of character, there’s usually a way that we differentiate what it means to be a child, from what it means to be an adult. We, adults, have said for a very long time that part of being self-responsible is not just being able to be caught up in the present, but having the right orientation to the future. It’s not about seeing just your immediate needs, but it’s about looking for the big picture. It’s about having an ability to step back, assess what’s going on, assess what needs to happen, and deliberate about the right course of action.

And so, by itself, the fact that you ran out of tissues or garbage bags and someone picked up on what you missed is awfully fantastic. But I do think we need to ask about this larger perspective: the more that people and apps begin to do the anticipation for us, how future-oriented do we need to be?

By itself, is that a big deal? No. But, at what point am I losing out on something when I’m no longer oriented towards monitoring, because the monitoring is being done for me? When I’m no longer oriented towards thinking about what needs to be done, because I can rely upon a bunch of algorithms that are going to be my servants and a bunch of part-time workers that are being sold as servants for the democratized?

“In a way, instead of actually giving us our time back, these technologies just open up more time for us to be imprisoned in other ways, often for us to work longer hours.”

So, in both of those respects, what we’re seeing is a different orientation that’s being packaged for how to relate to the future. Don’t think about the future, don’t worry about the future, we’ll take care of that for you.

Paul Solman: Isn’t that a good thing?

Evan Selinger: No! On some level, no. It’s not a good thing.

As a parent, I can’t just think, what does my daughter need today? What should be in her lunch? I need to think, where’s the curriculum going? What’s going to be happening to her when she gets to a certain place?

When it comes to all of the things that matter to us, we need to look at them in terms of their significance relative to a big picture. And to see the big picture, we need to be aware, we need to be focused on a number of significant things happening in the present, and we need to constantly put them in the larger context that matters.

Paul Solman: Yeah, but if I forget garbage bags and somebody else does it for me, that’s fantastic, isn’t it?

Evan Selinger: A garbage bag, in and of itself, is fairly innocuous. There’s nothing bad about someone getting a garbage bag for you. But, where’s the stopping point? Is it that you’re also not picking up school supplies? And when I stop picking out school supplies, and they just appear as if by magic, am I also losing track of what’s happening with my daughter? Do I stop realizing what kind of projects she’s involved in?

In other words, picking up certain things and recognizing the larger context that they’re in helps me be in touch with the things that matter to the people who need them too. So a garbage bag, sure. That’s just garbage. But where’s the stopping point?

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