Senior Lecturer in the General History Department at the University of Haifa in Israel and head of the American Studies Program.
Sometimes, you read an article that just sticks with you. This occurred to me in early 2016 when I read Andrew Callaway’s essay on “apploitation” and how “the sharing economy has turned San Francisco into a dystopia for the working class”. In this short yet powerful piece, Callaway documents his own harrowing experiences as a gig economy app worker endlessly running around at all hours of the day in order to serve every whim of wealthy Silicon Valley programmers. He describes a highly unequal city in which the rich sit at home and the poor do their errands. All their errands. They shop for their food. They do their laundry. They clean their bathroom. They drive them around. They even park their cars. In one poignant scene, Callaway notes his dread at discovering, as a delivery man for the Postmates app, that he is unable to supply his order because the frozen yogurt store he rushed to (time is always of the essence) had run out of raspberry toppings. His star rating was likely to go down, a gamified penalty which could nevertheless have harsh repercussions on his ability to earn a decent living.
One of the most striking things about the article was how the “choice architecture” of the gig economy platforms were designed to give workers an array of choices and yet still control and exploit them. He delves into the nitty-gritty details into how exactly these apps are able to create an ecosystem where people are being dominated through their very choices. Here is one excellent example from the article:
Postmates once allowed their drivers to see the details of an order before accepting a job. This was great for couriers because we could estimate how much money we would make on an order. It also meant we could reject bad jobs, which created a situation where it could take a long time—or even be impossible—to find a courier who would accept a low-paying job. Postmates responded by “updating” the app to a “blind system” in which we could still accept or reject jobs, but without enough information to determine whether it would be worth our time or not (e.g., a huge grocery store order). To make sure we accept jobs quickly without analyzing them, the app plays an extremely loud and annoying beeping noise designed specifically to harass couriers into submitting to the algorithm.
Just last fall, a California referendum (Prop 22) passed that legally allows gig economy giants like Uber, Lyft and Postmates to continue to bypass all labor laws by treating their workers as private contractors and not employees. As such, it is becoming ever more evident that these forms of “apploitation” are becoming the leading institution through which millions of future working class Americans will be subjugated by both giant corporations and elite consumers. The genius of this gamified system, as Callaway shows in his description of the Postmates app update, is that its coercive elements are very subtle. Corporate control is attained not through blatant coercion, but rather a dizzying array of menus, incentives and – most importantly – choices, the epitome of freedom in any neoliberal society. How can this be oppression if, as Milton Friedman taught us, we are all “free to choose?”
These are not easy themes or ideas to turn into a movie, let alone one which manages to effectively criticize this new form of labor apploitation. It requires not a heavy-handed dystopia but rather a light yet disturbing touch, a nuanced narrative and attention to detail that manages to explain, on one hand, why people are attracted to these gig economy jobs and gamified apps in the first place, yet – on the other hand, how they ultimately come to be dominated by them.
A difficult mission indeed, yet Noah Hutton’s Lapsis largely manages to pull it off. A creepy yet all-to-real sci-fi movie which takes place in a near-yet-weirdly-retro-future, Hutton’s movie introduces us to “cabling” – a gig economy job in which freelancing working class Americans trample through the woods, guided only by their smartphone apps, laying cables for a faceless corporation. It is clearly a metaphor for the Uberization of our economy, and how gig workers are, despite their apparent menu-picking freedom, funneled down pre-ordained paths and forced to relinquish their agency and selfhood to the all-knowing and all-seeing app. As such a metaphor, it is quite successful.
Be it the nefarious algorithm, the terrible loneliness, the alienating competition or the subtle exploitation, Lapsis touches on all the key themes and little details that make up our new gamified reality. If anything, my one major complaint is that it perhaps does not go far enough. In the end, one is left with the sense that next to the tyranny of the five-star rating which forces one to find raspberry toppings for an impatient 22-year-old Google product manager at 2 am, perhaps Lapsis is not insidious enough.