Photo by Alfredo Mendez via Flickr.

The Cost of Convenience

Communities and the On-Demand Economy

The on-demand economy has become a mainstay of life here in San Francisco. For those unfamiliar, the on-demand economy consists of companies that allow customers to request physical goods to their doorsteps, usually via a mobile app. These companies help people hail cabs, do their laundry, and walk their dogs. Walking down Market Street, it is impossible to avoid advertisements touting the latest convenience, now only a download away.

Not everyone has such a rosy view of this new order. Some call it by a more sinister name: the shut-in economy. In contrast to the traditional view of technology as a connective force, these services mean that people take less public transportation, support less laundromats, and spend less time with their dogs in the city’s myriad parks. But what is the fate of communities in a culture enamored with on-demand convenience?

One might assume that replacing human interaction with mobile applications would bring about a new era of isolation in communities. However, this would not be a new trend: social capital, the networks of relationships between people in the same community or society, has been declining in America (and around the world) since around 1970. In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam makes an exhaustive case to show that every aspect of social capital, from volunteerism to time spent outside the house to connections in the workplace, has been on decline for the last few decades.

The LGBT community comes out for SF Pride. Photo by Matthew Roth via Flickr.

The effects of the on-demand economy are not just the latest manifestation of this phenomenon; they are unique in how they disproportionately impact the wealthy. Many causes commonly attributed to diminishing social capital — more women entering the workplace, the disappearance of post-WWII camaraderie, time spent watching television — occur more or less evenly along socioeconomic lines. In contrast, services in the on-demand economy are often luxuries inaccessible to working- and lower-class Americans.

This isolation of the wealthy can lead to greater social stratification. As those who can afford the perks of the on-demand economy spend less time in shared spaces (like public transportation, laundromats, and parks), they can become overall more distant from their communities. What is more, as a larger portion of working-class jobs subscribe to the on-demand model, a more subservient relationship forms between the city’s working and upper classes, further driving social stratification.

In San Francisco, this may even be contributing to the housing crisis in a new cycle of gentrification. When wealthy inhabitants move into traditionally low income neighborhoods, they bring with them their inclinations towards the on-demand economy. Since the success of these services depends on their ability to scale, they tend to work with conglomerates (e.g. Google Express’ on-demand groceries only distributes from major companies) or control their own supply chains (e.g. Amazon.) Unable to compete, small, local businesses are eventually forced to close and people dependent on them are displaced from their neighborhood. As larger businesses that can place nicely with the on-demand economy move in and the empty residences are filled with more wealthy inhabitants, the cycle continues.

Dolores Park. Photo by Thomas Hawk via Flickr.

So how can we combat the drawbacks of the shut-in economy? Obviously, people can forgo using these applications and support their local businesses. However, it is not necessary to be a Luddite to mitigate the effects of the on-demand economy. One can also use services that include local businesses in their supply chain. Instacart, for example, allows San Francisco shoppers to buy from select local grocery stores like Bi-Rite and Rainbow Grocery Cooperative. Finally, one can lower the income disparity between workers and customers in the on-demand economy by supporting services that hire full time employees rather than contract workers.

The on-demand economy may have started in San Francisco but it is by no means contained here. Its tendrils have reached into every major global city, and with current trends urbanization its effect will only be more profound. It is time that people look beyond the convenience that these services provide to the effects that they have on our communities and society as a whole.

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