The Servitude Bubble
umair haque

Umair, you covered a lot of ground and triggered several issues I think about often. Here’s an MVP response:

We are between “economies,” which you know too well. The “things”/Industrial Economy is spent and no longer provides the insanely wonderful value it has for the last 300 years. We have good data about the disruption and despair that ensued during the shift from the Agrarian Economy to the Industrial Economy. Similar — but I think more profound — change is afoot now. The massive structures we’ve built during the Industrial Economy have to be unbundled, and that’s a lot of strife. Jobs, careers, lives, family structures; all are in play. Therefore, although I agree with your premise of working a “servitude” job carries an immense opportunity cost in [some/many] cases, it similarly serves as an escape valve for people trying to manage.

The sequel to your “servitude” assertion is far worse than you stated: most of these “jobs” will be taken over by robots in the medium term. So if people allow themselves to lapse into permanant “servitude” as you assert, they will be exceptionally bad off. The opportunity cost has a massive lump sum payment in 7–15 years. (how to avoid this below)

I share your sentiment about the self-satisfied libertarian ideal that oozes around the app ecosystem. The darkest side, though, is the apps explicitly aim to usurp personal accountability from people (it’s how they make money). Most galling for me, locally in Chicago, now everywhere, is the food order apps whose ads spout the idea that you “shouldn’t have to do more than push a button for food.” The people in the ads are appropriately swadled in diapers. This is not trivial because personal accountability is the foundation of discipline and techne. Excellence. Learning. Serving. The idea is that one shouldn’t have to walk one’s dog, etc. My context here is the everyday, not the exception. If you don’t want to walk your dog, don’t have a dog.

Personal accountability and responsibility are the foundation of freedom. The USA is a culture with many proponents that preach lack of accountability, and this is a key source of the corruption [and profit] I see everywhere. Borrow. Outsource. App-it. Yes, literally one takes responsibility for paying for the things one orders, but I am talking about something less popular: do without if you cannot care for it [again, I’m talking about everyday life, not exceptions]. The beautiful thing about this situation is that people do have the choice, even though few people are exercising it.

Another aspect of “servitude” is that walkers, drivers, deliverers, cooks do the best they can, but they won’t do it as well as you would have. When I cook, clean, do errands for myself, and I’m fully present, no one is as invested in those outcomes as I am because I’m determining my quality of life in those moments. Outsourcing can impoverish the quality of life.

Personal friends of mine drive Uber and Lyft, and they like the people aspect of it but don’t like the experience overall; it beats the hell out of their cars and pays them little, but they need the money. Therefore, I see that the app economy can be useful to people in certain situations. However, I know a lot of people whose careers and jobs just disappeared, and their numbers of increasing. This will continue due to the shift to the Knowledge Economy.

The most important thing people can do to thrive is to let go. Let go of following the “rules” because they were made during the Industrial Economy and many rules are no longer adaptive to the Knowledge Economy. For example: getting a “good education” to get a “good job.” Let go of doing things you hate just to “get a check.” Stop looking for your future by listening to profs, media, pundits, government, get-rich-quick charlatans, and Valley VCs. They don’t know, although they are skilled at appearing confident. Remember, the overwhelming portion (north of 90%) of all startups, product launches, and VC investments fail. It’s a very self-promotional culture built on hubris. Ditto for politicians and talking heads.

Start taking accountability for the work you want to do. Start creating. Machines will always be inferior to people for creating for other people. People are the customers; people have empathy because they have emotions and souls. Machines have none of these. Therefore, reflect and figure out whom you care about the most. What situations are they in? How do they need help or guidance? Only a person can care and create. If you are not creating and caring, you are mortgaging your future because a machine will do most tasks better than people. That also means caring for yourself and your family — personally. Too much app stuff usurps caring because no one can do it like you can.

If you need breathing room and feel you haven’t any time or space to think, take charge. Start throwing things away. Over-consumption is the pimp of servitude. This can be a complex process, but you can do it. When you have too many things and habits that cost money, you have less time to think, to create. You cannot control your revenue, but you can control your costs. Exercise that control. Yes, within families, this can lead to strife. If you want time and space, create it. It may be your first creation of many.

Find other people who care about the things you do, and network and collaborate with them very purposefully. Knowledge is social. Discuss among your tribe the things you care about and how you could act to improve the situation, but be productive. Some bitching is useful, but look for people who are striving to act, who aren’t content with bitching and calling it a day. By exchanging ideas, you learn faster, and you can try your ideas together.

I’ll close with some enthusiasm and hope. The very startups you mention have championed very useful tools that can be (and are being) used for good. Agile methodologies (also Lean Startup) enable everyone to take risk out of creating things; they started in software, but people are finding they are applicable to any field because they make risks explicit and have ways to manage uncertainty, which is key when creating and launching new things. Design methodologies are grounded in empathy for people, and they are being invoked everywhere. This means that we can all use these new practices to create and serve other people in meaningful ways. My new book shows how to do it in business.

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