The Startup
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The Startup

A Robot Just Delivered My Dinner

Ever since the pandemic hit, I, like so many people, have been cooking a lot at home. As a result, like so many people, I have gotten really freaking sick of washing dishes. I know that I am a happier and healthier person when I grocery shop and prepare my own food, but, all too often, I am lazy and weak, just a primate with an iPhone, and I make bad decisions that serve me neither financially, nor nutritionally. This is all to say — last night, I ordered a vegan burger on a brioche bun with a side of sweet potato fries from the delivery service Postmates.

I was FaceTiming with a friend when I got the text saying “Ziggy” would be arriving soon. I went to the front door, scanning the street for any slow-moving sedans, and complained to my friend on the phone that the app had lied to me. Ziggy was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, I remembered that I had forgotten my mask, and ran back into my apartment to put it on.

While I was masking up, I got a call from an unknown 415 number, so I hopped off my FaceTime call to let Ziggy know I’d be right out.

“Sorry!” I said, by way of greeting. “Are you outside?”

“Hello, Tessa,” said a man’s voice on the other end of the line, in the bored rote tones of call-center customer service. “Your Postmates order should be ready outside in a delivery robot.”

“Woah,” I replied, opening the front door. Sure enough, Ziggy turned out to be a small yellow robot — a cooler on wheels with an iPad attached, basically.

Going back for my mask had been unnecessary. Ziggy was in no danger of Covid-19. The man on the phone guided me through a simple process — approach the robot, enter my order number on the iPad to unlock the lid, remove my vegan burger, close the lid, walk back inside, stuff my face, move on with the rest of my life.

“This is the weirdest thing I have ever seen.” I said, as I stared into Ziggy’s iPad.

“Yeah,” he said, adding with an attitude, “I hear that a lot.”

I laughed. I pictured him in his cubicle — a white man in his mid-twenties in San Francisco, losing faith every day in the human species’ capacity for original thought, one customer service call at a time.

“I bet you do hear that a lot.” I said. “Because it’s really fucking weird.”

It was his turn to laugh.

“I don’t know my order number,” I whined. “It’s not in the text, I have to go back into my email.”

“It should be 805,” he said.

It was. I removed the white bag inside the robot, closed the lid, and headed back up my front stairs, where I watched the little robot — Ziggy — do a three-point turn and toodle away down the sidewalk.

“Anything else I can help you with?” he asked, as a way of wrapping up the call.

“So, are you, like, a Postmates employee in San Francisco?” I asked.

I wanted to flesh out my mental image of my interlocutor. Who was this jaded young man in San Francisco, paying the highest rent in the country, working in the tech industry, coaching strangers over the phone through their first delivery robot experience?

“I am in San Francisco,” he said, but explained he worked for a third party company, outsourced by Postmates to field customer service for its autonomous delivery robots, Serve.

“Got it,” I said. “And obviously you’re passionate about your work.”

“Totally.” He sneered.

By that point I was back in my apartment, removing my mask and heading into the kitchen.

“What’d you get for dinner?” he asked.

“A veggie burger,” I replied, taking it out of the bag.

“Oh,” he sounded disappointed.

“And sweet potato fries,” I consoled him.

“Nice!” he perked up. “I love sweet potato fries.”

“Me too,” I said, even though it was redundant.

“Well, enjoy,” he said.

“I will.” I said.

We both hesitated, and then laughed.

“Have a good night,” I said. And we hung up.

When I first picked up the phone, searching for my mask, preparing myself for the food hand-off, I thought I knew generally what to expect. I thought I knew who Ziggy was going to be. Anyone driving for Postmates is using time and a car to make some money on their own schedule without a boss. A friend of mine who is paying off student loan debts on her MBA has — between high-paying jobs — driven for Postmates to afford to get pedicures. Ziggy could have been anyone, in other words, who lived in LA, had a smartphone, a car, and needed money.

When I was a kid in Manhattan in the 90s, food delivery was a big part of the New York City culture. Late into the night, you could order delivery from your local restaurants, no matter whether it was raining, or snowing, or hailing. The delivery men who criss-crossed the city on bicycles relied on cash tips and were clearly worked to the bone. Many were undocumented, which made it easy for restaurants to exploit them. They were Chinese, Latino, Black. Rarely were they white or female. They were often cold, or wet, and spoke little English. They risked their lives to deliver dumplings, and pizza, for a couple singles. It was an ugly reality of the city — one you had to face in every transaction, before you tucked into your broccoli with garlic sauce, and forgot.

Ziggy was neither a freelance video editor trying to make rent during the pandemic, nor an undocumented worker trying to survive. Ziggy was a delivery robot — not a person, at all. Only in its absence did I realize how much I dread the human interaction of food delivery, which invariably brings me face-to-face with my own privilege.

With Ziggy, there was no hand-off of a bag of warm food, from one person who needs money, to another person who is literally in the process of frivolously spending money. It was a relief, in some ways, that I didn’t feel the need to put on a show of friendly politeness, and sincerely tell Ziggy to “have a great day.”

My interaction with Ziggy did, of course, have a human element. The guy I talked to in San Francisco was a new kind of food delivery guy — one in the dawning age of automation. The new food delivery person has a desk-job in a cubicle, which probably pays more, but still sucks. Like going door to door delivering food, troubleshooting delivery robots is meaningless, easy work — the same interaction, over and over.

The standard criticism of automation is that it destroys jobs for ‘unskilled’ workers, and only creates jobs for white collar workers with degrees. My robot delivery interaction confirmed both these points. A bored tech employee has a job talking to me on the phone; at the expense of a Postmates driver who just missed out on a $5 tip. (Ziggy does not accept tips; I tried.)

But the truth is more nuanced than “automation is bad” because it destroys food delivery jobs. Food delivery is low-paying, low-status, low-satisfaction work. Better it be done by robots than creative, emotional, sensitive human beings. But what jobs will be available to those people now? There has to be a world where little yellow robots deliver food efficiently around cities, and low-income people do not lose out on work as a result.

Andrew Yang, who made automation a central talking-point in his quixotic campaign for President, believes the only solution is a Universal Basic Income (UBI.) The idea of paying people a small but significant sum, to ensure their food security, housing security, and provide some certainty and financial stability in their lives is not that radical. UBI has been talked about at high levels of government all over the world, for years — but it’s an idea that draws polarizing responses in the United States.

We are a nation of rugged individualists — a patchwork quilt of people with different histories and different personal mythologies. We are all here for different reasons. One of our only cultural commonalities is the desire to be left alone by other people, and not told how to live our lives. The idea of paying strangers a universal basic income is extremely unappealing to a lot of Americans, who feel no patriotic sense of brotherhood or sisterhood with people in different states, who hold completely different values.

Paying people to “do nothing” deeply offends American sensibilities. But in fact, the whole point of building a business, as a capitalist entrepreneur, is to eventually amass enough wealth that your assets make money for you without you having to do any work. So actually, being paid to do nothing is the American Dream.

We need to look past an outdated fantasy based on frontier morality of self-reliance and individualism, and start talking about the reality of the American Future and what we want that to look like. Automation isn’t something we need to start thinking about sometime soon — a robot just delivered my veggie burger. This is happening now.

These were the thoughts that I pondered, as I ate my sweet potato fries, which were soggy.

(No fault of Ziggy’s.)

The next morning, I went to the supermarket, and bought groceries for the week.

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