Mon, Mar 23, 2015 - Page 9 News List

App life: My day living by smartphone alone

On-demand apps promise to meet all your needs. An ‘Observer’ reporter accesses the world under his thumb — and meets the real people behind the service economy

By Rhik Samadder  /  The Observer

Illustration: Yusha

There’s an app for that: The punchline of our age. We have outsourced our most basic needs to the gleaming oblongs in our pockets. Whatever you need to do, eat, get, fix or have sex with, let your smartphone take the slack. Every desire is on demand.

However, is it true? To put our brave new world through its paces, I am spending an entire day living exclusively through on-demand mobile service apps to see what our lives might be like in the near-future. Spoiler: quite weird.

At 7am I am woken by a 60-second phone call from a stranger, Dylan — in the US, judging by his accent. This is Wakie, a community of people who act as each other’s alarm clocks.

“I’m actually Canadian,” Dylan says. “Wake up.”

“Sorry,” I reply. “I don’t mean I’m sorry you’re from Canada,” I add groggily.

Mild awkwardness is a great wake-up call, and 30 seconds later I am out of bed.

First, let’s get work off the table. I browse People Per Hour, a skills shop in which you can commission experienced freelancers, or “hourlies,” at knock-down rates.

“Can you write my article for me?” I type. In short, yes. In addition to photographers, graphic designers and coders, there are writers who will research and write 600-word articles for between £10 and £20 (US$15-30). As a writer, I know this is too cheap; I feel faint stirrings of ethical unease. I commission some background research from Kuru, a philosophy, politics and economics graduate and copywriter, and move on.

I need a new home for the day. Many startups initially run services from central London before expanding, so that is where I should be. On Airbnb’s app I choose a luxurious-looking studio flat in Bloomsbury that will be my base of operations. I request an Uber, and I am away. All too easy.

Ah yes, Uber. Where it all started. Marketed as “everyone’s private driver,” it offers a marriage of convenience and elitism at an affordable price. It is an unbeatable package — it is a market leader, with a business valued at US$40 billion. Yet Uber is also a market leader in controversy. Taxi drivers are up in arms about its monopoly, it is dogged by reports of sexual harassment by drivers and last year a senior executive suggested snooping on users’ private records to conduct smear-retaliations against journalists who publicly criticize it.

So that is not great.

My driver, Dikembe, is originally from the Republic of the Congo, and has lived here 20 years. He has been an Uber driver for a month, and it works for him. “Uber is good. It’s a platform. I’m my own boss, in partnership with them. I choose my hours; I get more jobs this way. I do have to clean the car every few days — everything is about keeping your ratings high. But it’s good.”

What is less good is my new home for the day. I had forgotten the closer you get to central London, the smaller acceptable living spaces become. I am in WC1, so the room feels roughly the same dimensions as my coffin. It is underground, too. The phone reception is terrible.

Time to talk grooming. I am looking at Priv, a beautician on-demand service. The app is very pink. Bodily intimacies are normalized within external settings, like a salon. What is it like to have a stranger come to your house and shave you? Or give you a massage, or menicure? “Masseur” and “menicure” are both words that make me feel funny, so I opt for a haircut.

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