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The Gig Economy and its Convivial Nemesis

gig economy and conviviality
Photo: National Museum of the American Indian

In late December 2017, my wife and I visited my sister and her husband in the Philadelphia suburbs. They showed us around their lovely new 1960s home, which featured original wood flooring, tile bathrooms, and a finished basement.  While taken on a tour of the place, we learned how a guy who worked for the app-enabled company called “Task Rabbit” installed many of the things on the walls—mirrors, pictures, the Smart TV, to name a few.

When I heard this quirky yet familiar term, I remembered reading about a Task Rabbit freelancer who described his remarkable skill in the handyperson arts.  He also expressed his feelings of isolation when as often happened, he would strike up lengthy conversations with his customers only to never see them again.

Gig Economy Workers as Helping Professionals

The growing masses of people working in this gig economy have expanded the shape and meaning of what John McKnight has called the “helping professionals.”  These self-credentialed people bestow “on the caring the authority to declare their fellow citizens ‘clients’—a class of deficient people in need.”

So for a little more than 100 years, we’ve needed psychologists and psychiatrists with whom to discuss our worries and manage our anxiety. We’ve relied on medical doctors to help us feel better when we’re ill,  and on certified Reiki therapists to draw upon our own energy flows in order to heal.

Now on a whim, we can neatly call upon an Uber or Lyft driver to cart us to any old place; beckon a Task Rabbit to do any odd job for us; hire a member of the striving Fiverr underclass to write a term paper for us.

The Gig Economy Empowers our Consumer Selves

To borrow a phrase from Robert Reich, never in history have we been so “empowered as consumers.”

Just like tips on a scale, once vitalized as consumers, we’re denied power as citizens, or better yet, a social force.  Plus, aside from the surge of dopamine we get after ordering just the right service through our smartphone, how gratified do we feel after we’ve paid someone to do something we could do ourselves? Have we learned any new skills? What about started a meaningful relationship with someone? Anyone?

The new generation of helping professionals allow us to make efficient use of our cash. They also help us to master the art of the transaction while eclipsing our need for sustained human interaction. That’s about it.  And unfortunately, though neoliberals will bemoan this point: transactions do not a functional society make.

Functional societies shouldn’t concern themselves with reducing complex human relations to financial transactions. They should concern themselves with building functional, empathic, responsible cultures. One great place to start is with human dignity and relatedness.

The Gig Economy vs. Convivial Institutions

Local governments—entities which are ostensibly concerned with the health and well-being of people—should erect convivial institutions.

Many of these institutions exist, yet given the wave of consumer empowerment—driven largely by the alienating tsunami that is the gig economy—it’s time to go all in on fostering communities of conviviality.

Convivial institutions bring people together to form alliances, apprenticeships, social contracts of caring and compassion.

Think physical libraries over Amazon. The former enliven our social selves by encouraging collaborative learning and sharing of knowledge. The latter drains our energy and our wallets.

While we’re at it, let’s set up tool libraries to counter Task Rabbit and its ilk. Self-determined people looking to finish a task can borrow a needed tool, learn a skill or two, work with others to complete the project, and enrich oneself and companions in the process.

Some other convivial institutions—spaces, places, and processes that afford creative expression, genuine, off-market sharing among neighbors, opportunities to grow as worthwhile people, and the coalescing of individuals into social forces, include:

We are a social species. We learn through mimicking and modeling each other. When we learn from each other—share knowledge, transfer skills and know-how—we dissolve the capitalist barriers which separate us according to occupation and social class. We shed our neoliberalism-defined consumer and citizen selves and come together as the daring social force we are.

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