What the Gig Economy Does to a Human

Technological advancements in the digital age have rapidly transformed how people interact and communicate. Joanne McNeil's book, "Lurking: How a Person Became a User," provides a critical history of the Internet age from a user's perspective. McNeil identifies a clash of values between human ambiguity and machine explicitness, emphasizing that humanity is the unique element that machines cannot fully replicate. However, recent advances in AI over the past few years indicate that this human element is becoming increasingly replicable, particularly in the realm of human writing.  

McNeil has now turned to fiction—perhaps one of the few forms AI cannot successfully write (yet)—to explore the human side of this technological drama. In her debut novel, Wrong Way, McNeil explores the impact of the race toward machine intelligence on a gig worker, Teresa, who is hired by the massive tech company AllOver. The novel exposes the way that gig work strips people of their humanity, rendering them interchangeable cogs. Because this sort of employment is inconsistent, the worker’s life can feel episodic and fragmentary: The human need for resolution is scrambled and replaced with a constantly precarious present.

Aptly named, AllOver is ubiquitous in the near future that Teresa lives in, serving millions of users with its goal—expressed in perfect Silicon Valley jargon—to “shape the digital economy to fit neighborhood-centric needs.” It operates a digital payment app, as well as food delivery, gaming, and ride-share services. And when the novel opens, the company is hiring. At 48, Teresa can’t afford her own apartment and lives with her mother in the remotest suburb of Boston, so when she hears of an opportunity to work a temporary, hourly job at AllOver, she applies. “Drivers wanted,” reads the ad on Craigslist, and Teresa loves to drive. It turns out that the company is launching a fleet of driverless cars called “CRs.” The only catch? They’re not actually driverless yet. AllOver’s promises have outpaced their technology, so the CRs are engineered with a secret compartment in their roof called the “nest” from which the driver can silently operate the vehicle. Teresa notices that all of the new employees at her training are slim and small: The nest is tiny, and to navigate the CR, they’ll need to lie on their stomachs.

The drivers are called “seers,” a job title that blurs the line between the vehicle (“CR”) and the role (“steerer”). Though the nest is cramped and the schedule is unpredictable, Teresa falls into the swing of her new job. She eventually makes enough money to move out of her mother’s house. But the long hours begin to take their toll: She hates the start and stop of traffic, so she works at night, driving from seven in the evening to nine in the morning. When she witnesses a tense encounter between a man and a woman in her vehicle, one she worries might lead to an assault, Teresa realizes there’s not much she can do, because she technically doesn’t exist. She is not just invisible, but also voiceless.

Teresa doesn’t totally dislike her job. Still, its insecurity is always on her mind: “When things are good with work, all it means is things will get worse.” She speaks from experience, having held many temporary jobs in her life. Teresa recalls these past roles while swimming laps at the YMCA, her “respite from the noisy world”: department store, data entry, country club, and her “best” job, as an editor at the Brooklyn Modern Museum, which she lost after reporting an intern’s plagiarism, an act of integrity her capricious boss didn’t appreciate. Since then, Teresa has found that she can’t shake her sense of vulnerability. And at her age, she feels that she has missed her window for meaningful employment.

The majority of the novel is made up of Teresa’s recollections, which are occasionally heavy-handed, reflective of McNeil’s straightforward and thorough style in Lurking. But Teresa’s exhaustive recall of past work experience is part of the point. Her memories serve as an antidote to the alienation that gig workers can feel when they are treated as interchangeable and expected to be constantly on call. After all, machines don’t remember in the nonchronological, non-iterative way that humans do. Teresa is asserting her humanity through her nostalgia.

Teresa’s almost obsessive reminiscing about her previous jobs is an expression of her desire to impose a storyline on her life. Without the stability of a career, she lacks a coherent sense of where she’s been and where she’s going. “Now that she’s been driving a while, all her work going forward is a journey toward an ending. How long can a middle go?” she reflects. This particular anxiety makes her painfully human: Most people’s lives amount to a long, boring middle with an unremarkable end. Teresa’s preoccupations reflect her feeling of being narratively lost.

To be human in the age of the gig economy, the novel suggests, is to be unfulfilled, a philosophy that is in direct contrast with AllOver’s. The company credo is called the “holistic apex,” which celebrates human success and the indomitable spirit. At one point, Teresa catches a TV segment featuring the CEO of AllOver, Falconer Guidry, in which he boasts about the CR: “Humans can’t be programmed,” he exclaims. “We have spirits. That spirit is the beauty of humanity, but it’s also what makes us monsters on the road. Machines live by rules. Machines don’t experience road rage. Machines are calm any hour of the day, in any driving conditions.” This might seem ironic at first—Falconer is boasting about his fleet of “driverless” cars while a human driver of one of those cars watches. But Falconer is basically correct: In her role, Teresa must remain calm, follow the rules, and never make mistakes—in other words, she must act like a machine. Teresa decides that maybe AllOver’s driverless fleet isn’t built entirely on a lie. The car is, in fact, driverless, she concludes, because “she’s part of the car. A seer is a car part, a battery.” The seer becomes CR.

What makes us human, Wrong Way suggests, is our ability to feel hurt, to ache, to long. But the desires for stability and for a story that makes sense are ones that, ultimately, not everyone gets to fulfill. Technological development has a human cost. Reading McNeil’s novel, one might wonder if it’s too late to imagine the future otherwise.

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