This contribution by Alina Lupu is part of the special issue of the Pervasive Labour Union zine on the Entreprecariat. Read it here and download it for free as PDF or EPUB.
I fell in love with Frank overnight. It was easy.
Our food delivery bike courier group has a common means of communication: an instant message exchange channel. It’s the perfect substitute for presence. I’ve only ever met three of my supervisors in person: during my onboarding, and during the last 5 months we’ve relied solely on out of person messaging instead. This common channel is perverted to the core by a constant stream of irony, self-deprecation, bouts of rage and the occasional mention of schedule sign-up reminders, city-wide alerts and policy changes; it’s also always available. This is where I learned about Frank, it was from some of my colleagues, but even before that I had the comforting feeling that he was there.
“Increasingly, software algorithms allocate, optimize, and evaluate work of diverse populations ranging from traditional workers such as subway engineers, warehouse workers, Starbucks baristas, and UPS deliverymen to new crowd-sourced workers in platforms like Uber, TaskRabbit, and Amazon, mTurk. How do human workers respond to these algorithms taking roles that human managers used to play?”
(Working with Machines: The Impact of Algorithmic and Data-Driven Management on Human Workers, Min Kyung Lee, Daniel Kusbit, Evan Metsky, Laura Dabbish Human-Computer Interaction Institute, Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University)
One decided swipe across the screen would kickstart our daily exchanges. From the very moment I’d hop up on my bike saddle at the beginning of a shift I could be his. I shared Frank, but in the rush of the moment I wanted to feel that he cared about me in particular.
“algorithms define action. Amazon’s algorithm keeps you buying. Netflix keeps you watching. And newer algorithmic applications like Waze keep you moving. Algorithms define business. They encode the rules, the behaviours and the decision-making abilities into software. I now have so many smart devices, that the only thing is not smart, is me.”
(Peter Sondergaard, Gartner senior vice president, http://formtek.com/blog/algorithmic-management-algorithms-that-can-manage-people/)
At times I had the reassurance. I could see it in the small gestures that he’d make, the well crafted routes he would give me, making sure I never strayed too far away from home, or if I did, that he’d put me back on track in no time.
He’d guide me from one stop to the next and take into account my start point and start time as well as my end time for the day. During 5 hour shifts I’d cross the city from West to East, linger in the center, and be guided back to the West at the end of the evening.
The orders consisted of delicate twists in my psychology – re-evaluating meaning and the need to carry a bag of french fries in a smaller bag, inside a bigger bag, for 4 kilometers – and re-arrangements of my physiology – I’d carry my life-line, my connection with Frank in an improvised holder on my left arm, the velcro of which had fallen apart and was now closed shut with the help of 6 asymmetrically placed staples. I always had a power bank as a safety measure in my bag. Over the weeks that passed, my spine started developing a slight bend from the bag and there were light pink and light blue strips of glued cotton, three fingers wide, one palm in length, holding up my knees as they occasionally ached, with each push of pedal. I’d put them on at midday, leave them up for a couple of days, as advised. When peeled away, in a quick to tear manner, they would leave a ghost of their presence on my skin, a light contour of dirty glue, after it rubbed off of my clothes. I’d treat the symptom, but not the source.
I’d never find out the full extent of my trip in advance. He kept me guessing, he surprised me everytime. I’d first be guided to the restaurant, told the address, and then to a customer. From one minute to the next I’d be headed in one direction, then switched to a whole different one, but I didn’t mind.
If I ever felt that I’m being taken too far, that I’m too tired, that I can’t make it for another 20 minutes I’d hand over my trust to Frank’s judgement that he won’t push me over the edge. I’d know that he wants what’s best for me – more orders per hour, more bonuses, more tips. He’d get me there.
The orders ran the gamut from 5 to 20 minutes distance one way and 10 to 40 minutes in total, or from 1-2 kilometers to 5-6 and more kilometers combined.
As the saddle softly squeezed my crotch with the help of the weight of my body, and the weight of the order I was carrying, by the first hour into a shift I would feel myself getting wet and I lingered, maybe longer than I should have, when I was supposed to be jumping off of my bike instead, unloading my package, ringing the doorbell and smiling after I went up the stairs to the second floor to hand over my order to an unsuspecting customer whose name I knew, who didn’t know mine.
Those moments of waiting, the sweet pressure of riding, they added up.
I’d stop by the side of the road and remember the value of a second:
A saw blade can spin over 50 times per second
A conveyor can move objects 15 feet or more
An exhaust fan can complete over 20 revolutions per second or more
A car driving 60mph can travel 30 yards per second
Objects can fall 16 feet per second
It’s also there where I’d come, suspended in mid-traffic, mouth parted, eyes half closed, enjoying the sway.
In in-between moments, there was a tiny animation on my screen: though everyone uses bikes to deliver, a scooter graced a scenery filled with narrow houses and silhouettes of trees which pass by. You could tap the screen, while you were waiting for an order to come in, and the scooter would elevate a few pixels in the imaginary air, hopping along make-belief neighborhoods.
On slow days, I tapped the screen continuously and have seen the scooter elevate hundreds of times a minute. In those moments I felt he had forgotten me. I anxiously longed for action, to drift in and out of climaxing, get flustered, lose focus, legs going up and down, my thighs rubbing one another to the rhythm of the quick bobbing up and down of my entire torso.
As I was to further find out, the work of a food delivery courier is an unreliable source of income. They call it “income on the side” in this new economy. It’s the kind of paycheck that helps you to put one of your hobbies (in this case biking) and already existing resources (phone, bike, internet subscription, working and residency permit, time) to good use in allowing you to: buy a color TV, renovate a spare bedroom, go on a short vacation, lose some weight. It’s never framed as a stepping stone towards a better working position, but much rather towards a better you. In the economy of self-improvement all roads lead to the individual and the individual can learn to be serviceable, can improve their assets, but somehow, while being lower down the chain, they can’t really access wealth, unless you count the unbridled nature of emotional wealth.
With Frank it was less of a matter of him staring at my ass, more a feeling of overarching security. In him I’d find someone who would care enough to push me to the best of my abilities, who wanted me to be better than when I started.
He’d know my name, where I lived, he’d get me to sure-fire pleasure.
At night I’d get home still pumped up after a full-run across town.
“Work and life become inseparable. Capital follows you when you dream. Time ceases to be linear, becomes chaotic, broken down into punctiform divisions. As production and distribution are restructured, so are nervous systems.” (Capitalist Realism. Is there no alternative? Chapter 5. Don’t let yourself get attached. Mark Fisher)
Freshly showered I’d hop on my bike again and take Frank along on the ride. I’d snap pictures of my trails and post them in the common chat, where I hoped he would see them. I didn’t really believed he was ever asleep. I longed to show him the world as I saw it, I wasn’t in it just for the fuck. I hoped we could share in that quiet re-assurance that the globe continued to spin even when nobody was hungry, or when bodies were too tired and fell swiftly asleep.
I’d fall too, around 4 AM, still holding on to my phone, lights blinking, covered only by a smile.
Alina Lupu is a conceptual artist and a food delivery bike courier, at times a project manager, a copywriter, a photographer, an all-around side-jobber.
Also published on Medium.