s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe

Opinion

Chirag Asaravala is a management consultant and avid naturalist. He is a consultant for Marin Biologic Laboratories in Novato.

One sunny day this past summer I noticed my teen daughter and her friends, while relaxing poolside in our suburban backyard, placing food delivery orders via their smartphones. I assumed they were just calling in a to-go order and that one of them would go pick it up.

I was surprised to see, however, less than an hour later a rather unkempt vehicle pull into my driveway and a smiling, but hurried, young African-American woman walk up with a Door Dash hot-bag to deliver the food to the much-younger-than-her kids in my backyard.

I felt uncomfortable with the whole scene and thought about it on and off for months afterwards ,  trying to understand what specifically about the event made me uneasy. I had to give it that length of time because I knew if I said — or posted — anything immediately, it would likely get misconstrued by my friends, neighbors and family as elitist or even racist.

Rest assured, my issue was not about my perception of a beat-up old Honda driven by a black woman showing up in my admittedly privileged gated community. In fact, it is quite the contrary.

The issue is about socio-economics and class-ism, very much like what I saw and grew up around in Mumbai, India, as a child.

American venture capitalists and their host of sideline cheerleaders — from investors to media, to the very startups themselves — beat a steady drum of how all such endeavors are a sign of entrepreneurialism and innovation. They convince us that this is “technology” at its finest, and our young college graduates are being hired to engineer “global solutions”  —  that this is the type of “disruption” that is good.

When it comes to many aspects of the “sharing” or “peer-to-peer” economies — the euphemisms applied by esteemed analysts and investors — this sort of enterprise is really nothing new. The apps and digital tools that support it may be new, and the new generation of American users may be new to the concept, but anyone who has spent time in countries with massive wage disparity will tell you these services are not innovative . And in fact, are the signs of emerging oppression and growing social stratification.

These app-based services are virtual canaries in the coal mine of a country that is floundering and struggling to make meaningful work for its young persons.

Forty years ago in India, there were no apps, yet you could have just about any food or service at your doorstep in under a few minutes. A whistle from the apartment balcony, a quick shout to your home-servant, a hand gesture to the man with a basket on his head, and you had anything from a hot lunch, car service, shave or even currency exchange at your door.

This sort of personalized service still exists in India today in fact — a reason why many app-based similars haven’t taken off in India — and is far more efficient and integral to Indian society than the novelty it provides currently in the U.S. But there are no corporate behemoths or T-shirt-wearing Sandhill billionaires with their hands in the pockets of the on-the-ground workers. It is self-employment and small-business at its most fundamental level: It is survival.

Countries like India, China, the Philippines and many others in the East have always had that elusive “scale” VCs are constantly chirping about when it comes to the sharing economy. The reason is simple : The haves can afford to pay the have-nots for the convenience of having their haircut or ear wax removed on their porch. Yes, those are real and actual services. With a market size in the billions, scale happens quickly.

Opinion

Chirag Asaravala is a management consultant and avid naturalist. He is a consultant for Marin Biologic Laboratories in Novato.

The difference, however, between food delivery in Mumbai and San Francisco is that in India it is the uneducated and impoverished class who have realized serving the wealthier is their only hope for survival and upward mobility. It is one step up from begging, two steps up from perishing  —  which there is plenty of in India as well.

There is a big gap between entrepreneurialism and necessity . The entrepreneur is trying to dream, while the poor man serving out of necessity is trying to wake up from his nightmare. There are and have been billions in India and other similar developing nations who served and continue to serve in undignified occupations merely for the hope their children will not have to follow in their footsteps.

In America and the American form of capitalism, we are led to believe through flashy apps and crafty logos that Uber, Door Dash, PostMates and so many more “peer services” are the seedlings of the entrepreneur and the progress of society . Yet look closely at those who are actually performing the service . They are simply trying to avoid the rapid descent into the impoverished class.

Most Uber drivers will tell you they also drive for Lyft and participate in other delivery-based services. They will also tell you that this is not a job they do for fun nor for virtue, but simply as a means to make ends meet. I have met immigrants with an equivalent to an M.D. who are now resigned to earning some algorithmic percentage of whatever “surge value” a Silicon Valley startup has charged to the beneficiary of the service. Unlike those underdeveloped nations, here the service provider doesn’t even set their own price, let alone handle their own transaction. You get paid last for a job you never dreamed about.

And it is certain everyone using these services would never wish their children pursue such livelihoods.

And it is also certain we all nod our heads in agreement, while attending our respective churches and temples, when told that it is the rich who should serve the poor, that the fortunate shall bring food to the less fortunate.

While we are likely fast-creating a new super-subclass of worker in America, it may not be them that we should feel sorry for or have worry over. Except in the most extreme circumstances of famine and illness, the world’s poor are, in fact, much happier and heartier from their adversity than the privileged that they serve.

They, for one, know how to live below their means, work harder, cook their own food and do more with less in all aspects. Being low only results in a greater space for optimism and hope to move into.

However, it is we, the very users of these divisive services and apps, who ought to be worried. Americans stopped slowing down to cook their own meals nearly 75 years ago. Fast food became the rare treat, then the norm. And now that is no longer fast enough, for food must arrive right where we are with a tap or swipe of a finger.

And for what? So our young minds can spend more time working and consuming  —  building “scale”  —  with disregard to health, nature and self-sufficiency. The Roman philosopher Seneca, even in A.D. 14, wrote about the man so wealthy and served upon that he had to ask his servant whether he was standing or sitting.

Perhaps, what America really needs to invest in is a new type of VC, as in virtue consciousness.