Will Alfred App Kill Society as we know?

Evan Selinger, a professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, is skeptical of outsourcing apps like Hello Alfred. He urges us to look at the bigger picture. Is it truly giving us more time or just the illusion of it? What do we lose when we stop doing the little things? (via PBS Newshour)

Tech-age butlers aren't just for superheroes anymore
Tech-age butlers aren’t just for superheroes anymore – PBS Video

A year ago, an app like Hello Alfred would have been extremely attractive to my household. We were in the middle of trying out services like Plated, Hello Fresh, and Club W, hoping to avoid the doldrums of planning ahead and choice with the latest app.

PBS Newshour looked at Hello Alfred, a seeming clone of services like Taskrabbit, where you pay to have someone else take care of the less pleasant tasks in life. In a certain light, this is the natural progression of the “lifehacking” movement into the app world.

But what does lifehacking bring to our lives? What happens when we outsource our lives to Others?

Lifehacking is a larger symptom of the value our society places on doing more, on being busy. We value the illusion of living more than actually living.

1. “As a society, we are so overworked and so stressed out that we need to outsource as many tasks as possible.”

What is Plated?
Description of Plated

“…so you can create great food with less effort.”

When we tried Plated, it was because we wanted to outsource tasks in our lives. We felt too busy to shop, too busy to plan ahead. When we came home, we didn’t want to think, so we found and paid someone else to think for us — Plated.

Plated is a great example of the current wave of “life outsourcing” because it’s stated aim, creating great food with less effort, is something that is attractive to many families.

My wife and I, however, learned some valuable lessons from Plated.

One, it’s great food. Two, you still have to cook it yourself. Three, it’s pretty damn easy to create great meals, you just have to have the right recipe and ingredients.

So, what happened? We learned to simplify our grocery shopping and meal planning and stopped using Plated. We did, because of financial necessity, what many other families do: build your week’s menu out of ingredients you can use in multiple ways for multiple meals.

We’ve simplified our breakfasts and lunches, so the only meal we need to plan for each week is dinner; everything else is pretty much on regular rotation – autopilot.

And the reason for this was the same reason why we chose to use Plated, to stop thinking and stressing over our meals. We now have a healthy balance of eating out, convenience foods/meals, and home-cooked dishes.

We still outsourced, but instead of using an app, we simplified the entire process instead.

2. “Silicon Valley is trying to disrupt friction in our lives. We should avoid friction.”

To me, this is one of the main theses of Silicon Valley and/or VC investment culture today:

Take a common pain point and create an app or service, providing your company recurring revenue to solve that pain point in a person’s life.

But why?

Why do I need to pay a subscription service for replacing my furnace filters? Really? Buy a six-pack, put them next to your furnace, create a monthly reminder on your phone. Done. And you know what? It costs a lot less than a subscription.

So many of these apps and services seem to be coastal phenomena, rather than actual game-changers; they address extremely local problems that make venture capitalists seem to think these coastal problems (and “solutions”) much far-reaching than they are in real life.

Once the real world evaluates the “solutions” that Silicon Valley proposes, more often than not, the solution fails. Only when the solution affects a larger population, or solves a “real” problem, can it truly succeed long term.

Laundry services as apps cannot scale. They merely switch out one solution for a complete copy, just with a prettier app (or app, period.) Wine subscription service? A swap for a visit to the local liquor store (or gas station, here in Iowa) would be warranted instead. Take any of these service-based apps, and you’ll find that the solution proposed doesn’t hold much of a candle to services already provided by society at-large.

3. “What kind of person do I become as I outsource more of my life?”

I thought this was the more intriguing question posed by the Newshour article, and one that I hadn’t fully thought about until coming upon the question.

The idea the question poses to me is the precursor to the feelings and emotions I now have towards services like Plated and Club W. If I were to outsource more and more decisions of my life, what do I have left?

Yes, I do like the utopian idea that the more I outsource, the more I can focus on what is “meaningful” in my life. Or the idea that the monetary value of my time outweighs my own time spent on menial tasks.

I can see the points and values of those arguments.

But, I think the Newshour article wants us to go deeper than that first level question. What I think we need to ask ourselves is this, “What creates meaning in our life?”

The goal of outsourcing tasks is to simplify.

I see two ways of accomplishing the goal of simplification.

One: Hire out.

Two: Cut out.

What our society tells us today is that we need to hire out, we need to be constantly and consistently doing more. We need to watch more television shows, then read the books those shows are based off, then read the blogs, be on Twitter, pick up our kids, cook meals, read bedtime stories, do laundry, walk the dog, pick up dog poo, clean the litter box, go to happy hour, work on a side business, write our blog, you name it.

Tired just reading that list, aren’t you? I am.

In the long run, hiring out, outsourcing, is worse than doing the task ourselves; outsourcing hides the real truth from us and from society.

We do too much. We are too busy.

4. “I don’t have to worry about <insert concern here> because <app or service> will take care of it.”

When does it stop? When do we stop outsourcing our lives and start living them? When we outsource our lives to apps and services that allow ourselves to ignore what happens in our lives, we lose a part of our humanity. That statement may seem a little too “pollyanna” for some, but please recognize that this comes from a family that has tried these apps and services.

There is no quick answer, no easy way to “not be busy.” An app, by itself, is not going to make your life easier. A service, by itself, is not going to make your life easier. What is going to make your life easier and seem less busy is to focus on the items of importance.

Frankly, our society is so preoccupied with quick fixes that we stop working towards a better future if the fix takes too much work. This preoccupation permeates our society all the way from the individual and family level, to the heights of corporate and political leadership. We’re looking for the quick buck, the quick solution to our problem, the diet pill, and so forth.

The easy solution?

Focus on living. Focus on life. Your family. Your friends. Your community.

Don’t live a Facebook life, or an Instagram life. Live your life.