In “Trash of the Titans,” the 200th episode of The Simpsons from 1998, Homer runs for sanitation commissioner of Springfield as an outsider on a populist platform. Tired of having to take out his trash to the curb and paying for its collection, one of his first actions in office is to have his sanitation workers do household chores for everyone in Springfield. His platform was simple: “Can’t someone else do it?”
Last summer, I heard about a new app that seemed to reflect everything was wrong with the Silicon Valley, the tech industry, and the so-called gig economy: Pooper.
Pooper is an app that allows dog owners to take their dog for outdoor walks and let the dog defecate. Once your dog has dropped its deuce, you…
- open the app
- photograph the spot where your dog pooped
- someone arrives to scoop your dog’s shit
To put it in high-concept terms for Silicon Valley: It’s Uber for poop. Pooper!
If this sounds too good—or too awful—to be true, don’t worry, it is most certainly fake. And don’t confuse it with the other Pooper for when you need to poop.
Pooper is less an app or a work of comedy than it is a piece of conceptual art.
Pooper’s website contains all the hallmarks of a tech company. There’s a sandwich video, a familiar-looking mobile app that looks a lot like Uber, and a feature list illustrated with icons.
The Pooper service even mocks other tech services by offering three price points: a basic, a premium, and an unlimited tier.
The project creators intended to criticize the gig economy built into the service sector companies masquerading as revolutionary apps. They see these as contributing “to the downfall of society.”
A few years ago, when I polled students about driving for Uber or running errands on Task Rabbit, they responded favorably to these services and echoed the mantra of gig economy: it’s cool because it lets people make extra money on the side. However, as these students were attending a private university in New York City, I think they were only imagining themselves using these services—to get a cheap ride or have someone wait in line for a Cronut—and not actually working for these companies as independent contractors.
It’s early, but I have started to see a backlash of the gig economy. Pooper was one example that highlighted the other side of the tech-drive gig economy by including a link to “Become a Scooper.”
The Scooper page drew attention to the labor that the tech economy eliminates from view. The page is preposterously bright and sunny, promising that it’s good for everyone in terms of cleaner cities with less dog waste, extra income for scoopers, and a better environment with compostable scooping materials.
It sounds great, right? Sure, until you realize you’re picking up dog shit.
These mom-tech apps deliberately hide the humans doing the actual work. Seamless is perhaps the most deliberate about it: promising zero human contact. That’s a bold promise because a human has to prepare your food, another human has to package it, and one more has to deliver it. I suppose you could ask the delivery guy to leave it on the step outside to ensure you make truly have no face-to-face contact… or perhaps you don’t consider the delivery guy to be a human.
The same is true for similar apps. There’s always a human—probably a poorly paid one—doing the work you tapped on your app to avoid doing. It’s time to recognize that.