Domestic Technologies in the Postlabor Pandemic - Kate Rich
Updated: Aug 21, 2020
Figure 1: Amazon worker restocking produces. Courtesy of Digital Trends
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare professionals have received widespread gratitude, with many likening them to war heroes on a battlefield. Much of the other labor that is keeping the world on its feet, however, remains invisible. Domestic gig economy workers, in particular, are not widely recognized as honorary fighters on the imagined frontlines against the virus. The demand for domestic workers in the gig economy is rapidly increasing. Companies like Instacart and Amazon are hiring thousands of new employees to meet the growing demand for grocery delivery services. In recent years, tech companies have made steps to change the nature of domestic work by creating digital applications where users can get their groceries delivered by independent contractors. Unlike other members of the gig economy, such as rideshare drivers, the domestic gig economy is particularly concerned with the running of a home. Domesticity, or traditional notions of familial life and the private home, is something large tech companies maintain in a variety of ways. Specifically, tech companies are investing in a nostalgic vision of domesticity that erases the poorly compensated labor that goes into homemaking. The representations of digital grocery delivery services are an especially relevant example of how gig economy laborers are quietly shaping the interiority of the home. In short, tech companies are erasing the labor and struggle of workers in the domestic gig economy, most of whom are immigrants, women, and people of color.
Right now these services play an important role in social distancing efforts and providing resources for at-risk populations who can afford a delivery service. However, the increased use of domestic technologies during this pandemic incites lasting cultural implications. As people lament being confined to their homes, the increased mechanization of domestic labor is rendering home-related tasks like grocery shopping undesirable and invisible. With limited access to the public due to COVID-19, the private space of the home is viewed as safe but constricting and unwanted. Working from home has been described as the unwanted “new normal” as if stay-at-home parents, housekeepers, some disabled people, telecommuters, and others were not already working in the home.
From robotic vacuum cleaners to personal assistants, the work associated with the site of the home and the perception of domesticity is altered by technology. In the process, nostalgic ideals of cultural practices of the home are reproduced on a handheld screen. As Lynn Spigel puts it, “the new consumer robots are computer-powered versions of an imaginary 1950s housewife.” By relying on traditional imaginaries of domesticity to present technological advances, many emergent devices and platforms obscure the less idyllic realities of domestic and working-class laborers. As Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora argue, the mechanization of historically devalued labor is a postlabor logic that reproduces the fully human being as a moving target. Contemporary technologies that perform domestic tasks often invisibilize “work that has always been invisible: women’s work” and the laborers in the global south who often build these technologies in poor working conditions. Importantly, the erasure of the exploitation of immigrants and women of color domestic workers is also at stake when technology depoliticizes acts of housework. The site of the home, and the duties performed within it, carries a troubling history of servitude, slavery, and abuse that postlabor rhetorics of technology work to conceal. This is often achieved through nostalgic reinventions of the nuclear family as a connected household relying on emergent technologies.
When it comes to digital grocery shopping services, COVID-19 is expediting the invisibility of domestic laborers in the gig economy. Shortly before the pandemic struck, Amazon Prime Now was advertising how their digital grocery services created a happy middle-class home without a worker in sight. Several commercials showed families in beautiful homes entertaining and meeting new neighbors with the assistance of groceries conveniently delivered by Amazon. Families, particularly mother figures, suddenly have time for heartfelt familial moments instead of the supposed drudgery of menial domestic tasks. Throughout the advertisements, the independently contracted shoppers and delivery personnel who may be working without benefits are never shown. The food they deliver, however, is given extensive attention with camera close-ups of expensive, fully prepared meals (see Figure 1). No one can be seen cooking, cleaning, or taking the grocery bags into the house to prepare this expensive meal. Notably, the only process made visible is the consumption of luxury goods in a social setting. This is the labor-free home of the twenty-first century that Amazon’s digital services claim to provide. For Instacart, the inconspicuousness of grocery workers is also a key selling point for their company. In one commercial, the briefly featured worker does not ring the doorbell or speak when handing off the groceries. The young middle-class consumers, who speak to one another throughout the commercial, relish in the worker’s silence as their baby sleeps. For tech companies providing novel approaches to domestic labor, it is not enough to tell their consumers they will save time with grocery delivery services. Those services must also be voided of any indication of political consequences by portraying digitized domestic work as unseen and unheard.
Figure 2: Screenshot from “FREE 2-hour grocery delivery with Prime” commercial.
The adjustments grocery delivery companies have made in light of COVID-19 further normalize the invisibilization of this home-related work. In order to practice social distancing, major grocery delivery providers like Instacart, Amazon, and Shipt have all announced they will be implementing no-contact delivery drop off as an option to keep consumers safe. Across most grocery apps, consumers get to choose what kind of delivery option they are most comfortable with and workers comply with that choice. The domestic gig worker’s ability to better practice social distancing is entirely in the hands of the consumer. Although completely unseen and unheard, grocery delivery workers still exist and spend their days in public spaces where they are more likely to catch the highly contagious virus. While there are a number of protections for consumers, there is no assurance that preventative measures are being made to keep these independent contractors from getting sick. Towards the end of their COVID-19 statements, these tech companies mention that workers can take sick leave if they become ill with the virus. Health insurance or access to protective equipment that might prevent them from getting sick, however, are not part of this offer. In the context of these statements, it appears that the only purpose of that sick leave is to keep infected workers away from the safe homes of valued consumers. After all, sick leave does not protect workers from dying of COVID-19 in the overburdened American healthcare system. In the United States, a teenager is reported to have already died of coronavirus after being turned away from urgent care due to a lack of health insurance. Sick leave is practically useless when the lack of benefits given to tech company contractors is already a death sentence.
Tech companies who provide grocery deliveries are fully aware that they are asking people to risk their lives to quietly deliver supplies to people who can afford their services, so they have been asking for this favor carefully. In an announcement about hiring more delivery personnel, Amazon targets the specific audience of those who might be willing to risk their lives to pay rent. The company notes, "We also know many people have been economically impacted as jobs in areas like hospitality, restaurants, and travel are lost or furloughed as part of this crisis. We want those people to know we welcome them on our teams until things return to normal and their past employer is able to bring them back." While tech companies may be admired for creating jobs during an economic crisis, statements like this show how they are willing to prey on the unemployed and the poor to provide safety and comfort to those who can pay for it. During the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital grocery delivery services are not only keeping consumers safe but also claiming they are doing some kind of public service by asking economically vulnerable people to do deadly contract work with no benefits.
Tech companies have long espoused rhetorics that fetishize technology as an enhancement of the human subject. As technology becomes an even more integral part of our access to publics and material supplies during social distancing, the case for these devices enhancing the idyllic and safe home grows even stronger. In a statement about expanding their grocery shopping workforce, Instacart referred to their domestic gig workers as the “household heroes during this time.” In stark contrast to the aforementioned wartime metaphors used to describe healthcare professionals, domestic gig workers do not save lives or fight against an evil virus. The coronavirus pandemic has repeatedly been described as a war by the President of the United States and global media outlets. Yet, in the rare moments they are recognized, these workers are not envisioned as part of a widely-used public metaphor bringing attention to a health crisis. Rather, they are included in a more private subset of heroic duties involving the maintenance of the American household and the nuclear family living inside of it.
This limited gratitude for the serious risks domestic gig economy workers face vanishes when workers ask to be seen and heard. Grocery delivery shoppers are among the essential workers whose protests against companies such as Amazon and Instacart have been met with minimal action. As Sarah Polito, an Instacart shopper, told NPR "You can tell us that we're these household heroes and that you appreciate us. But you're not actually, they're not showing it. They're not taking these steps to give us the precautions. They're not giving us hazard pay." So far, worker protests have not stopped business or affected the profit margins of major companies that offer grocery deliveries. According to NPR, some companies have responded to the protests by downplaying the number of workers who attended. This is yet another instance where the voice and presence of domestic gig workers is minimized because their visibility is inconvenient for the profitability of maintaining the home. Grocery delivery apps are in the business of digital homemaking during a time of global panic. Their nostalgic vision of the safe households where the respectable family dwells relies on the erasure of its means of production.
The valorization of technology as a savior or a source of safety during uncertain times gives a new face to the reproduction of existing structures. Rooting digital services in the image of comfortable domestic ideals and “household heroes” also puts forth a utopia void of political consequences. This apolitical vision of a shared home assumes a collective experience of the world we live in. Truthfully, we all live in incredibly different worlds and there is no shared experience of the “new world” brought on by the pandemic. The panic and unexpected change brought on by the coronavirus, however, prompts tech companies to soothe consumers with the powerful nostalgia of traditional domesticity. Or, as Spigel articulates “the promise of a future without change allows us to imagine tomorrow in ways that stave off the threat of difference in the present.”
The postlabor vision of the home is reinventing itself through other means as the coronavirus pandemic has confined countless people to their homes. Existing forces that digitize and erase domestic work aim to capitalize on this cultural and biopolitical moment. In doing so, the technological present evokes historical ideas of homemaking without the bothersome concept of labor. Meanwhile, those of us who have the privilege of working from home have never been further from understanding how our homes are made.
 Lynn Spigel, “Yesterday’s Future, Tomorrow’s Home,” Emergences 11, no. 1 (2001): 36.  Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora, Surrogate Humanity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 95.  Thao Phan, “Amazon Echo and the Aesthetics of Whiteness,” Catalyst: feminism, theory, technoscience 5, no. 1 (2019): 4.  Damien Smith Pfister, “Against the Droid’s ‘instrument of efficiency,’ for animalizing technologies in a posthumanist spirit,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 50, no. 2 (2017): 204.  Spigel, “Yesterday’s Future,” 43.