man sweeping the floor in an office building
PHOTO: Verne Ho

Simplicity comes at a cost. If you look at societies where everything is made incredibly simple, easy and luxurious for a certain class, you are nearly always looking at a slave or a slave-like economy. The maids who look after rich people’s children cannot be at their own homes to look after their own children. A maid greatly simplifies one’s life. However, most modern societies cannot afford maids because they are too expensive. Even though they are not paid very well, they are still too expensive for most households. Only in the most unjust societies do we find that one particular group lives well, exploiting a service class who do all the menial hard labor for them.

Is this new Service Economy a digitally updated version of the slave economy? The word “service” comes from the Latin word servitium that means “slavery, the condition of a slave, servitude.” It could also refer to slaves collectively, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. In Latin, the word servus means “slave.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, the word “servant” was used to denote a slave in the North American colonies.

Service, maintenance and support have long been viewed as inferior occupations. The pay in these sectors is poor, and respect is feigned. We feel compelled to tip the service staff because we know they are paid meagre wages to serve us. (We don’t feel compelled to tip doctors, do we?) And now, we’re quickly becoming a service economy, which (if we follow the logic) means that we’re becoming a low-wage slave-based economy (in digital double-speak, it’s sometimes called the Gig Economy).

Complexity created the middle class. It created millions of jobs that require training and intelligence in order to be carried out. It’s a complex task to make a car, manage financial accounts, build a motorway and educate a child. Thriving societies need to strike a balance between complexity and simplicity — enough complexity to create lots of decent paying jobs, and enough simplicity so that society can run smoothly and efficiently.

The business case of so much modern technology is slavery. Technology entrepreneurs promise a toxic combination of cheapness and simplicity. For instance, Uber seeks to ride to a mega IPO on the backs of its drivers. Do you think for one moment that if Uber was paying its drivers more than they would get in a traditional taxi company, would it be valued anywhere near as much as it is now? But, we don’t care because Uber makes our lives easier, more convenient and cheaper. We’re all squeezed for time and money, so why not also squeeze someone lower down the ladder than us?

In modern societies, we least value those who interact with other humans the most. Those who interact with and serve humans the least (developers, financiers and so on) are the ones reaping rock star rewards. To serve is what servants do. And, the job of technology is often to monitor and closely manage servants and pay them as little as possible, so that the management can achieve their unrealistic short-term targets and pocket their fat bonuses.

The current service economy makes the middle class the working class and the working class the working poor. Meanwhile, our tech gazillionaires obsess about how they can dodge paying any tax, so they can build the biggest phallic yacht yet. So, the next time you use an app that makes your life simpler and more convenient, spare a moment to wonder whether it’s making someone else’s life much more miserable.