How the gig economy is ruining our lives

17 May|Andrew Smart

In San Francisco, killing yourself for subsistence wages is the hippest thing to do since vaping, says Andrew Smart

“You eat coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”

This is the text from a subway ad in San Francisco for a company called Fiverr which sells freelance services for everything from video editing to website development. The dirty secret of the gig economy is that, while it tries to lure young people in with promises of endless flexibility, to make a decent living you have to work endless hours.

In the heart of the capitalist technology world, San Francisco, there is nothing else but work. Identity, self-worth and one’s entire existence must revolve around it. Gig economy companies like Fiverr now try to sell sacrificing your life for work.

The irony of the new work-yourself-to-death philosophy taking over San Francisco is that it was here in the 1960s that the counterculture movement culminated in the summer of love. Today the emancipatory politics and summers of love are a distant speck on the receding touchscreen horizon, as the everything-on-demand gig economy has transformed San Francisco into a city cleaved in two. Young hip tech workers pay $5,000 a month in rent while scores of homeless people line the subway stations openly taking crystal meth or heroin. Are the homeless drug addicts also “doers” in the gig economy?

Fiverr’s ad campaigns feature young Burning Man-type hipsters staring at you in harsh moral judgment of your laziness. The ads exhort you to kill yourself working for your gig, and tower over the homeless laying in the subways in a jarring juxtaposition of American hyper-techno-capitalism’s two extreme creations; work addiction or drug addiction. As they step over the nearly dead homeless, every commuter is reminded where they could end up if they don’t work harder than everybody else on their team.

Microdosing with LSD is all the rage too for gig workers. It apparently works better than coffee or even cocaine for keeping you alert, creative and above all productive. Back in the 1960s, LSD used to be for achieving spiritual enlightenment, but today even LSD has been co-opted by the cult of productivity.

The gay liberation movement – so central to San Francisco’s radical history – has also become conservative. In the 1970s the gay movement in the Castro neighborhood was aligned with the anti-war, Black Power and radical feminist movements. Today gay liberation is about joining the military, getting married or becoming rich in the tech industry.

As job security has vanished, and the only well-paying jobs in San Francisco are reserved for highly-skilled software engineers, the gig economy for the lower classes dominates the city through the use of mobile phones and apps. These jobs offer no benefits like health insurance, and yet they demand total devotion in order to scrape by in the city, where rents are skyrocketing.

Beneath this work obsession is a deep moral sense that laziness is an evil to be fought – all to maximize your productivity and maximize your optimisation – or optimise your maximisation – or something. The common question in San Francisco is “What are you optimising for?” You MUST be optimising something – lest you wind up shooting heroin in the subway station. This moral denigration of idleness is of course nothing new; however, the tech industry and the gig economy are taking work addiction to extremes.

This is an extract from a longer piece to appear in Idler 55, which comes out in July. Subscribe now and we’ll send you this as the first issue of your subscription.