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  • Writer's pictureWalter Dornstedt

The Last Mile Home - (English version)

(WD: before you read on please note following: what started as a neutral translation of the Dutch version a bit earlier today actually became a slightly improved version. (In the end, we're all Beta-releases, enjoy!))

Bridging the last mile to the customer, to the end user is the most difficult and expensive piece of the puzzle that is the platform economy. All steps and links that precede that moment are perfectly organized and tuned with algorithms. It only becomes difficult when the human delivery person comes into the picture, and the physical and unruly infrastructure is addressed. In the recent publication 'Work in Transition' by DenkWerk, it is stated that the person providing this care has no job anymore between 2020-2030. He and his co-workers will, sooner rather than later, be replaced by handy delivery robots, who drive into our front yards, unlock the smartlocks and put the self-ordered packet of milk in the fridge. And so, more traditional professions will disappear, and human resources will be driven to the periphery of the economic world. Is that a world where we will still feel at home - and where we can still be truly 'human' without having to adjust to an ever-increasing pace? Perhaps the answer lies in the final part of the homecoming, the 'home stretch'.

Now, in 2019, the road from distribution centre to the customer meanders through industrial sites, wide traffic plazas and smooth motorways, but also through provincial roads, village centres, cosy little streets and soulless Vinex areas. Intertwined delivery becomes a costly, head-breaking challenge in overcrowded urban areas. The disruptive services such as Deliveroo and Ubereats were invented for this situation. Both exponents of the gig economy, where local and readily available fresh labour can be activated immediately. In this respect, it seems company-strategy to make the pool of available 'riders', the supporting and physical nodes of the delivery service, as large as possible as quickly as possible, so that individual resistance to falling rates makes way for mutual competition. In other words: if you, Deliveroo colleague, do not take that 5 euro ride because the amount is lower than what you could charge last time, I'll do it. In fact, I need that money to be able to order my own food later on.

This example of Deliveroo is not random. In the example of Deliveroo, the Dutch court has ruled that, because of the clear definition of their work, these delivery workers are entitled to a regular employment contract and to the protection of a collective labour agreement, in this case resorting under the professional goods transport sector. It is remarkable, however, that the suffering subjects, the bicycle couriers, do not actually want this type of ‘protection’, because the platform service will not structurally adapt its method and its practice. Whoever opposes this, prices himself out of market. That is the hard law of supply and demand. Most refusers are also fit, strong boys who do this job next to their management studies. They realize that, if they want to land a job higher up the food chain in a company like Deliveroo and Uber, they must not be the proverbial 'pain in the arse’ No, what I see in front of me is the Hindustani parcel deliverer who takes his underage son on his trips through my local neighbourhood, so that he can help him hit his daily quota. And I hear the jaded 70-year old man on Sunday afternoon push the thick bundle of advertising brochures into my mailbox, with grey face and cracked fingers.

When I try to understand this from a narrative perspective, when I switch to so-called 'story mode', this disruptive turn of the socio-economic story can be understood as a tempo-change (acceleration) and a plot-change, whilst the ideological theme remains intact. In fact, the ideological theme gains in strength as the human actors see their role shrink and the neoliberal story with the help of innovative technology can penetrate ever deeper into the capillaries of the individuals. Deliveroo's example provides the logical and existential proof of this claim: belief in the own lucrative, future position in the proliferating network society, and abiding by the algorithmic laws, beats the perspective of relying on collective agreements and socially acquired securities. And thus the story remains riveted to its original outcome: the realization, at all costs, of a future salvation on a horizon for which the here and now may be sacrificed. And the existing social fabric, and the contracts, the stories with which we kept these fabrics together, are exchanged for a more streamlined and attractive future version. The new story complies with the logic of the underlying ideology.

You might object: what if we do not believe in that story? And embrace a different story? That of generous sharing with each other. After all, sharing is also the essential characteristic of the network. Division is its most own, viral quality. By sharing and dividing, the network weaves its own supporting structure, its vital organs and its skin. With senses, intuition and even supra-sensory qualities. The network exists and perpetuates itself as far as it expands and continually manifests its contagious quality. With it, it constantly creates and recreates its own reality. It produces itself as far as it consumes itself. Expansion is therefore accompanied by telling and believing in a convincing story. The strength and portability of the story are of vital importance when a mass must be brought together that transcends the intimate, human-like contact of 150 individuals, as is also expressed by Harari in 'Sapiens'. In the film 'Social Network' (David Fincher, 2010), Mark Zuckerberg is also only satisfied with the launch of The Facebook when the students manage to crash the Harvard mainframe network due to massive data traffic. The sardonic smile of Zuck, convincingly portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, said enough. What was sexier than, as Harvard graduate, from your dorm, with your friends, to make contact with that coveted cheerleader that lives just a few houses away, become part of her story, and, through her circle of friends , probe a number of other 'romantic prospects' ? The appearance of intimacy in an ice cold technical universe. The new world (Silicon Valley) implanted itself in the old world (Harvard) and blew up the socio-economic structures from within. The outsider, Mark Zuckerberg, drove the network over its borders on a single evening and modelled a new virtual community, an exciting new reality, a great story to live in. He thereby proved the business case of Facebook. The exponential technological innovation that followed in the years after its founding resulted in a rapid realization of the current socio-economic scenario, in which increasing computing power was married to devious algorithms. Personal profiles and intimate stories were spread over networks and the user data was sold to the highest bidders. As an important platform, Facebook is exemplary, but Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Oracle have been equally important in creating their new reality in their own way.

A reality that is a story. You could also claim that it is a simulation that refers to nothing else than empty signs and virtual or digital 'augmented' identities that form the network society. In addition, I cannot emphasize enough that the vitality and ground of that socio-economic fabric can always only exist by the grace of the fundamental hybrid function of the human actors. Hybrid also because the human being can never be caught in an unambiguous closed identity. When I exercise the profession of an Accounting Clerk, nowadays also a threatened profession, I am not that job. Something remains human, at least the finite being of my being. The network society is sinking, in the last resort, into the insoluble human residue. The humane makes itself endlessly possible in the impossibility of the network to totalize the sensitive individual in a closed wholeness. Simply because new stories can always be invented and told. Stories that are anchored in the inalienable own experience, and that resonate with the other person. This experience and the communication of that experience between individuals create an emotional safe-house. A story in which you can exist. A story in which, for a moment, you find a 'home away from home' of which no tech manufacturer has the digital key. I would always want to return to such a house. And on the last mile of that odyssey I will be carried on wings, as the winning cyclist on the flanks of the Alpe d'Huez dances upwards. Not because I'm in a drone, but just because it does not cost me a penny, and the way back always seems 'shorter' than the outward journey. How would that happen? Is that perhaps that unquantifiable human residue that cannot be eliminated? And is experiencing that residue in our nostalgia perhaps also our 'Final Stand'? Is it the sweet pain that fuels our endeavours to explore our world, to leave our homes only to maximize the anticipated pleasure of coming home a better, wiser man? And is that the quality that makes us undeniably human ? The last mile home will tell.

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