The Smartphone as a tool of oppression in the Gig Economy

Smartphones connect us with the virtual world, but also bind us. [ref]I don’t speak of it from experience, because the first smartphone I got was after I finished work. And I decommissioned the bugger about a month ago because it was seriously pissing me off. It did most of the things I could do with a computer, but all at half cock, and was poor at answering phone calls.[/ref]

A digital nomad in her natural environment (Bali I think). Smartphones work just fine for people like these
A digital nomad in her natural environment (Bali I think). Smartphones work just fine for people like these, they never had it so good

The smartphone epitomises what has changed about the world of work, and a whole bunch of articles this last week have reminded me that it has changed, in my view adversely for many workers. I am beginning to understand why so many people are pissed off at the lower end of the employment spectrum. At the middle and top end, they are having a blast – the smartphone is emancipation of the four hour work week, the contractor, the digital nomad and all that. All these dudes are whooping it up and going “wassup, you never had it so good?”. Tim Ferris’s The 4 Hour Work Week is the bible for this crowd. . Back in the real world, it’s the lumpenproletariat taking the shaft, along with a lot of disrespect through what has become a tool of oppression.

How low end work used to be in the 1960s to 1980s

The world of work in the analogue world had a lot of hazard and unpleasantness in it, there was overt racism and discrimination is many areas, and humans did a lot of physical work which was terrible for their health. Some of the improvements in longevity and the narrowing of the expected lifespan between men and women of recent years has been due to running some of these jobs out of town. My Dad worked with glass bottling machinery, he was already losing his hearing by my age and was stone deaf by the time he died. There’s a whole gratuitous rant in this post about for God’s sake don’t trash your hearing with loud sounds and use hearing protection with power tools when you’re over 40 inspired by his experience. Blue collar work was a bastard and took it out of you.

Arthur Scargil, 19 years a miner and rabble rouser deploying flying pickets against Edward heath. Met his match with Thatcher in 1984
Arthur Scargill, 19 years a miner and then rabble rouser successfully deploying thugs otherwise known as flying pickets to switch off the lights under Edward Heath’s 1970s administration. Met his match with Thatcher in 1984.

As I child I used to listen to the revolting turkey Arthur Scargill harp on on the radio about how mining was a tough and dangerous job demands oodles of pay, and yet resisting like hell when Thatcher offered[ref]I know it was an existential fight and all that but the miners lost my sympathy when they turned the lights off while I was at school and I heard arrogant SOBs like Scargill tell how they were going to run things by sending thugs round to stop other people working.[/ref] to stop future generations going down t’pit by switching power generation away from coal to natural gas. WTF was going on there? Scargill called a strike to guarantee that uneconomic pits should not be closed, presumably a social service to keep dangerous employment open despite it not making money. Coal mining was typical of a lot of blue collar work in the past – dirty, dangerous but compared to low-end unskilled work now, paid better to compensate for that. This Is Money have an interesting contrast of working conditions between 1952 and 2012. In pretty much all aspects conditions in 1952 were worse. But there was a place in the economy for unskilled labour, and people knew where they stood. On the downside, opportunities were dreadfully limited for women and for the brighter poor.

Many blue collar jobs had a decent level of community spirit among the workforce, which manifested in the strong union presence. These jobs were stable across years, even a working lifetime, largely because work practices didn’t change much. In some manual jobs skill and experience built up over decades. So although there was a lot wrong with many jobs, there were some things right. In particular the sense of community and the dignity in work. Some employers provided pensions which were defined – my Dad was a fitter but benefited from one of these.

A key part of  most jobs in those days was that they were clearly defined into working time and non-working time. When the factory whistle blew and the workforce downed tools they were off the clock and work was out of mind. This was because communications were limited – phones were connected to places not people. I personally feel the smearing of work into non-work has been one of the most pernicious things to have changed over the last 20 years. As John Philpott of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development said in 2012

The world of work has fundamentally changed, but it is not a change which is making many of us happy, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

He blamed the invention of new technology, from laptops to the BlackBerry[ref]Doesn’t that date the report – this was a year after the hot summer of rage when da yoof ran amok and rioted in London for better trainers, communicating via BlackBerry Messenger. I don’t know if you can get a Blackberry these days[/ref]  and the iPhone, which is ‘imposing entirely new pressures on staff.’

While it has liberated people to work from home or from outside the office, it has resulted in ‘information overload, created pressure for an instant response, enabled more sophisticated monitoring and surveillance of employees, and blurred the boundaries between work and non-work time.’

It is possible that I have a limiting belief because my idea of the place of work and leisure was formed in the previous generation – Stephanie Buck (H/T Monevator) puts it elegantly:

Leisure came to define a person’s identity during this time, in many cases superseding career identity. Having a hobby was not only accessible, it was a status symbol. It meant one had time to relax, a privilege previously enjoyed only by the very wealthy.

This is probably one of the reasons why I just don’t miss working at all. I have been able to surrender a career identity because it had less meaning to me. That is the upside of my antediluvian understanding of work. I was also fortunate enough to have spent most of the time working in a reasonably congenial environment with enough challenge to be interesting. I don’t recognise most of my job in Buck’s later observation

Instead of viewing work as the inevitable grind and hobbies as core to one’s identity, as in the post-war era, today’s professionals strive to equate career with leisure.

I started work in 1982, in the transition period between that world and the one we have now, and benefited initially from the improved flexibility but the old community structures of the workplace.

That was then – better communications is changing the workplace massively

Communications have improved over the last 20 years – the advent of the Internet and WWW came in tandem with mobile communications where you now call a person rather than a place you expect them to be, and of course you have more modes of communication.

Strange things have happened as a result. In the early days we expected better comms would mean people to be able to do remote working from anywhere, even on the beach. See digital nomad, above – just imagine all of us doing that. At school I was really told that the future would have lots for leisure time and  we’d be typically working one day a week. How did that turn out for y’all?

In fact what has happened is that high-paying jobs have concentrated in London[ref]I know, not all of them, but the drift has been huge[/ref] which sucks in people and money, creating a lot of misery in the middle range of ability because they are all in competition with each other for finite geographical space and skyrocketing housing costs. It really wasn’t meant to turn out like this, but it seems the network effect, combined with the increasing instability of jobs means workers need to concentrate geographically, both to interact more with each other but also to have a better chance of replacing one job with another when they get the chop without having to move or take huge commutes.

We didn’t realise it at the time, but the limitations on communications and physical transport of goods and services was a great equaliser. As a thought experiment, say we still made chairs by hand but otherwise had all the information comms and containerisation and Deliveroos we have now. When a horse limited a day’s range to 20 miles, every market town could support, say, a skilled carpenter. In a globalised and high transport world, you’d only need as many carpenters as you need to make the amount of wooden stuff needed. Put them all in one place, call it Heartwood Valley and transport the goods for next to nothing. The quality of the carpentry will probably be a little be higher, and the price probably cheaper, but there will be far fewer carpenters employed worldwide. House prices in Heartwood Valley will probably rise, both because the star carpenters will be making more money but they all have to live where the jobs are.

So now take finance, management consultants, IT and stick ’em all in London. No wonder grunts can’t afford to live there. This is not a new phenomenon, though the intensity of the effect is increasing. Thirty years ago an Ermine in a modest but above-average paying technical job was driven out of London. Where I was more fortunate than Millennials was that the concentration of jobs in London and hollowing out of the rest of the country hadn’t happened, and that jobs were more stable so the risk of ending up in a one-hoss town was less strategically dangerous than it would be now.

Zero-hours contracts aren’t new

I worked on what would now be called a zero-hours contract, in 1979/80-ish ISTR. As a kitchen porter – the idea was you go to an agency early in the morning and they would allocate work on a first come first serve basis. There was no guarantee of any work at all, but you generally got to know the system. No phones or anything. When I inflation adjust my earnings to now I was working for a lot less than the minimum wage, too. That sort of work allocation existed elsewhere too,  dockers used to line up in the morning on the same sort of basis to get casual work unloading ships.

Smartphones let employers dynamically allocate work to people via apps, that has the opportunity to turn zero hours contracts into oppression. Casual work is casual because anybody can do it – if you can drive you can drive for Uber, for Deliveroo, and pretty much anyone can flip burgers for McDonald’s. The best way to improve your earning power is to get out of this commodity competition for replaceable skills, because if you have undifferentiated skills then competition is always going to drive your pay down to the minimum wage or lower.

The lower than minimum wage is achieved by zero hours contracts – there are fixed costs associated with being available and ready for work – commuting to the workplace, having a car in the case of Uber, not being able to work for someone else or take your children to school. So you are always are risk of taking a hit if you can’t get your hours up enough. Now in the past the agency sometimes did take a dislike to some people and would always call out others for work before them, but at least that discrimination was visible, and done in person. When an app doles out the work you have no protection against that sort of thing and may even be unaware – as the FT’s “When your boss in an algorithm” describes.

The problem isn’t so much zero hours contracts as such, or even app scheduling – after all every taxi company used to have dispatchers who would match the drivers to incoming jobs over the radio. The problem is zero hours contracts combined with unskilled work, where the work allocators can simply pitch the workers against each other, micromanaging jobs and people in a never-ending treadmill. When one hamster falls off the wheel, there’s an unlimited supply of  rodents to replace them.

One hamster is pretty much like another – hamster work is fungible

In that sort of environment the advantages of flexibility accrue to the employers not the workers. To add insult to injury, the welfare safety nets like unemployment benefit are predicated on the job for life, or at least the job for weeks. They just don’t help you fight that sort of here today gone tomorrow employment pattern. These are not entrepreneur hamsters playing the market for their talents. This is unskilled piecework.

The so-called joys of self-employment

The Grauniad asks whether zero-hours contracts really are worse than jobs for life. Sure, for many people with skills that command a premium, contracting and zero-hours contracts can be great. There are the guys that write about how great the opportunities are. Heck, a retired Ermine hasn’t been able to avoid making money totally, and I would be happy with the lack of commitment of zero-hours contracts[ref]that which I do is probably closer to individual contract jobs, I wouldn’t take low end ZHC jobs where you have to be there for them but they don’t have to be there for you, because I am not having people take the piss out of me for money, the second word in my response to such a proposal would be “off”[/ref] – if it pissed me off in any way, I’d just walk away. I can afford to do that because I am financially independent. Financial independence is very rare in a first world consumer society – there are many, many people who have far more wealth and income than I but who are not financially independent because of their spending.

It’s easy to big up the joys of self-employment. Yes, you have the freedom of self-defined work and your time is a little bit more your own. Set against that you have the stress of managing a variable income, you have all the grief of self-assessment and the trials of HMRC, you have to run the business, make the judgement calls on capital spend versus return. You also have to carry a massive cash float to manage contingencies, else you risk getting slaughtered in the first cashflow crisis that comes along.

Those that make self employment work for them tend to be the more entrepreneurial, and those with skills that can command a premium. I look at Liberate Life’s description of how to live life working without a job and it looks like one of Dante’s Inferno’s circles of Hell to me – I hate selling in all of its forms[ref]I chose LL because he is an engineer with IT and electronics which was what I used to do in a former life[/ref] – all that hustling would be a nightmare for me. I am so glad that I managed to get to the end of my working life before these changes happened. Perhaps there is sample bias – if I were 21 again then this gig economy world would be all that I had known and I would follow such a path, which looks a great way to play that sort of hand.

But I knew another way, and to my eyes it was a far better compromise for the majority of people, who are of average talent but want to have some stability, have kids and FFS do something other than thinking about work all the time. It served me well, I like to think I had a little more talent for the scientific, engineering and analytical than the average Brit, though I am nowhere near clever enough to work for Google. It isn’t like the compromise kept everybody down, and if you really wanted to run your own business and had talent then you could knock yourself out and go do that too.

Maybe I am simply at odds with current thinking. There was an interesting thread on MSE where a fellow retired, and got so bored he went back to work, which made me think what was summed up in this post

It’s a bit sad to spend such a large part of your life working, retire, and then realise you haven’t actually got a real life to enjoy so go back to work again. It suggests an absence of hinterland

Whereas now you’re increasingly on call all the time without getting paid for it, at below the mean level of ability you seem to be yanked about on a smartphone string and have to think about work all the time. In particular, the sort of digital Taylorism the FT’s Sarah O’Connor talked about in this podcast and article treats their unskilled workers with a shocking level of disrespect.Not only are these unskilled workers micromanaged via their smartphone apps, but they are stripped of the employment rights that used to protect casual workers from the variability of the workload (by paying them for their time, including downtime during the working days). The work providers talk up the virtues of self-employment and being able to choose how much you work, but decline too many jobs in a row and you’re embargoed for 24 hours, so the choice is pretty clear, do as we say or piss off. Hobson’s choice, not a better work/life balance.

It tickled me to hear John Gapper’s faint public school accent debating the plight of the precariat with O’Connor’s slightly preppy uptalking and lashings of vocal fry. I don’t think they know the territory, though kudos to Sarah O’Connor for doing some fieldwork at Uber Eats. It’s epitomised when Gapper asks Sarah at 2:24

“Are they employed? I means what is their actual status? Are they workers…”

It’s not so much what is said – it’s a reasonable question, but you can hear the arm’s length treatment in Gapper’s tone of voice – these aren’t the sort of people the FT hacks typically consort with. I can almost picture him holding the dirty rag at a distance asking “so what exactly is it that we have here?” 😉

Elsewhere in the FT, however, it seems that there are still a lot of recalcitrant proto-Ermines among the millennial set that aren’t that enamoured with the go-getting entrepreneurial dynamism of the gig economy. Over to Sarah again

young workers seek traditional permanent contracts to unlock the necessities of life …

The traditional permanent job contract is still the key that unlocks a range of life’s necessities. Without one, you will struggle in many countries to secure a loan, a mortgage, a mobile phone contract[ref]I have never attempted to get a mobile phone contract because I am a PAYG aficionado, but presumably as someone without a permie job I would be SOL on that one too[/ref] or even a room to rent.

like all that boring shit like a roof over your head and not having to think about work for 24 hours every flippin’ day.

There’s hope. but not soon

New ways of working have often led to oppression of the weakest party (generally labour) until regulation can catch up with it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with better information and mobile platforms, after all Uber and GPS means relatively unskilled drivers can provide a low cost London taxi service that was previously the domain of cabbies in a guild with The Knowledge. Because these things started in the teeth of the 2007-9 recession and regulation hasn’t caught up, they have spread quickly, because they give an advantage to the work providers and probably the work consumers, at the cost of the work doers. Our definition of employment and self-employment that has been acceptable for many decades isn’t fit for this sort of employment/work. So regulation needs to catch up, there’s probably space in the marketplace for smartphone mediated work matching to give novel services with a better balance between the conflicting interests of capital, labour and the consumers. It’s inherently the way of capital to to misuse it’s power over people, for the reason identified by Baron Acton in 1887

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Capital is a claim on future human work, the power to get people to do what you want. It needs regulation to gentle it away from being purely a tool of oppression, and it takes time to find that balance. Of course there is always the head-banging Ayn-Randian counter proposal for a no-holds-barred let it all get sorted out in the market. I guess once we’ve killed off the weaklings perhaps the water will find its own level. It’s a bit harsh, but I guess it works. For some strange reason it tends to piss people off seeing that sort of thing happen to their friends and family members, so unless there really is a Galt’s Gulch Uber can retire to they will probably have to come to some less one-sided agreement in time.

It’s not all about the money

though at the bottom end it is… Some of it is about dignity and respect. When I boil it down to the essentials, what I came to hate so much about working at The Firm when they laced it up with stupid performance management metrics wasn’t that the pay was crap, it wasn’t. It wasn’t what I did, which was okay and mildly interesting when it was the actual job in my job title, as opposed to feeding the performance management system bullshit. It was the increasingly demeaning and disrespectful nature of the micromanaging performance reviews and endless justification of my existence, the gamification of the workplace. This crap was unnecessary – it was either a deliberate ploy to make people feel so shit about themselves that they would leave, without having to pay redundancy, or it was some sort of management fad. I recently heard from someone still there, at a more senior level than I reached, who was going through this again – he had to justify his existence, say why he was meeting objectives half of which had been imposed without discussion, and I was so glad to be out of there. But at least the pay was enough to reach FI with a bit of grunt.

When you’re working at the casual end of things, your boss is an app, you have the same sort of arbitrary rules plus various ratings for jobs taken, customer feedback etc you have the same disrespect without the compensation of getting paid the FU money.It’s one of the tedious things about buying online from the gig economy. You get bombarded with requests for feedback to up their metrics. Sorry, but I don’t do feedback any more. I just want to pay the money, get the goods and get out of there.

Recently I bought a replacement car battery from Halfords because I had been a jerk and ignored the signs the old one was fading. So I jumped the battery with a leisure battery and got lost on my way to the cheaper joint. Knowing I was at risk of not starting the engine again if I stopped it took the hit at Halfords. Then realised I only had spanners in my car toolkit, not a socket long enough to reach the lower battery clamp, and my 30-year old jump leads weren’t man enough to turn over a diesel engine from the new battery. So I was faced with pay the £10 fitting charge or buy a socket set, well,  I was idle and paid up. It was a pleasant enough transaction, but no, I didn’t actually want to get a card soliciting feedback on my experience. It’s bad enough online, and there’s no need to feed these stupid monitoring systems in bricks and mortar shops too.

No wonder people are pissed off at the bottom end of the gig economy – they are paid sod all and treated like shit. One or the other you can live with, but not both.


48 thoughts on “The Smartphone as a tool of oppression in the Gig Economy”

  1. India has 10s of millions of casual construction workers, often migrants, often women. In the past, they would have to get up before dawn, walk some miles to a site and wait for the foreman to decide whether they were needed that day. No work means you have to try your luck somewhere else and potentially no food that day. Somewhat similar to your kitchen porter experience. Today, even the poorest workers in India have phones and will simply be phoned if there is work for them. Analogous to the gig economy described – except that oppression by phone feels like a step up from what was done previously.


  2. The gig economy always sounds attractive to the chattering classes, as the enthused and self-promoting dominate. For plodders like me, a proper job was best (though 4 years contracting was very lucrative). As a plodder you probably can avoid the 24/7 access demanded of the thrusting executive, provided you have the skills to push back.

    All hopefully in the past for me, as I’ve just resigned, am FI and may well RE in a month 🙂


    1. Congratulations on your imminent manumission. Well done!

      As the FT’s Valley Girl Sarah described, contracting works great – after establishing some capital. It must take amazing chutzpah to do that straight out of the starting gate, unless you have cash behind you already.


  3. Nice rant – the Dilbert cartoon today is coincidentially apt - 🙂

    Yes, people are usually slower to see the non-sexy side of tech changes, I remember when video phone ability was starting to be for real instead of still in the sci-fi section of minds. Most thought it would be so cool seeing the actual face of the person you were calling, more personal & human, you’d have to connect better therefore [psychologically] right? I just thought Fk, now if my boss calls me before I’ve even headed into work I have to be sure I’m looking like a smart/presentable minion in my private space & time too.

    I grew up in the 3rd world, where casual labour is the norm & there’s no culture of political correctness, so the powerless are left with no illusions as to their status. The Neoliberal free-for-all law of the jungle society already exists & it’s ugly man, the winners get to grind the noses of the weak into the dirt every day, reducing them to living in rabbit warrens of shacks, the boundaries of which are delineated by open sewers where kids have to play in piss & sh*t….. But, the price to be paid is high, when the 1% venture out of their walled, gated communities, topped with broken glass, armed guards & razor wire, they worry every second that they may lose it all via an opportunistic attack. A gilded cage is still a cage & living with a siege mentality is still stressful albeit a lot more comfortable than the lives of the rabble.

    The shanty-towns strip humans of their empathy if they want to live, effectively becoming factories churning out ever-improving models of sociopath, who then polish their human predator skills in the universities of crime & violence that make up the prison system they graduate to in the only ‘career path’ left to them. The kleptocratic states where the rule of law is only on paper & directly correlated to your position in that society are a nightmare to actually live in – that’s why the few winners there have their bolt-holes in dirty-money [ask no questions, hear no lies] havens like London.


    1. Sounds rough – and depressing. I saw my first UK gated community – in Cambridge by the waterfront. It gave me the creeps. I saw my first one in California in 1993 and that gave me the creeps too, particularly the private security boys with heat. Never thought I’d live to see that over here. At least there weren’t guys packing heat at the gates in Cambridge, just some sort of video system.


  4. Most of these “on-demand” tech companies lose money hand over fist while still cheating their workers. People are only attracted to the service, e.g. Uber or Deliveroo, because the company subsidises each transaction. The overpaid teenage executives at the company fantasize about market dominance when the only barrier to entry is writing an app and some marketing. One day they will be forced to show they can be profitable and most will dissolve like pissed on snow


    1. I hope so. I guess Amazon, FB and Google is where they want to be, let’s hope twitter is where they’ll end up. There’s a little bit of a feel of dotcom 2.0 in there!


    2. Interesting point. I’ve wondered whether the coalescence of digital technology and American patient capital represents the start of a new economic paradigm. Both VCs and fund managers holding listed firms such as Uber and Amazon are tolerant of many years of negative cashflows in the hopes that delivering a product or service for long enough at a loss will drive incumbents out of the market, leaving a monopoly situation to be reaped for profits.

      Consumers benefit in the short term, investors in the long run.


  5. @ermine as you know I had a similar career arc to yours, although at an earlier time and in a different discipline in a foreign land.
    I was able to get out at a time when I still worked from a desktop PC – no smartphone or VPN or laptop. Today my son-in-law totes his Blackberry along on holiday to keep up with his job – yech.
    I wasn’t able to escape the PM crap but I had only about 5 years of it before getting out. I honestly don’t know how I’d cope with the workplace today. The food technology people who replaced me now have to work on the run since the laboratory closed when the factory it was in closed. Only a matter of time…
    A cellular phone (dumb as a post) came in handy yesterday when my wife dug up and severed the cable TV, Internet & landline coax while gardening. Not all mobile technology is bad I suppose.


    1. yes, it’s only been four short years and already it feels like a gulf between even the workplace I left and what I hear coming out of The Firm. Oddly enough on LinkedIn I get endless pings, including that The Firm needs my sort of skills. Thanks but no thanks guys – I don’t think I could ever return to that way of working. I feel for you SiL. But that’s the world of work he’s always known, so maybe he can play the strengths and is used to always- on.

      Sadly the labs I worked in have pretty much all been decommissioned too, become open plan workspaces. Which really sucks for developers IMO. But it’s just not my problem any more.

      I’m a fan of mobile tech in some applications – some of the jobs I’ve done since leaving are remote sensors and IoT stuff via mobile, and we were looking for barn owls using a rig in the field sending pics with mobile data, although the owls never showed up, awkward sods. Perhaps smartphones are so crap for phone calls because people don’t actually use phones for voice these days.

      I recently bought a little HP Stream silent laptop and using that with a MiFi device does what I want of mobile computing in a way that’s fine, and I’m not fighting a junky smartphone to do it. So I can use a phone purely for voice and SMS. I can’t stand tablets, because writing anythi gn on them is such a pain. But each to their own, I’m clearly either a minority or a Luddite 😉


  6. Perhaps I’ve just been conditioned however I genuinely don’t mind receiving work emails outside of core hours. Heck; I’ll even reply to a couple of them whilst sitting infront of the idiot-box watching a tv drama repeat because the Mrs-To-Be has moaned we need to ‘do something together’. If something is about to go massively wrong with a project im involved with I’d rather know at 9pm while there’s still time to avert disaster than at 9am the next day once the damage is done.

    The BBC ran an article on taking your work smart phone on holiday a couple of years ago and one of the top rated threads went along the lines of:

    “Leave your phone at home, the office won’t fall apart if they can’t contact you for a week”

    To which the top rated reponse went:

    “…but I want the office to think they will fall apart if they can’t contact me.”

    I thought it an interesting point that perhaps digital workers aren’t replying to emails whilst on holiday because work is effectively forcing them too… but instead to fulfill their own interests such as the perception that they are irreplaceable.


    1. I think this is a cultural shift, and the world belongs you you young ‘uns 😉 Depends what you do, too – there have always been some types of on call – reserve firefighters, RNLI, some doctors. But most desk jockeys aren’t that pivotal, and if you have single points of failure like that then there’s an argument that the business resilience hasn’t been attended to properly.

      I do understand the attraction of wanting to be the spider in the web though.


  7. I have a special place of loathing for the “gig employment model” in all its infernal forms. Corporate lattice included. I’ve ranted about it on various threads in the past, and shall refrain from it now. What strikes me as interesting though is that employment models at places like Uber, Deliveroo and such might be designed for a different sort of employee than the employees who actually end up relying on these models for income. I think Uber’s envisaged employee is someone with a day job who wants to make a few pounds on the side every once in a while. I also think that Uber’s actual employee ends up being a former taxi driver who lost his day job due to competition from Uber, or someone formerly unemployed for whom Uber *is* the day (and night) job. That’s not simply an employer or labour rights problem. That’s a problem with too many people with too few opportunities trying to make a living on this planet. At times I wonder whether the real issue is that we’re witnessing displacement (of the old ways by the new ways) in progress without the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of the end result to help us interpret it.
    Having said that, I tend to get a twitch under my left eye whenever I hear anyone talk of the good ol’ days and how the world is getting increasingly unequal with people struggling like never before… Yes, so maybe flipping burgers nowadays doesn’t pay as well as mining did back in the 60s, but how much for not dying of asbestosis, mesothelioma or lung cancer at 55? And seriously, inequality is increasing? Over what period are we measuring this? Because only a few hundred years back a rich man could kill a poor man with rather limited consequences. Corporate manslaughter wasn’t a thing. University education went mainstream only fairly recently.
    Funnily enough, only this week Ian Stewart wrote a post about progress:
    Anyways, I fully agree on the smartphone being a tool of oppression, but I still read my work emails, on a smartphone, in mornings before I shower to go to work, and I catch up on any weekend traffic on Sunday evenings. That way I am able to rant and swear (which is sometimes justified by the content of some of the messages) in the privacy of my home. I get it out of the system and then I’m fine. By the time I get to the office I’m over it and able to deal with things constructively and relate to people in a polite and collegiate manner. But that’s just me.


    1. Agreed the good ol’ days weren’t necessarily anything of the sort. This was brought home to me recently when I researched a 19th century family in my ancestry,
      One daughter died of diabetes at age 21. A second caught TB and died at age 29. A son was killed at Vimy in 1917 and two of his sons died in France in 1944. Makes you glad for relative peace among the great powers, for insulin and for antibiotics at least.


      1. Granted, feudalism, wars and the pits were a bad time for all. But that’s conveniently skipping over the last 30 years of the 20th c – a full generation and then some, and recent.


  8. Absolutely – there have been outbreaks of enlightenment and renaissance throughout history, usually bringing about the golden age of the places they occurred. [Catherine the Great able to change Russia even, where feudalism hung on the longest in Europe]

    Inequality produces poverty and unrest & traps countries in stagnation or spirals of decline through wars, erosion of natural resources or loss of potential by emigration of the best. As such, the inequality index is a quick measure of the true level of civilization of a country & it’s no coincidence that China’s impressive revival to world power status was directly off the back of lifting such a massive % of their population out of penury in record time.

    Most people fall for the trick of the elite trying to brainwash us into believing that institutionally embedded injustice is the natural order of things so there are no alternatives. Unfortunately it’s all too easy for them to influence the rest given the resources available to gatekeepers with their hands on the tiller of power -controlling the organs of the state + private wealth gives them an unassailable incumbency advantage. I can’t remember who originally said the poor will always be with us because the rich can always pay one half to eradicate the other …..the reliability of divide & rule.

    But, it doesn’t have to be, the US wouldn’t have reached such a position of dominance without having been such a meritocracy for so long, attracting the best brains on the planet …..& its relative decline is dictated by its regression via Neo-liberalism to the robber-baron era. Ironically, most empires ultimately destroy themselves without the need for outside help with that. The elites are unable to control their greed, while those who can see the looming crash are powerless to stop it – just look at the GFC in 2008.


  9. Haha, having only recently learned the word ‘fungible’, I never thought I’d actually see it in context! 🙂

    I enjoyed reading Stephanie Buck’s post on hobbies/leisure and having thought about it, I already know that I will continue to be old school and just continue to do my hobbies for the sheer enjoyment of them. Ok, my matched betting is a bit different, it’s more side hustle than hobby.

    It’s interesting to see how perception of work has changed due to technology. What will it be like in 10 years’ time, I wonder?


    1. I’ve normally only heard it in the context of interchangeability of financial tokens, ie cash. I think the problems with tech continually upping the bar on the ability of humans to add value is that an increasing number of us will end up selling grunt labour for things too fiddly to automate. So our labour will be fungible, and that’s bad for the power balance.

      When I was a teenager I’d see petrol stations which had the latest tech – an automatic car wash. I refuse to believe it has got harder to make an automatic car wash in the intervening 40 years, but all around me I see hand car wash, because the cost of casual labour has fallen relative to the cost of water or basic mechanical stuff. Fungibility of casual labou writ large!


      1. hehe Occam’s razor strikes with the need for hand car washes. I was unaware of this since I don’t move in such circles, but Google tells me it’s either a common meme or a lot of it about 😉


  10. Thought provoking article. You’re challenging my worldview again and the cognitive dissonance is hurting my head. Stop it!

    Thanks for the shout out in the article (and the blogroll add too).

    I suppose, quite naturally, my vantage point in all of this is that of an entrepreneurially minded professional engineer, so of course I wax lyrical about the opportunities that people like me have now when compared to 30+ years ago. That said, I frequently think about many others in my ‘generation’ (early 30s) who, in previous generations, would have had the opportunity to (relatively easily) plug themselves in somewhere, do their jobs and live a 2.4 kids, 3 bed semi life with a holiday every year, but now are left in a far more ‘sink or swim’ type situation. I have friends who fall into the latter category, although none who subsist entirely in the low-paid ‘gig economy’.

    I think you nearly made me sound as ‘awesome’ (‘kin hate that word!) as Tim Ferriss which is far too generous. That my life’s great is attributable far more to the fact that we’re OK with living on less than 3 grand a month for a family of 4 than my hustling talents. Just for the avoidance of doubt, my philosophy is definitely simple living first and hustling second.

    I have to say, regardless of what difficulties people in my generation face on the earning side of the equation, most could certainly make it easier on themselves by ignoring all of the ‘buy our shit’ persuasion that’s being thrust down their throats.

    I fully accept though, that although spending £3k per month is a pretty thrifty existence for a couple, both of whom have reasonably well-paid professional skills, it would represent pie-in-the-sky riches for a household at the margins headed by gig workers like the former-taxi-driver-cum-Uber-chauffers.

    Anyway, it is what it is. As you pointed out, WWW has let the genie out of the bottle and trying to change the effects of that would be like trying to catch fog in a fishing net.

    Incidentally, I expressed my thoughts on the benefits of accepting reality exactly as it is here: if you’re interested. The point is that, it may be shit for many, but the people who will enjoy fulfilling lives are the ones who can adapt. I’m not saying that this fact is a good thing or a bad thing, merely that it is a fact.

    [Please feel free to scrub that link if you don’t want it in your comments]


    1. The odd 25 years difference means in some ways we are each other’s counterfactual 😉 Take your utopia article’s key points

      good health
      a solid support network of good friends
      a business with a client list or a professional network
      valuable knowledge/skills
      the ability to sell/persuade people

      I am okay on the first three, 100% fail and increasing on the last three, in particular the last point. I can get away with that because we live our lives a quarter of a century apart.

      Arguably I also failed on the utopia issue, I spent most of the first couple of years on here bitching about what was wrong with work and overly gazing on my utopia. But at the same time I did move to make it happen…

      The opportunities for those who can make the new world work are narrowing for people in general – in particular those who could have earned a reasonable living from skilled and semi-skilled work are a lower proportion of the workforce, but there’s not much evidence that aptitude is increasing to match, the Flynn effect is not that strong. More will be left behind. But for those that can make it work, for sure, the better communications enable them to cast their net wider.

      > most could certainly make it easier on themselves by ignoring all of the ‘buy our shit’ persuasion that’s being thrust down their throats.

      Only too true. It took me long enough to discover that, although much of my relative advantage came from an inherited principle – don’t borrow money, with very few exceptions. It’s borrowing money to buy unnecessary shit that seems the biggest killer, creating a hole that’s tough to climb out of.


  11. I disagree that you fail on the last 3 points. I’m not trying to suggest that you have any desire to capitalise on any of these things but…

    – a business with a client list or a professional network

    I understand that SLIS is a hobby for you. However, I am one data point that suggests that it’s not just the uninteresting ramblings of a digruntled former engineer – your writing has contributed to me getting what I want out of life. That’s the definition of adding value. You have a platform here which could be leveraged to build income in some way if you so desired. (I know you don’t)

    – valuable knowledge/skills

    Aside from the things I wrote about the blog above, even the transferrable skills you have from being an engineer could be put to a million uses if you were in a bind. I’d also guess that you haven’t forgotten how to program completely and I’m currently benefitting from a firmware engineer shortage!

    – the ability to sell/persuade people

    You’re a good writer FFS. You (and Jacob, and MMM et al) helped to stop me from making the

    ‘Ooh, haven’t we got a lot of money now we both have big important jobs? Let’s go mental and buy some Audis’

    mistake. No, that’s not the same as cold-calling people to sell them things, but see what I wrote for the first point again. You’ve inadvertently built a platform that allows you to sell/persuade if you so desired. Nuff said.

    On your last point, I too was raised in the shadow of Mr Micawber, and in fact usually had some savings as a young adult. Therefore, I don’t imagine I’d have ever ended up doing the whole consumption borrowing thing.

    However, I really wish that somebody would have slapped me and explained the real power of (accumulated) money to me when I was younger.

    Thanks for the mental workout!


    1. Thanks for the kind words. While I critiqued peoples limiting beliefs about work a while ago, I’d be the first to admit I have my own.

      Although I write this often to make myself think, I hope occasionally to be of service in showing a different way. Or at least the things that can catch people out, and indeed it’s been good over the six years of existence to see quite a few people doing like John B and reaching the finish line. However they define it – you don’t have to quit work on reaching FI 😉

      I didn’t finish engineering on quitting work – to some extent I returned to my first love which was electronics and for the same reason that I got into it as a child – to be able to sense and control the world around. I’ve used it to track owls, stoats and remotely monitor soil temperature and the heating of compost. But I’ve also covered more range – from using more computer languages to fixing generators. Variety is the spice of life. Retirement doesn’t mean you have to switch your brain off.

      Occasionally I’ve made the odd few grand here and there but I am paranoid about being locked into committing my time, so I usually try and put people off or point them at a commercial solution, because I don’t want to be at the end of a smartphone supporting something 😉 It’s not always possible because if there’s a cost-effective commercial solution I’d use it, but I value my time much higher than when I was working…


  12. I wouldn’ dispute your assertions that smartphones can be great for digital nomad workers but bad for those subsisting in the gig economy. But what about the FIRE community?

    While an Ermine may favour a traditional phone, laptop and mi-fi device, some of us early retirees find all-in-one devices valuable in enhancing our time spent living intentionally. I’ve used my Android device to navigate photographic treks through national parks, stream music, films and TV programmes on mountainsides and manage share portfolios cheaply myself all over the world.

    It seems to me that the key determinant of whether a smartphone is a positive or negative in a person’s life is his or her level of dependency on it. There are hugely well-paid bankers, corporate financiers and others who can’t switch off (literally as well as metaphorically); they’re welcome to the money, and the coronary. But when airplane mode is yours to choose, it ceases to become a burden and can contribute to one’s liberation.


    1. Control is certainly the issue, or more to the point not depending on it being on for your livelihood.

      There’s a secret I am missing here – to getting decent performance in the outdoors, and decent battery life, particularly outside. How do you do it?

      It’s not just me, I gave up the fight when I saw too many other people struggle with battery life and connectivity. Dual SIM probably helps, well if they are with different networks, but getting a week of battery life seems out of reach. The MiFi widget does much better, though I suppose not having a great big screen lit up must help.


      1. Radio performance indoors is partly about your choice of phone but to a greater degree about which network you use. I’m conscious that you’re a highly experienced telecoms research scientist whereas I’m from an arts and humanities background, so apologies if I misreport what I’ve read, but I believe that the key criterion is signal frequency. Some mobile networks deliver 3G and, especially, 4G over frequencies that offer tremendous bandwidth but are very poor at penetrating buildings; others, the reverse. I understand that the 3 network is the worst and Vodafone the best in this regard.

        Of course localised signal strength is also a factor, and for many people, provided they can make and receive calls at home, coverage outdoors in areas they visit often is more important.

        As for battery life, the outright capacity of the cells installed in smartphones is improving all the time, as is the ability of the operating systems to minimise drain. I use a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, which has from memory 3500 mAh and Android 7 OS, which learns an individual user’s behaviour and adapts how it treats each app to prolong battery life. It’s the first smartphone I’ve owned that has never run flat in a day’s heavy use.


      2. It’s actually outdoors where I struggled 😉 The seminal moment was when I was wild-camped near Tongue in Scotland with couple of km line of sight to the base station in Tongue, and my old candy bar mobile could connect when put on the roof of my campervan but my Samsung Galaxy Young couldn’t see ‘owt. with the same network. And in hills the dual-Sim cheapo Nokia hangs on to a signal far better – dual sim on different networks is a good win for improved coverage. On the Galaxy I had trouble all along that north coast 500 route where the old Nokia generally worked much better.

        Perhaps I should revisit this in future as it appears performance may have improved, although paying 500 nuts for a phone isn’t something I really feel ready to do. I hadn’t realised they were so dear – it isn’t so much the price but phones are so eminently trashable. Makes my little HP Stream and MiFi box look very cheap. And I get a real keyboard 😉 Plus I can jack in an external aerial, though it’s only cut for the 2G frequency range.

        I use Giffgaff which runs on O2 for data and Virgin (using EE) for voice backup on the dual SIM phone, Ofcom seems to indicate this gives me good frequency diversity, though I hadn’t thought of this before. Thank you for giving me the mental kick to go see what’s going on here!


      3. You’re welcome, and good luck with your investigations. It’s possible that being able to access two networks is the reason you’re getting superior coverage on your old-school phone, plus to an extent perhaps that you could be comparing the evolutionary zenith of the standalone mobile with a budget Android, notwithstanding that the latter cost more than the former. Smartphone radio performance has certainly improved – my S7 Edge trumps the Sony Xperia Z3 that preceded it, which bested the S4 that came before that.


  13. The Scotland experience was with a single SIM five or six year old phone. I went dual-Sim after Mrs Ermine groused about reception on Virgin at home – she has a better smartphone but my Samsung was okay at home. I’m definitely a fan of dual-SIM travelling in remote areas – an easy win on PAYG


  14. @liberate_life thank you for putting so clearly what I have been trying to get across to Mr Ermine for ages. I have come to the conclusion that he believes that “work cannot be fun”, which is the same as saying the “if it is fun, it isn’t work”. He is beginning to accept this hypothesis (and your post helped!) The trick seems to be (and I may regret him seeing this!) tell him it isn’t work, and he may consider doing it, even if there is payment involved!

    I think it is really tragic, and entirely dysfunctional, that the crap environment of The Firm (I worked there before it got really toxic, and it was pretty shit then) has polluted his opinion of work to such an extent.

    He’s a talented guy. Yes, I am biased, of course, but in my defense I did work with him for a while when we weren’t romantically involved and he and I were sufficiently smitten with other partners at the time that I don’t think my judgement was _too_ clouded. He stood out as one of the few people who really could follow a logical argument and he was a pleasure to work with – he actually understood that working to an interface meant don’t come up with your own customised shit and then expect everyone to work round you (shockingly, this was very rare at The Firm!!) He also understood what marketing a product really meant – we tried to get senior managers let us pursue a product opportunity that he spotted – I think their inability to invest approx £2K to exploit it was the beginning of the end for me at The Firm… so no, no cold calling for Mr Ermine, but sales he can indeed contribute to.

    I ducked out of “proper” work as soon as I could. I far prefer being self employed, with all the endless “being on the end of The Smartphone” for all but a couple of weeks of the year (and even then I am contactable by one person who I trust to only disturb me if it is _really_ important). A lot of the time the messages are interesting! Yes they can be bad news or infuriating, but they are rarely boring!

    I like it because I have control, and if my time is wasted it is my own fault (normally, recent encounters with government departments are the notable exception – what a bunch of clowns!) I believe my work is valuable, and a significant proportion of the time I enjoy it, or at least find it satisfying. But I figured out that the modern work place was no place for me at the first pointless/boring meeting and competitive discussion about car purchases. In retrospect I stuck it out for too long, but I did have the common sense to save money (after a shaky start!!)


    1. Aww – but you are biased 😉 There were some seriously clever people at The Firm, though yes, some could venture into the absent-minded long distance from reality zone at times. And the New Ideas system seemed designed to find reasons why they couldn’t happen, that particular new idea is in fact now quite a common assistance mode on the Web.

      It’s largely watching your experience of smartphone usability that built my prejudice though. They seem so eternally ratty – in many ways I’d rather know I can’t do something that hope that I can do it a third of the time. This was confirmed when I wrote a web app to survey birds – it worked a treat in the cemetery, and odd places elsewhere. and gave me results to within 10km most other places. Garmin eTrex – right every time to 20m. That sort of unreliability is worse than useless IMO.


      1. @The Ermines (I’m getting weird dinner party images in my head…)

        I don’t want to be the cause of any marital strife. I’m an expert at causing ‘debates’ in my own house so I think I’ll keep my focus there rather than branching out into disturbing the domestic situations of others.

        However, Mrs Ermine, you’re welcome. As I’ve said before, I’ve been a bit of a ‘taker’ from the UK PF community for the last few years and so if I can return the favour to some degree, I’m more than happy to oblige.

        I think the word ‘work’ has picked up some unnecessary bad connotations (understandably so for many people who have had toxic experiences), especially as we’ve transitioned out of the years when ‘the recipe’ (grammar school -> degree -> job for 40 years -> pay your dues -> final salary pension scheme) still worked. Personally, I prefer the word to be used in sentences like ‘my life’s work’.

        It’s obvious to me, from the very little I know about Mr E, that he probably has it in him to be more suited to the modern world than he cares to admit.

        The irony of saying ‘I can’t sell and persuade’

        -on your blog which has many tens (hundreds?) of thousands of regular readers
        – to one of those readers who has just confirmed that you have sold to and persuaded him

        surely can’t be lost on him.


        As you’ve quite accurately pointed out on many occasions, what I just wrote is somewhat irrelevant because, you’re FI anyway. You could be a super-confident hustler or a complete hermit and it wouldn’t make any difference as to whether you could still afford to eat or not.

        I didn’t write the above comments to flatter you or to criticise you. Rather, I just wanted to (a) point out that, from a cold, hard, rational standpoint, what you said about your shortcomings was incorrect and (b) give evidence for my assertion.

        Anyway, I don’t want to outstay my welcome. Give me a shout if ever you decide that you want to (deliberately) make some money from your electronics skills. Who knows, maybe, between us, we could bring one of your niche animal tracking ideas to market? 🙂


    2. best thread ever? probably.. the ermine is well and truly called out

      behind every great man and all that..

      clearly a sensible head on ms ermines shoulders

      to claim 100% fail on the following is insanity-sauce:

      a business with a client list or a professional network
      valuable knowledge/skills
      the ability to sell/persuade people

      what!? wake up man – you excel in all three, especially the last..

      you are blind as a bat


      1. Touché sir 🙂 I guess I need to draft the post on limiting beliefs and turn the observer’s gaze round. After all, I called out others on having a need for work as a limiting belief. That’s not the only form it can take…


      2. I think such a post is mandatory 😉 could be very valuable and cathartic in the extreme.. the ying to the work-rant yang you could say


      3. i would say the men who can remove the splinter let alone a feckin’ plank from their own eye are few and far between..


  15. I had the same qualms about shelling out so much for a smartphone I battle to fully understand, (and therefore probably don’t get the use out of that I should) so I bought a Moto G from Amazon to start me off, after reading a favourable intensive review on the BBC or Guardian tech page. ~ £125.

    I am very much a layperson on tech issues, so I am not presuming to tell you something you don’t know intellectually, just that sometimes smart people forget there are other simple options hidden in plain sight. At these lower more reasonable prices, it might move it into your mentally ‘worth it’ range?

    One of my siblings who’s equally technically ignorant went for another option in buying a very good model second-hand off Amazon just as the newest version shiny thing came out making the price drop to a fraction. The functionality and performance of the older model was insignificantly different for all intents and purposes to the newest gizmo, the main difference being sucker marketing, like prettier colours and gimmicks consumers love, like flashy lights.

    Ironically, the other sibling is the only one who understands these things and works in IT related stuff, but using that knowledge carefully researched older models to get the one with the best combination of functions desired, with best performance and minimal info lost to the various forms of spying these devices increasing expose you to. (mainly to counteract ID fraud)


  16. “Many blue collar jobs had a decent level of community spirit among the workforce, which manifested in the strong union presence.” Good old unions: we know where you live, we know where your kids go to school.


  17. Oh dear, you’ve just revived a memory of a summer of temp work aged About 15, turning up to an agency in the morning and not knowing where you’d be sent to work (for peanuts) or just sent home. After a few weeks of that I started to secretly hope I’d be sent home! I truly feel sorry for anyone who has to do that sort of thing just to put food on the table.

    Did you hear about the Deliveroo drivers strike? NEF foundation podcast had a good chat about it a few weeks ago, worth a listen if you’re interested. Maybe that is the start of a fight back?


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