Business

The end of the frictionless life

Forced to pinpoint the zenith of civilisation, I would suggest something like the second quarter of 2017. An Uber back then would arrive in one minute and cost about as many pounds per mile. Air travel was as slick as it could be in a post-9/11 world. Service in a bar or restaurant was lightspeed and the wine list as compendious as the Ark. (Am I misremembering, in Sager + Wilde in Hackney, a 19th-century vintage by the glass?)

As any frequent traveller or goer-out knows, that Eden has passed. It was built on abundant labour and easy funding rounds for unprofitable companies in a zero-interest rate world. It was built on a co-operative US and China and therefore a well-oiled globalisation. As all these conditions fall away, the arteries of modern life fur and clog.

Why, then, am I taking it so well? Why do I chuckle so serenely as driver number three or four cancels on me?

The obvious thought is that frictionless living wasn’t such a good deal for the workers who enabled it. There is much presumption here (Uber drivers who like the flexibility are no doubt suffering false consciousness) but also truth. The child of someone who spent some of her last years in service, I am with the waitress, not the waited-on, the tender and not the punter at the bar. A tilt of bargaining power in their favour is worth some minor gumming-up of a night out.

But nor was that life much healthier, I want to suggest, for those on the other side of the transactions. “Anything that you could possibly want,” Noel Gallagher once said, describing life as a rock star, “you got two of.” What the economy of the last decade did was bring an approximation of rock-star convenience to millions of people across several international cities. It democratised the kind of consumer-responsiveness (if not the free cocaine) that tends to do strange things to one’s ego.

And, for that matter, to one’s tolerance of stress. Allow me a digression into the psychology of white-collar bachelorhood. Because there is so little drag and friction in your life, you become hair-trigger sensitive to that which exists. And so a dawdler at a cash machine is an ordeal to stand behind. Each exposure to bureaucracy is as harrowing as what those bastards did to Josef K. Even a meandering or repetitive conversationalist is gently eased out of your life. (Look, the column isn’t called Nice Citizen of Nowhere.) You have none of the numbness that parents build up by losing whole hours to singing “The Wheels on the Bus”. The result is someone who is both hyper-social and antisocial. American Psycho was a caricature. But not that much of a caricature.

It was fun to have experienced the absolute crest of all that. Its return, as supply chains ease and more of the service world is automated, could be swift. Never give quarter to the romanticisation of the remote and inefficient past: to the view that everything from urban life to football was better when it was a bit crap. Like so much that unites the left and the nostalgic right, it emits the odour of reaction.

It is just that, beyond a certain point, there must be such a thing as unhealthy convenience. There must be such a thing as corrupting comfort. Orwell’s great insight into empire was that it was bad for the master, not just the subject, and perhaps that is true of any unequal relationship. Even if you can resist the arrogance and entitlement that a space-age service culture can induce, there is the problem of its softening effect on a person’s resilience.

A decade ago, Nassim Nicholas Taleb argued that some exposure to stress is better, more conducive to long-run robustness, than prolonged ease. How much more did that line come to resonate in the age of Deliveroo? Each hitch and nuisance in life becomes harder to bear the rarer it gets.

That is why, on a midnight Tube that would have been a chauffeured Prius five years ago, digesting a pear tartlet that would have been kumquat, having waited decades for the bill, I don’t mind. The inconvenience might be saving me from something worse.

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