Quick — what does the stuff below have in common?
A chat app bought for one fifth of the US educational budget. An Uber for dog-walkers. An app to have your trash taken out for you. On-demand butlers. On-demand massages. On-demand pedicures. On-demand private jets. On demand gardeners, plumbers, and private chefs. A fitness tracker that gives you electric shocks. “Concierge” apps to get “VIP service” at restaurants….bars…clubs.
WTF? I could go on. And you probably have even better examples of even more ridiculous startups these days. So what’s the deal?
In this essay, I want to offer a competing narrative to the popular but woefully misnamed “sharing economy” (which, of course, isn’t sharing, unless you tell your kids that buying and selling toys from other five year olds is “sharing”).
Here’s my tiny theory. There’s gold in them thar hills. Money’s pouring into the tech industry today. Too much money, chasing too few truly groundbreaking investments. And so a bubble is inflating — but not just any bubble. A bubble of an especially insidious kind. Of stuff that’s beyond eyewateringly, painfully, mind-numbingly trivial.
I’m going to call it a Servitude Bubble. For the simple reason that it is largely based on creating armies of servants. You can call them whatever buzzwords you like — “tech-enabled always-on super-hustling freelance personal brand capitalists”. But the truth is simpler. The stuff of the Servitude Bubble makes a small number of people something like neofeudal masters, lords with a corncucopia of on-demand just-in-time luxury services at their fingertips. But only by making a very large number of people glorified neo-servants…butlers, maids, chauffeurs, waiters, etcetera.
The Servitude Bubble is creating “jobs”, sure — but only of the lowest kind: low-end, deskilled, dead-end, go-nowhere “service” jobs — that don’t only crush your soul, damage your psyche, and break your spirit — but waste your potential. Not “service” as in doctors and therapists— “service” as in pedicurists, trash-pickers, and dog-walkers. And so, on balance, it deskills and impoverishes human potential — it doesn’t expand and enrich it. The Servitude Bubble is made of stuff which, en masse, wastes, decimates, and demolishes the thing which counts most: human potential.
A bubble occurs when things are overvalued. What are ideas like the above really worth? They might — just might — be worth a little bit of change to a very small group of buyers. Google, Amazon, Apple, a hapless, clueless, doddering old media company here and there. But that’s like saying a subprime loan is “worth” it’s face value because a poor aging grandma can’t squint hard enough to read the fine print. Whether or not a handful of frat-bros is willing to fork over millions to one another for these startups like they were chess pieces in their struggles for corporate mid-life-crisis empire is besides the point.
It is in a true and very real economic sense that the appconomy of the Servitude Bubble is overvalued. The simple fact is that while the startups of the Servitude Bubble might hold a kind of dubious strategic value, they do not create much of real worth—largely just imaginary paper gains — but only at the price of what is truly valuable: real human potential. The Servitude Bubble is condemning people who might be doing amazing, wondrous, and miraculous things to be butlers, maids, dog-walkers, neo-servants — or, perhaps worse, code-monkey enforcers who, chasing their own little payday, make people into neo-servants.
The simple fact is that in economic terms, these startups are often barely worth much, if anything at all. Because they don’t enhance human potential, they don’t create much real value for people, let alone society, future generations, their communities, etcetera — maybe they save a trip here and there, but that’s about it. Yes — that can enhance efficiency. But what it doesn’t do is enhance human well being in any meaningful or significant way. And so they surely don’t elevate or expand the human experience, in even the small way that, say, an Apple Store does. They’re as evanescent — pretty, maybe, but vacant — as the soap bubbles they’re so reminiscent of.
Servitude. The suffix “itude” denotes a state of things. Servitude isn’t just “service”. It’s a dead end, a cul-de-sac, a stagnating pond, the end of the line. A state — not a process. Service is a great and noble ideal; it implies a higher purpose, a common goal, a shared benefit, a joint concern. But servitude is very different: it’s bringing another dozen shots of designer vodka to wasted, entitled, super-rich party people…with a frozen rictus smile. Service is responsibility; servitude is subjection. Service is obligation; servitude is obedience. Service is assistance; servitude is indulgence.
And that is a great tragedy, in at least three senses.
First, because a generation of young people are furiously chasing desperate dreams of winning this half-baked thinly-veiled ponzi scheme. But what they are not doing is creating stuff that actually matters, endures, counts, resonates. That changes the world, transforms lives, means anything. They are wasting their lives on the trivial, the futile, the meaningless. On diminishing people’s potential, by limiting them to be neo-servants — not expanding it, by enhancing their capability to be their truest, best selves.
Second, because instead of challenging people (hi, VCs) to create and invest in what is truly innovative, earth-shaking, groundbreaking, the Bullshit Bubble normalizes cynically settling for what’s easy, marginal, incremental. But the truth is that it’s a titanic squandering of resources — money, time, effort, imagination — to spend so much on so little of real value. On investing billions…to making people…neo-technological servants…not their truest and best selves.
And so, third, we are all worse off in the long run. We’re all poorer when the people we entrust to innovate and create don’t lead the way, inspire us, and challenge us — but simply forge shackles of servitude. We’re all a little worse off when society’s resources are misallocated on a vast scale to the Servitude Bubble — to creating armies of servants that can walk the dogs, paint the nails, and drive the cars of the coddled, carefree rich — instead of towards finding solutions to the very real, very urgent problems of education, healthcare, climate change, finance — to name just a few. Instead of solving the world’s glaring problems, we are simply finding more efficient ways to crack the same old whips and tie the same old leashes. But leashes and lashes have never freed a soul — they merely condemn the very people that hold them. Because the great lesson of history is that the master is as much a prisoner as the servant. For the very waste of human potential that he himself demands limits him from finding his own destiny.
What’s the opposite of servitude? Not just freedom — but the thing from which freedom is born.
At it’s best, techne, the Greek root of the word “technology”, which means “skill”, is a miraculous, magical, enchanted thing. Technology, the enlargement and extension of man’s skillfulness, is the closest humanity has come to discovering the sacred amongst the earthly profane: for it gives mankind the power to transfigure the very world. From a place of stasis, into a place of freedom. Through it, man can ascend beyond his natural birthright, and give himself rebirth — from a foul, stinking, starving, powerless beast, to a civilized, enlightened, powerful being. All that is contained in the magic of techne. Techne, skill, endows man with the proficiency, the dexterity, the advantage, the shining chance, to become what he truly is. Not merely a servant of himself, or a servant of another. But himself. Human. Homo sapiens. The mindful being.
So the real servitude in the Servitude Bubble is the definition of “technology”. Once, technology meant stuff that went to the moon…cured fatal diseases…extended the human lifespan…enhanced human agency. Now, “tech” means stuff that…hails taxis…organizes butlers…automatically calls dogwalkers.
“Tech”. Techne. As a simple example, my computer helps me to be a better writer. It enhances my skill, my techne. It is in that sense that it is “technological”. The “tech” of the Servitude Bubble does not enhance skill. At anything. Let alone the stuff that is truly valuable — one’s skill at all that makes one fully, truly alive.
“Tech”, and the “tech” industry that so champions it, has demeaned, denigrated, and diluted the very idea of technology — from miracles of skill that alter human destiny, to being able to browse a billion images of Kardashian-butt per nanosecond. The “tech” industry is aptly named: it’s about “tech”; not techne, technology in it’s true sense. Apps that limit people full of limitless potential…to be…on-demand butlers, maids, or dog-walkers. Those are “tech” — but they’re sure as hell not techne. They do not expand or enlarge human skilfullness in any way.
Technology, techne, is transformative, fundamental, magical — because it is the sudden joyous explosion of skill at mastering yourself. “Tech”, on the other hand, is just a handyman to fix the ennui-laden nuisances of daily life for the overprivileged — and one who pickpockets you slyly while you’re not looking. “Tech” impoverishes all of us by cheating each of us of skill — and so it drains us of potential. If you’re an on-demand dog walker, you’re probably never going to become that great novelist..anesthesiologist…musician…poet..dreamer…artist…programmer…anything.
Techne. “Tech”. The Servitude Bubble says that technology is stuff that makes your day a little easier — but probably crushes your spirit, rots your mind, destroys your soul, and clouds your mind, by asking you to be served — not to master your own destiny. Techne, the true spirit of technology, says precisely the opposite. A tool is only “technological” when it enhances man’s skillfullness. At the limit, at being fully human. At dreaming, imagining, rebelling, defying, creating, loving. At being himself.
That’s the greatest tragedy of the Servitude Bubble. It asks us to waste our lives being people we are not. Posers, performers, hustlers, clowns…making armies of chauffeurs, butlers, maids, servants…on-demand, ever-ready, always-vigilant. To obey nothing more, greater, truer, than idle whims . The Servitude Bubble is made of hundreds of thousands of person-years of wasted human potential.
Let’s reclaim technology from the appholes. Let’s rediscover the spirit of techne, and stop settling for the humdrum profit-maximizing soul-crushing servility of “tech”. For it is through techne, through the enhancement of skill, that humanity has, despite great struggle and suffering, created — and recreated — it’s freedom. Not merely as beings who hold power over one another. All that merely condemns masters to be slaves. But as beings who empower one another to discover our full potential. Because it is in the taking of that voyage that we give one another the greatest gifts of all: lives seared with the sense that they have mattered. For then we have learned the telos of techne, the greatest skill there is: becoming who we were truly meant to be.