Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The rich men on the other side of the fence

We are a few hundred meters from the Palais des Festival in Cannes. This part of the beach is now closed to the public, big fat guards stand at the entrance and check if your name is on the list of the invitees. Your name is probably not on that list.

A group of young and rich men play beach ball inside, they are having as much fun as money can buy, and it can buy a lot. Two boys stand at the sea and watch their game. When the ball leaves the field and rolls to the water, one boy picks it up quickly, dries it with a towel he holds in his hand, and throws it back. A sun-tanned richling catches the ball. He doesn't have to say thank you, the boys with the towel fade into the background, they are part of the elite service, just like the chilled bottles of Veuve Clicquot or the polar bear rugs on the ground.

It feels disgusting to look at this scene from the other side of the fence. Then I notice the details: it's a warm evening, the boys wear pants, but they are barefoot; the richlings wear sneakers, this is the beginning of a party after all. They should either play barefoot, or one of them should take off his shoes and walk into the sea to grab the ball. Uncomfortable. Of course not as uncomfortable as walking barefoot in the snow, like very poor people do in winter time, but uncomfortable at their level of living. We all have uncomfortable parts of our lives we'd be happy to get rid of. We all have chores. But someone have to do them.

We outsource many of our chores to machines. We don't pay for a cleaning lady, because we dump the dirty clothes into the washing machine, we turn on the vacuum cleaner. We don't pay for a secretary, because we can share our Google Calendar with our colleagues, we can send an email while commuting to work in the morning. We don't pay for a travel agent, because we can book our flight and accommodation online. We use dozens of machines and applications, and we don't have to worry or to feel embarrassed, machines and applications have no sense of being humiliated.
A big part of what these applications do is automated, but it still takes an army of people in the background to do the manual work. There are clerks in the shop that sells home appliances, there are washing machine repair men. There are low-paid workers at call-centers around the world to solve your problems with online booking. Artificial intelligence still needs human hands, the services are operated by real, living people. We just can't see them, they are in the background, they are invisible like the ball-catchers on the beach. We don't have to feel bad about the voice at the other end of the line when we cancel a hotel room the day before.

Finally, there are chores we can outsource only to people with whom we need to have a face-to-face connection. Exclusive doctors and lawyers are subordinates of the rich, they are only at the higher paid end of the range. We all tend to outsource our chores, and we prefer machines to humans, we prefer invisible humans to visible ones. Our financial and power status determines what kind of "slave work" we find acceptable (OK, our taste and values play a role too). But don't worry, people who work for us will know our quirks, they'll share stories about our awkward side. There is always someone at the other side of the fence who judges our deeds and finds it disgusting.

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