The pandemic pause has created a new vocabulary for a community, albeit online when communities have been dragged down by the ‘Olympiad of Death’ in the words of veteran sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. There is chaos around us, but thanks to the infrastructure of digitisation has kept a semblance of normalcy with the ‘Work From Anywhere’ paradigm. The supermarket and the restaurant are brought to our living spaces at a click of the app. Technology curates future possibilities, which society adopts in an incremental fashion. Tech communities are early adopters, however the thrust of the ‘community’ for this article are the actors downstream of the coder tribe. The last adopters who institute technology as the culture we know. Our parents, or even our grandparents who have adopted the digital this pandemic to stay in touch.
Deliveries are delivered to our doorstep via a technology platform, though it is the local logistics professional who picks up the order from the restaurant and drops it for us. The delivery executive is a gig economy worker who gets paid on the order, literally begs me for a better rating as his tips and future work is dependent on it. In this bleak economy, the delivery executive work gets food on the table for many families. Braving the virus and constant sickness, the delivery executive gets the good delivered. A fair number have died of infections. I have not read any prominent obituaries on corporate websites as ‘social-distancing’ has been the core message of food delivery app, Zomato in its communication during this year’s IPL, in the UAE. I would like to know more if these souls contracted the virus due to work, and if they were paid adequate compensation by the fat cats of the tech firmament.
The Ola cab or auto driver have seen incomes plummet to 30% this pandemic, leading them to get creative. These brave men and women who keep our lives functional are erased under billionaire valuations that have skyrocketed as digital becomes a way of life. The stock markets are weighted indices skewed in favour of the tech heavyweights. The average customer of the tech ecosystem in India is not following Bloomberg but knows the flipside of the digital delusion. A short anecdote from my ethnographic notes as I mapped the digital transformation, subaltern style in Pune as the pandemic hot spot made the news for the wrong reasons apart from the education and defence hub traditional reference frames.
My friend, Sagar is a chatty, wiry and shortish Maharashtrian guy in his mid-thirties. A graduate and a former warehouse supervisor moved to the Auto driving ‘business’ two years back after investing in INR 2.5 lakh ($3,354), which includes the hard to get trade licence. Prior to the pandemic, thanks to digital apps he made INR 1500 ($20) per day not inclusive of fuel and commission to the app. When the pandemic lockdown hit, his income went down to a bare pittance to zero as he stopped taking rides. In the past couple of months, he has gone analogue. Well, not quite as he uses Watsapp to coordinate with his clientele. As rides went down to a trickle as people are still circumspect due to real public health concerns, Sagar dug deep into his ‘community’ in his locality, going hyper-local. He gave rides to families out of work hospitals and clinics often on credit and adapted his auto to a logistics business. Local stores need to compete with the big boys who are not registered on e-marketplace platforms. He took deliveries along with passengers and expanded his revenue base. No big tech company will take the urban poor to a hospital on credit, when an emergency emerges out of thin air.
The pink papers are all about scale and the mega numbers. The deprivation inflicted by the crippling economy is not reflected in the bourses nor the papers. The euphoria borders on the insulting to millions who are active users of the technology platforms. The concerns are usually detached from the standard tech policy agenda of privacy, fake news and data protection. The problems faced by gig workers are rather mundane; they want to get paid on time. Valuations are meaningless if they cannot take money home to buy groceries to cook a meal. Sagar and many other driver business owners that I have interviewed over the past year, are gravely hesitant to pick up a ride whose payment will be made through a digital wallet. The payment is cleared on a weekly basis while the gas to be filled at the pump every single day. The cash flow is not healthy even to keep a daily buffer.
Discontent leading to attrition on the ground from the auto and cab driver community is palpable in Pune, and similar experiences resonate throughout the country. Tech behemoths have deep pockets, and surely can listen to their captive user communities in an empathetic manner. They can hire dedicated teams to go out and patiently seek these people. Listen to the gig economy contractor sincerely, and he will be a diehard advocate for the brand which will be a better outreach than digital marketing spends.
The key to the non-PR version of the community will be to include the voices who embed the product authentically to create ground up solutions. The product tribe is not manufactured, rather unearthed. Viral trends do not capture these voices, yet these people are the fabric of our society and the unpacked notion of the ‘community’ removed from stakeholder engagement jargon. Organic communities ground up are embracing tech on their own terms, such as gig economic drivers and have the ear to the ground. They will not blink when a better ‘product’ comes about. Tech needs the community rather than the other way around as tech is eager to keep a low ‘Customer Acquisition Cost’. Sincerity does make business sense.
Manishankar Prasad is an independent writer and researcher based in Pune.