Planet of the Apps

The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times BY Arlie Russell Hochschild. Metropolitan Books. Hardcover, 320 pages. $27.

In his manual for a better (or, at least, for his own) life, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, self-help guru and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Timothy Ferriss outlines his secrets to a productive and wealthy life. One of the book’s central tenets is to “outsource everything.” Ferriss suggests we hire a series of concierges to triage our correspondences, arrange travel and restaurant reservations, contact old friends, and handle routine support tasks in our lives. Ferriss contracts with concierge companies in India to handle much of his data flow. He suggests we hire local people to take our clothes to the cleaners, scrub our floors, and cook for us.

Ferriss has become a guru to the geek set, as I witnessed at his book-signing event for his hefty fitness manual, The 4-Hour Body, at the 2011 South by Southwest Interactive meeting in Austin, Texas. A line of more than one hundred remarkably unkempt, unfit young men waited to shake Ferriss’s hand and thank him for releasing them from the bonds of the full-time working grind. They can’t all be working four-hour weeks, I thought. My understanding of the work life in the tech sector leads me to believe that retrieving the forty-hour week would be a major personal, if not indeed a political, victory. Ferriss greeted fanboys for more than an hour that day, leaving him a mere three more hours of actual work before the fun began. As if to emphasize his mastery over his life and the better times he had waiting for him upon his release from the event, Ferriss held hands with a striking young woman who looked as if she could not wait to be relieved of this duty to dazzle young men with whom she would rather not make eye contact. It was not clear if that young woman was part of Ferriss’s outsourced personal labor force. But she certainly did not seem thrilled to be part of his commercial branding effort.

Ferriss’s life is his brand, his data, his evidence, his project. In his books he shares—no, sells—every feature of his daily life, including details of ejaculations and defecations. Every aspect of Ferriss’s life is on the market, just as he engages with market transactions to advance many of his professional and personal aims. In Ferriss’s books one never encounters the word craft to describe the quest for a satisfying life. There are skills, pursuits, leisure, and fun. There are results, processes, experiments, and checklists. The goal is Epicurean, but simplified and stripped down—a masculine, data-driven sort of self-satisfaction. It’s no wonder Ferriss appeals to the “brogrammers” among us—those technologically gifted young men who see every interaction as a game that one may win by mastering the algorithms.

Ferriss was on my mind as I considered sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s new book, The Outsourced Self. Hochschild’s lament is that we—or at least those of us in the middle to upper middle class—have been pushed by the faceless pressures of neoliberalism in the postindustrial economy to outsource many activities previously considered too intimate for market-based solutions. Now we (again, a narrow “we,” but one that tends to read reviews such as this about books such as these) hire people to handle household chores, train our children, find dates and mates, and even talk us through our deepest desires and feelings.

Hochschild does not consider Ferriss or any of the other strong cultural forces—such as Siri, the much-lauded, but frequently buggy, voice-activated concierge app on the iPhone—that urge us to plug in, turn on, and upload to the cloud. Instead, she considers the lost virtues and values of manual labor and Emersonian self-reliance. This is a nostalgic exploration, highlighted with flashbacks to Hochschild’s own New England ancestors and the hard life they had on a Maine farm, interspersed with interviews with overworked Americans who find it at least convenient—and at most necessary—to hire help to master basic human functions. While many people seem to be taking Ferriss’s advice to outsource all daily chores, Hochschild’s interview subjects continually seek to draw lines between which activities are permissibly outsourced and which are still sacrosanct. Buying gifts, for instance, becomes a subject of debate. “Why give a gift if you don’t choose it yourself?” asks one of Hochschild’s subjects. Another declares that it’s fine to hire people to walk a dog five days per week, but if you are going to have someone else walk it on Saturday or Sunday, “why have a dog?” Indeed. Wedding planning, birthday planning, matchmaking, and career planning all come under review by Hochschild and her subjects. Couples pay for human eggs. Young women sell their eggs or even womb time. Some people, it turns out, pay strangers to visit their loved ones’ graves. Despite the absurdity of some of these arrangements, Hochschild does not lower herself to sneering at those who choose to participate in such market transactions. As Hochschild notes at the beginning of The Outsourced Self, one of her chief inspirations is Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 classic, The Theory of the Leisure Class. In that book, Veblen argued that one of the distinctive features of the rising class of almost-wealthy Americans was their willingness to alienate themselves from any practice that might indicate an attachment to those who worked with their hands. Veblen’s work still explains much of what we see all around us. And The Outsourced Self is in many ways an appendix to it. But Hochschild offers none of the satirical vitriol that Veblen did in his mock social-scientific anatomies of pecuniary emulation and conspicuous consumption. And unfortunately, Hochschild offers little of the gravitas that has made The Theory of the Leisure Class essential reading for more than a century.

While Veblen used his eyes, rudimentary data, and theories of political economy to compose his work, Hochschild uses her ears and ethnographic distance to ensure a respectful, dispassionate portrait. Of course, this means that Hochschild fails to offer any grand explanatory theory for these trends beyond a simplistic account of the rise of the neoliberal economic consensus since the Reagan era. Her lack of empirical data is a terrible weakness—we never get, for example, a sense of whether commercial grave-visiting services are on the rise or even how many people employ them. Mostly, we are left with the voices of those who engage in these practices. We feel much, but learn too little.

Still, the result is a sensitive portrayal of lives under stress and flux, constantly yielding to the temptations of convenience. Everything is subject to coaching by a professional. The simple availability of a coach in areas of life such as career guidance, romance, or home organization seems to generate a perceived need for such a service. Supply creates demand in the outsourced-service sector—which in turn ratchets up supply further, and expands the range of intimate life functions primed for further outsourcing.

For instance, Hochschild surveys some of the newer forms of therapy, chronicling the formation of commercial relationships that look and feel a lot like what we used to call friendship, with both therapists and their clients developing new levels of intimacy and dependence. Indeed, in the book’s final chapter, Hochschild introduces a therapist who now calls herself a “wantologist.” It turns out that a wantologist helps people clarify and perhaps redefine their desires. The client might think she wants a new job or a bigger house. But a wantologist might be able to lead the client to a different yet more satisfying set of prime desires, such as more time with family, a new array of leisure activities, or a pet.

Hochschild concludes her account of the wantologist “trend” (such as it may be) with a sane, measured, and appropriate political message. “These services are only likely to proliferate in a world that undermines community, disparages government, marginalizes nonprofits, and believes in the superiority of what’s for sale,” she observes. She blames our overscheduled anxieties for the increasing demand for such services, each promising to liberate us from mundane human tasks.

But there is much more to this phenomenon than Hochschild suggests. She uses universalizing phrases such as “in a world,” but she takes little account of any such transactions beyond the American enclaves of the educated upper middle class. What’s going on in the rest of the world? At the end of The Outsourced Self, I was left wondering just how American this whole thing is—as well as just how new. Is the rampant outsourcing of our personal lives actually radical and dehumanizing? Is it really the result of market-worshipping neoliberalism, or is it something much more complicated and interesting?

Such questions emerge in part via Hochschild’s chosen narrative strategy. After all, Veblen identified a central factor in our desire to outsource (even though the word itself was completely unknown in his age): The visible detachment from manual labor signified ascension up the class ladder. And Cousin Matthew of PBS’s Downton Abbey has exhibited, at least for a few episodes, the strong professional-middle-class allergy to the idea of paying another person to drive, dress, and do every other simple human task for a member of the quickly eroding upper class. One major abolitionist critique of slaveholder society was that the Southern landholders’ unwillingness to engage in basic duties corrupted them deeply, making them unfit citizens and Christians. And not for nothing did Martin Luther launch a bloody Reformation: He was protesting the church’s market transactions in indulgences. So the phenomenon of paying people to take care of dear and personal things as soon as one has means is at least five hundred years old—as is the moral revulsion over such practices.

Hochschild invokes nostalgia for an allegedly simpler America as an illustrative device. She opens the book by discussing her grandmother’s life in rural Maine during the 1950s. Her grandmother insisted that young Hochschild and everyone in the family pitch in on the farm and get their hands dirty. Hochschild closes the introduction by describing her aunt’s stubborn insistence that no one come to her aid or consider placing her in a caretaking facility as she grew unable to care for herself.

Hochschild touchingly and lovingly juxtaposes the frenetic experiences of her interview subjects with such reflections on her Maine family life. She never idealizes her family experiences in a different time and place—and she makes it clear that those days are gone. The choices her grandmother and aunt made don’t seem feasible for an American woman of means in the early twenty-first century.

But some of these choices were never feasible in countries outside the United States. I couldn’t help but contrast Hochschild’s stoic Yankee grandmother with my own South Indian Brahmin grandmother. While Hochschild’s grandmother never considered engaging in the commercial exchange for services that her family and friends were expected to provide, my own grandmother had no such choice—nor the kind of social autonomy to make it possible.

In the late 1920s, while my grandmother was still a child, her family essentially sold her to my grandfather’s family for a substantial dowry (the specifics of which are lost to family memory). That was standard practice in southern India—and it’s still common to this day. Children were sold in commercial transactions to families in order to forge “alliances”—as they are still called—between families. Aunts and uncles search for a “suitable match” from a “respectable family.” And then money or valuable items (cattle, jewelry, etc.) move from the daughter’s family to the son’s in exchange for assuming the “burden” of feeding and raising the girl. Of course, the daughter is quickly put to work around the clock performing menial chores with a status just barely above that of the many lower-caste servants who visit the house every day.

So from my own family’s perspective, the market has never been absent from intimate family matters. In fact, until recently, the market was all too central. Women were property—often disposable, always abused. There were also no pretensions about the dignity of common labor: Labor was marked as undignified by a deep social code that persists to this day. No one in India needed Veblen to explain conspicuous consumption or the commercial nature of class dynamics. Indians live it every day.

For such Indian families, every important transaction is commercial. The temple charges for holy events. Officials must be bribed heavily to secure licenses to open businesses or even to get a landline phone. And, of course, every village, town, and city has a substantial trade in the original market transaction of an intimate human desire: prostitution.

So I am left wondering why Hochschild’s sociological gaze stayed fixed on the United States, focused on a small but comfortable segment, virtually ignored gender and sex, and tried to make the case that something substantial is happening without any solid data to demonstrate the rate or amplitude of that change. This book falls far short of the standards set in recent years by other masterful and empirically supported sociological works like Juliet B. Schor’s The Overworked American or Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo. As a critique of commercialism, it lacks the philosophical heft of Michael J. Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy (see review on page 28).

Still, Hochschild has not failed. She elucidates some interesting and troubling phenomena. She lightly avoids screaming and preaching, either of which could have easily overwhelmed the stressed-out voices of the people frantically trying to repurpose their intimate lives in concert with the new market order. The Outsourced Self provides some valuable insights for the larger conversation about the unrelenting pushes and pulls of markets in our lives.

However, I wonder if Hochschild could have benefited from reading Tim Ferriss’s two big self-help books. Those sobering yet hilarious tracts would have shown her that there is something oddly masculine at work in the culture of personal outsourcing, pushing us toward an ethic more complicated than the naked market fundamentalism of the neoliberal age. Ferriss shows us that there is a massive demand among men to generate formulas that will clarify and simplify the challenges of daily life. After all, Ferriss, like my ancestors, hires poor Indians to do the unpleasant work so he can be freed for leisure. And he makes it all seem so rewarding: We can all have the complacent woman in one hand and the iPhone in the other—if we just outsource everything, just as the landed gentry of England or the Brahmin elites of India have done for centuries.

There seems to be a cultural imperative to remove friction from all sorts of transactions. We create computerized trading in securities markets. We efficiently tweak filters so that online dating services (the Brahmin aunties of the twenty-first century, except for those of us who still have Brahmin aunties) can filter through thousands of profiles to choose just a few appropriate ones. We use Facebook so that we can maintain almost instant contact with former friends and lovers across decades and time zones. We outsource judgment of what’s important and true to a fourteen-year-old collection of algorithms we call Google. We lose the sense of “craft” when every meaningful transaction sends digital data up to the cloud and back down again. We also tend to mystify all the many transactions that push our data cloudward. Either we put faith in a mysterious force behind a Web page or we trust in some shaman who calls herself a “wantologist.” These strike me as things more alike than different.

We pursue these social arrangements because we seek something specific, not because we are instructed to look to a market generally to solve all problems. We also engage in such transactions when we have the means and opportunity to do so. Perhaps what we seek to lend structure to our lives isn’t so much the readily sanctioned logic of market relations as a set of simple answers to complex problems. We look to books like The 4-Hour Body for algorithms that will fix us. We hire consultants to help us through birthday parties, weddings, and the SAT. We exhibit blind faith in experts who promise checklists. The checklist, like the spreadsheet, is both a powerful cultural totem and a convenient technology. We don’t trust ourselves to generate proper algorithms, so we hire those who purport to have expertise in such matters. Our faith in technologies and expertise, and our optimism about solving problems quickly and efficiently, is one of the signature features of the American cultural outlook of the twenty-first century.

In other words, whatever is going on in the curious interface between our inner needs and the outer world is bigger than the market. Indeed, the market might just be a symptom, not the cause.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is the Robertson Professor in Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Googlization of Everything—And Why We Should Worry (University of California Press, 2011).