Slave to the algorithim

London Essays – Issue 7: Work

Slave to the algorithim

Insecurity, repetition and biting wind: my life as a Deliveroo cyclist.

By Mark Trent

I am an English graduate and musician, but my real passion is delivering food on my bicycle. At least, that’s what I’ve started telling people at parties to avoid being asked “how’s the music going, then?” It is a remarkably effective ploy – people react very positively to hearing about a job they find both refreshingly modern and unthreateningly basic, listening attentively with a wry condescending smile.

The truth, though, is that I’m looking for that smile, and I’m smiling too, because there’s something about working for Deliveroo that feels ironic. My friends and I (when I’m in a good mood) believe that I work for Deliveroo as a sort of joke. And there are lots of others like me. Students, young people between jobs, the self-employed, freelancers, the “creatives”. I see them on my shifts. People singing as they cycle, calling friends, reading football news for an hour when orders are scarce, grouping together in flocks comparing screens and chatting about which roads are good, which hours are good. We’re not treating our shifts like a real job, we’re playing them like a game. There’s no sense of loyalty or respect for the company; in fact, considering the company classifies us legally as self-employed, there is no company. This feeling, however, that we’re playing a game, it’s mainly a summer feeling. In February, it feels more like I’m a pawn in a giant game of food chess, where kings and queens are protected, and I’m sent out to be slaughtered by the wind.

The changing seasons do not ultimately determine whether or not Deliveroo (and other app-based companies that employ vast numbers of zero-hour contract drones like myself) are “good” or “bad” for its employees, but they provide a useful prism through which to talk about the job. I started working for Deliveroo in April 2016. There were the initial few weeks when everything was new and exciting, and shifts would fly by. Mine were from 18.30–21.30, and the light was still faintly glimmering when I finished. I sped through the streets in a t-shirt, getting my exercise in the sun, handing Thai curries to people and bidding them farewell with my wry smile. I had no boss: no-one to hand me something in the office at five o’clock and say, “Oh, just quickly, do you mind having a look at this before you go?” No one to interrupt me in a meeting, just customers – often desperately hungry people – either looking through me or at my ankles as they mumbled a middle-class-guilty sort of “thank you” of a kind that implies, “Oh, my food has been delivered, what a pleasant surprise! I don’t usually get served my dinner by young cyclists; I’m actually a very normal person!” A friend of mine who worked for Deliveroo while at university warned me that I would be treated like a lowly insect, but the awkward-superficial-guilt-mumblings aside, I find that not to be the case. The thing about hungry people is, they really want food. And I deliver it to them. It’s a direct service that often causes people to beam with wide-eyed happiness as they answer the door.

So it was summer, and the pay varied from shift to shift (usually between £8 and £12 an hour), but in the warmth I could rationalise shifts as positive experiences in numerous ways. There are the good-money shifts (on a Sunday night when Deliveroo are giving out bonuses per delivery to encourage more riders to keep up with demand, I’ve made £20 an hour). There are the exercise shifts (OK, maybe I haven’t made much money and the orders have been stressful – but the endorphins keep the good feeling going), and there are the relaxing shifts (only one order, but I was paid £7 an hour to pore over every pixel of social media I conceivably could). Predictably, those ‘relaxing’ shifts are the worst – feelings of sickness and sadness come fast on social media. In general, though, I was happy, and the flexible hours really are convenient for doing what I want to do the rest of the time.

But then it started to rain more, and the days got colder and shorter. And as I shivered, sitting down and reading an article about some sport I don’t even watch and feeling a bit sick and a bit sad, I started thinking the job wasn’t that funny anymore. I noticed that working Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday evenings for a few months meant I’d started seeing my friends less, and that as well as not having a boss, I also didn’t have any work colleagues, which is not to undermine my increasingly intense relationship with the woman on the sat-nav who tells me which way to go. I had no reason to want to perform particularly well at my job, and no-one to explain to me exactly how the system worked, which becomes very frustrating if, for example, ‘Error 503’ causes your phone to log you out of the app for 20 minutes and the Rider Support helpline is playing tinny muzak in your ears. So while I sometimes felt like a self-employed modern free agent choosing how I work, it occurred to me that I might also be described as an insignificant automaton being controlled by an algorithm whose best and only compliment is, every month: “Your average time to restaurant was less than our estimate, which means you are meeting this service level criterion. Your average difference was -2.9 minutes.” In positive moments, I thought of myself as part of the vanguard of a new technology-inspired way to earn money and use my time; but at other points I felt like I was at the apex of the worst kind of gentrification – delivering the same food from the same template trendy restaurants to the new-build towers of Kings Cross and Dalston – sterile spaces of concrete and glass that look like “artist’s impression” photos brought to life – to scarily young people whose parents must have bought them those flats, I mean come on.

Many of my growing grievances at the job were not unique to Deliveroo. They have to do with mind-numbing repetition, the same kind that you would experience in any hospitality job, and in many others too. For example, I didn’t like being forced to think so frequently: “How wide is my delivery box, can I squeeze through this gap?” or “Do I need both thermal bags for this or just one?” or “Should I unlock my bike and then check the directions or check the directions and then unlock my bike?” But other troubling thoughts, the ones to do with working for a faceless, impersonal organisation with no reason to care or be cared for, they are more worrying. No guaranteed hours, no sick pay, no insurance, no career ladder – these are all fine if you’re privileged enough to treat Deliveroo as a “side thing”, and I and at least five of my friends who have tried a job like this are in that category. But if you were to begin to rely on Deliveroo as your only source of income, things could go wrong horribly quickly.

Over the new year, I became ill and missed most of my shifts for a few weeks. Now, in truth, I wasn’t that ill. How ill would you have to be to not feel up to cycling in zero degrees for three and a half hours? Having made money through other jobs in the run up to Christmas I did what any sane person would do and made up a litany of excuses to enable me to swing in and out of work (sprained my wrist, chain snapped, tyre flat/stolen, girlfriend’s birthday, gig at a wedding, they really don’t care as long as you email two hours before the shift). But if I’d needed to continue working through that time, and some of those excuses had actually happened, I could have been in trouble.

No one is forced to work for a company like this. But huge numbers of people may not have other options. London’s gig economy is up 70 per cent since 2010, and close to a million British workers are now on zero-hours contracts. The likelihood is that this number will continue to rise for the foreseeable future, fuelled by technological change. And when you zoom out from my personal experience and look at it systemically you find a lot of people with relatively standard mood swings about their job but non-standard levels of job security. We’re all quite happy with the convenience it provides, but sometimes it feels like we’re walking across a thin layer of ice that could break at any moment. And even if it doesn’t, it’s still too bloody cold.