Surge pricing for everything.

Purple shows the promise of the on-demand economy

The “gig economy” is taking some knocks this month. But a new startup called Purple is showing us why on-demand labor is actually headed for a boom–no matter what employees or regulators say.

As summer wanes, Uber drivers in less dense areas can be found complaining about low demand and drunk passengers. One US senator says that so-called “contingent workers” demand new policies to protect them from such hazards. And institutions like Brookings are starting to call for worker protections even as they digest the very first academic study on Uber labor. A class-action lawsuit pitting drivers against Uber is moving forward in California. These are all minor hurdles, given what’s at stake.

Robots are supposedly useful wherever human laborers encounter the “three D’s,” also known as dull, dirty, or dangerous work. But in a world where digitization has enabled the hyper-specialization of labor, “work” isn’t a well-defined thing. In fact, today most work is a series of small tasks put together; almost any part of any task can be considered “DDD” by someone, depending on context.

The inconvenient, infeasible parts of “work” that can’t be done by a robot are simply farmed out to people, mechanical turk-style, putting workers today in a second machine age where humans and automated systems work together to complete all sorts of isolated tasks.

Purple, a gas delivery startup, is one sign of where things are going. While the government and labor ponder the future, Purple is already selling a service that allows you to “order” gasoline for your car and have it fueled wherever the vehicle is currently parked.

Getting gas has never been considered “DDD” compared to most human work. But depending on your context, any work could be. As it becomes easier to divorce a product from ancillary products or services, new businesses like Purple will pop up, allowing you to sub in another human (or robot) for any part of any workflow that feels even remotely unpleasant. Like getting gas for a car.

Today, the number of on-demand workers isn’t known. Estimates from private companies like Intuit say it the on-demand labor force will nearly double by 2020 to almost 8 million. It’s easy to imagine how conservative this number might be, given our ever-increasing ability to segment and outsource “work.”

This kind of unbundling has head-spinning implications. Today, taxi companies complain about taxi replacements like Uber. Tomorrow, they won’t be able to blame a single company for replacing them. Whether you take a cab will depend on the ever-fluctuating “cost” of owning and operating a car, as it applies to your position in time and space.

With “surge pricing for everything,” calculating that cost could be incredibly complex. Luckily, there will be someone (or something) on-demand to help you crunch the numbers.

Image by William Warby on Flickr.