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Dispatches From the Russian River: Apps Against Humanity

As she stacks piles of wood, Alexis Coe ponders the depersonalization of the working class.
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(Photo: Alexis Coe)

(Photo: Alexis Coe)

“It’s like Uber for servants,” explained a pale, lanky techie. I’d made the mistake of going to a party where many of San Francisco’s most eligible bachelors were playing Cards Against Humanity “to fucking win.”

I searched his face for a tell. Surely this was his lousy attempt at a joke. He was struggling to cut through my palpable disgust as he described Alfred, the latest app to win “TechCrunch Disrupt,” a yearly competition for start-ups.

“Wait,” interjected his equally white, late 20s to early 30s friend, leaning in conspiratorially. “We can call them ‘servants’ now?”

I responded with an epic bitch face before walking away. Fully articulated.

That was more than six months ago. It was just one of the dozens of offensive exchanges I re-visited when I quit the city for the woods, but it’s the moment I think about most these days. Like a poem, it has accumulated new meanings, revealing themselves over time. I was vexed by the use of "servant," the way the first techie invoked it so casually, but even more troubled by his friend’s disturbingly hopeful reaction. He and I were both struck by the nonchalant use of the word, but in very different ways.

It was just one of the dozens of offensive exchanges I re-visited when I quit the city for the woods, but it’s the moment I think about most these days. Like a poem, it has accumulated new meanings, revealing themselves over time.

We may have been in a multi-million dollar apartment in the Mission, surrounded by mid-century furniture, but we were literally standing on a history lesson. In the 18th century, the Franciscan order arrived in Alta, California, to carry out the Spanish crown’s mission of Christianization. They chose what would become San Francisco’s Mission District as the site of their seventh religious settlement. The area was ideal: It not only came with people to convert, but those same people could also be made to build the mission. The Ohlone Indians didn’t speak Spanish. They couldn’t fully grasp the purpose of the Franciscans’ arrival, but the tribe was drawn to their horses, metals, and cloth. The Ohlone were soon weakened by disease. Those who survived were baptized by force or without a real understanding of the realities and expectations of Catholicism in daily life. In 1770, they numbered 10-20,000. By 1800, the tribe could hardly claim 3,000. There were less than 1,000 Ohlone left by 1852, three years after gold was discovered. They became slaves to the missionaries and then servants to the landed class, an often trivial distinction.

I could have offered dozens more examples of colonialism and present day servitude, working in the techie community’s hostile takeover of the Mission, but I didn’t need to. That’s the beauty of cognitive biases: My bitch face was instinctual.

For whatever reason, this guy, who had definitely studied colonialism in school, failed to grasp why the word was so loaded. There was no moment of reflection, no effort to connect "servant" to its various meanings. He had no awareness of his own role in that history, and he didn’t have to; he lives in the kind of city that affords him a luxurious life and the freedom to blithely enjoy it. And why not? He deserves it. He gets to call them servants because he’s a master, and that’s why they’re running his errands. He’s different than "them." He has more important things to do—like saving the world.

Last week, as I walked back and forth between my cabin and the dirt driveway, I kept returning to his use of "them." I’d ordered a cord of wood to contend with the wood around me, the damp thicket of redwoods that blocked out nearly everything, including the sun. A big man in a big truck dumped a heaping mound of firewood in front of my cabin, and that’s where he left it. Delivery didn’t include stacking. I could’ve outsourced it; the big man said he knew "a Mexican guy who’d do it for cheap." I bristled at the phrasing in the same instinctive manner I had at the party. He knew this "Mexican guy," but he didn’t use his name. A Mexican guy is a Mexican guy. They all work "for cheap."

I declined the offer, which I would’ve done anyway, racism aside. I was determined to do the job myself. I’m trying to live a kind of Walden, embracing what Henry David Thoreau called self-sufficiency in "the tonic of wilderness." Physical labor against a stunning backdrop feels as if it’s purifying the body, but such a demanding, solitary effort can also feel oddly social. By being alone, away from San Francisco’s familiar landscape and the privileged spaces I move in, I feel like I’m able to see it better than ever. Three hours later, when I’d finished stacking the wood and I was toniced out, it hit me.

The app is called Alfred, and when you download it, you’re encouraged to think of the person on the other end of the exchange as just Alfred. But the driver’s license your Alfred carries around has a different name on it. A real name that makes your Alfred an actual, distinguishable individual, but you don’t have to feign such intimacy. That’s what the app is for—to handle those pesky master-servant interactions for you. You can maintain the age-old expectation of domestic help—they must be highly skilled in the art of effacement—with the modern ease the "shared economy" provides. According to the website, “When, where, and if you meet is up to you. Want all of your interactions to be virtual? No problem.” You don’t really need to meet Alfred to tell him if you prefer the toilet roll under or over. For the low price of $25 a week, the user can do away with whatever lacquered-on concern, guilt, or humility he might have had to affect. And just like that, groups of people become invisible, as do their concerns. Since that’s increasingly becoming the case in San Francisco, Alfred or "them" works just fine. Invisible people don’t need names.

Filed from a creekside cabin outside an unincorporated hamlet, Alexis Coe's Dispatches From the Russian River is a personal and historical exploration of leaving home and pursuing dreams.