Uber, but for waiting in line at the DMV

January 16, 2019 (1391 words) :: Need to get your driver's license renewed, but don't want to spend 6 hours waiting in line? There's an app for that.
Tags: gig-economy, startups, ideology, inequality

This post is day 16 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Today I want to talk about this wonderful little company called YoGov. Unlike Tow.io, my fake startup idea from a few days prior (“Airbnb but for towed cars!”), this one actually exists. YoGov’s most fascinating product can be summed up as “Uber but for waiting in line at the DMV” - i.e., they’ll help you get an appointment at the Department of Motor Vehicles without having to wait in line. (In the Bay Area especially, waiting in line at the DMV can be an hours-long affair.)

Here’s how they describe the service on their website:

Need to get to the DMV ASAP, but don’t want to spend your entire day there, standing in line outdoors for hours, unable to eat or go to the bathroom?

You’re invited to try out our new Line Waiting Concierge Service.

By showing up at the crack of dawn long before the DMV opens, we ensure you a spot at the front of the line, so you can leisurely stroll in at opening time and check in to get your DMV ticket number immediately with no wait.

In some ways, this is brilliant. It’s win-win business model that creates value by solving inefficiencies in the system. Lines at the DMV are notoriously long because the DMV is underfunded and poorly-run, and people who have day jobs don’t want to have to take a day off work to wait in line. On the other hand, people who don’t have day jobs an need to make some extra money on the side have access to a new source of income, one which requires little more than standing in line for a few hours. The line-waiters are happy because of the extra income; the line-skippers are happy because they got to save time. Perfect two-sided marketplace. Everybody wins.

This is the perfect distilliation of Silicon Valley’s tendency to reach a local optimum and kind of just stay there. By which I mean, this service is optimising for a local maximum that also happens to be globally idiotic.

That’s not to say that it’s not efficient given the circumstances. It’s actually an extremely reasonable service: given the existence of a highly bifurcated workforce (especially in the Bay Area, where this app is often used), consisting of some highly-paid and highly busy people alongside others who need money and have free time, you might as well match them up. It’s the same business model that powers the whole gig economy, really - you can get people to wait in any line for you, or do your laundry, or deliver your food, or drive you around. Get the less-busy to do menial tasks for the more-busy for a fee, and as the app that brokers this transaction, you get to set the cost and also take a small cut. What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s only when you zoom out and take a wider perspective (looking beyond the blinkered frame of reference of the stereotypical Silicon Valley entrepreneur) that it starts to look less clear-cut. From one startup founder’s point of view, if the problem you want to solve is “long lines at the DMV”, you can’t actually tackle the root of the problem, which is that the DMV is underequipped to handle its typical volume of service. You don’t have access to the levers within government bureaucracy, which seems to you like a horrifying black box all covered in red tape.

So you instead approximate by solving the problem of “long lines at the DMV” for rich people - i.e., people who are willing to pay around $100 to save the hassle of standing in line for a few hours. You take for granted that there will be people (not the startup founder himself, god forbid) to do the actual waiting (as independent contractors, of course, so you can avoid paying them minimum wage or benefits). You never think too hard about the reasons for the existence of this line-waiting reserve army, and what their lives must be like if they’re so eager to do such a stultifying job for such low pay. That’s out of scope. That’s not your problem.

And so in the process of trying to solve one (minor) problem - that of long wait times at the DMV - you inadvertently stumble upon a much larger, societal problem: that of economic inequality, and all the downsides associated with that. Upon encountering this latter problem, what do you do?

You could shrug and say, that’s got nothing to do with me. You could attempt to profit off of that (extremely bad) problem in order to solve your original (extremely minor) problem. It’s the equivalent of noticing that society has been infected by a moral rot and deciding that the best course of action is to monetise the rot.

To be honest, I don’t really blame people who work on startups like this. They’re merely doing what’s expected of them, in a situation they didn’t personally create but have found themselves in a position to take advantage of. They’re settings goals according to what seems acceptable within the current system, one that is steeped in assumptions around who creates value and who doesn’t. The broader socioeconomic system - the division of labour that underpins our current mode of production - seems unchangeable, and so why bother? If social transformation is off the table, then the best remaining option is to plant a flag somewhere in the interstices of the system, by monetising its inefficiencies.

So it’s understandable why people would be suckered into believing that these locally-optimal solutions are the best we can do. Because they’ve spent their whole lives stooped in a fog of (venture) capitalist realism, conditioned to believe that the market is the most efficient way of distributing resources and so any inefficiencies that may pop up can always be solved by applying another healthy dose of “market”.

That doesn’t mean they’re right, though. It just means they’ve lowered their expectations, and instead of having the courage to actually work on solving audacious problems, they’ve settled for more quotidian ambitions. And in the process, they’ve probably convinced themselves that it’s actually a win-win - it’s actually the best we can do. They’re actually making the world a better place, by helping unemployed (and maybe even homeless people) make a bit of money.

But that depends entirely on what your “normal” is - what the baseline for comparison is. If you take inequality as a given, I’m sure you can always come up with innovative new ways to monetise it. On the other hand, if you see inequality as a problem - the problem - then the entire problem space changes. You start to see the difference between tackling a problem and profiting from a problem. Because one requires finding the root causes of the problem and ensuring that your short-term actions lead to the right long-term goals, and the other involves a shallow, cursory glance that may happen to alleviate things in the short-term but doesn’t really care about what happens in the long term.

In the long term, of course, we want a world without DMV lines at all, and without the massive economic inequality that has created this problem in the first place. This inequality of access to the DMV (some have no choice but to wait; others can command others to wait for them) is only a symptom of a larger socioeconomic problem in which some peoples’ time is treated as more disposable than others’. We have to fight for a world where this doesn’t happen.

In the meantime, what to do about these long DMV lines? I don’t really have a problem with this particular business model in itself; if you want to use this app, or work on something similar, I don’t really care. But don’t delude yourself into believing that it’s actually good for the world in the long run. At best, it’s an affirmative solution, when what’s really needed is a transformative one - like constantly emptying out the bucket underneath a leaking roof rather than actually fixing the hole in the roof. It might be useful for the time being, but at some point you’re going to have to actually fix the roof.

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