MY OFFICE IS IN Newtown in Sydney, so I get to see the ingenuity and suffering of delivery riders on every variety of two-wheeled vehicle. It goes without saying that the work is among the worst paid, most dangerous, and most unpleasant, ways to make a living. What I’ve become interested in lately though is the sheer badness of the actual electric bikes, scooters, and motorbikes the riders use, because they’re bad in specific ways. Look closely and you’ll see cable ties holding them together, bald tyres, evidence of collisions, dropped bikes, wires exposed, just every variation of jerry-rigged cheap fix. They’re cheap bikes, flogged all day, and given exactly, and only, the amount of repair and maintenance needed to keep them running.

One example gives the flavour of the whole. Cheap electric bikes cope badly with rain, which gets into the battery contacts, so riders wrap up the frame-mounted battery with food plastic (glad wrap or similar). It’s a cheap, bad, crappy solution, that works.

This isn’t to judge the riders—when you look at their tools they have to do the job with, you respect the riders more, not less. It goes without saying that the riders come to the job lacking capital, so aren’t going to BYO an actually good bike, or risk damaging it if they had one. Largely, I understand, riders hire a bike for a weekly fee, from companies set up to cater specifically to the industry, in a modern twist on traditional ‘truck’ arrangements; just like 19thC miners paying the company a hire fee for their helmets, lamps, and oil. Not only do they have do very carefully negotiate their budget, what they get is a tool not designed for the job.

Delivery companies issue their riders with insulated backpacks to carry food to customers. As any rider knows, one’s back is the worst place to carry weight; it’s less work, and safer, to attach cargo to the bike itself in a tray or on panniers, where it lowers the centre of gravity, and frees the rider’s body for pedalling. By and large, e-bikes and scooters lack trays or dedicated panniers, though, so either the rider carries the weight behind their shoulders, or improvises a tray—I have seen ones made from milk crates, even from pieces of fencing. This is the future, but it lacks the cleverness of a science-fiction aesthetic, or the deliberate nastiness of dystopia. It’s just crappy, and works in spite of the design.

It’s the vain claim of the tech industry to be guided by improvisers’ virtues; software developers and startup merchants quickly making solutions, constantly reviewing, bringing relentless novelty into the world. Food delivery is very, very old, though—nothing about it has been invented. The design work that has gone into internet-based food delivery isn’t in the actual work, it’s in financialising the arrangements, clipping tickets between producer and consumer, extracting profit from the process. The ‘tech’ is political, a trick redirecting profit to the middleman.

Look closely at the actual technology, the e-bikes, scooters, and cheap motorbikes, and you’ll see that the real élite hackers in this arrangement are the riders.



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