At the traffic lights, a woman’s head dangles from the backseat window of the silver Holden Commodore in front. It is late, quite late, and she is drunk. She lazily hurls her dinner from her mouth, and I watch as flecks of vomit fasten themselves onto her chin, only to cement themselves onto the car’s exterior moments later. ‘Jesus,’ I mutter to the cab driver sitting next to me, who giggles and says, ‘she’s certainly not going to get a good rating for that.’
We laugh together affably, I pay, and he drops me off on my street, where my brooding apartment complex waits.
The transaction feels odd, though. Unfinished. Given that he isn’t an Uber driver, my phone doesn’t pester me to rate him as I fumble at the door with my keys, and it is then that I realise what was missing: my interaction with this man wasn’t laced with grades, with ranks. There was no looming possibility of digitised failure or success.
When sociologist Arlie Hochschild first coined the term ‘emotional labour’ in her 1983 book The Managed Heart, she referred to ‘surface acting’: a phrase used to describe how individuals are required to revise and conceal their true feelings when performing work duties. Retail staff grin politely while customers shroud their arms in unfolded clothes, unapologetically treating them like living, breathing coat-hangers. Waiters graciously handle disrespectful patrons, only to be handed a cut-rate, cash-in-hand fee in a beat-up envelope come pay day. In each case, service workers are, according to Hochschild, practicing emotional labour. We have long embraced the classist trope ‘the customer is always right’, an ethos that belittles the agency, esteem and principles of many.
We have long embraced the classist trope ‘the customer is always right’, an ethos that belittles the agency, esteem and principles of many.
It has been 35 years since Hochschild first published The Managed Heart, and customer service has changed significantly. In order to keep up with an overwhelming amount of technological advancements, capitalism has hitched itself a digitised ride. With the birth of the World Wide Web, the market has expanded: first from local, family-run grocers, then to large shopping malls that proudly house mass-produced goods, and finally to a smorgasbord of online stalls and outlets. There are now myriad instant and public ways for individuals to ‘rate’ those they buy services from. A song or podcast is only as good as its iTunes rating; a nearby burger joint only as ‘authentic’ as Yelp allows; a hotel only worth staying at if TripAdvisor has advised its readers not to go anywhere else; a book only a good read if Goodreads says so. In other words, a smile is worth a pixelated star. Or five. If you’re good.
In China, a ‘Social Credit system’ is rolling out ahead of a full launch in 2020, which affords everybody a personal scorecard, as assessed via complex and intrusive surveillance methods. If citizens are ‘good’, they’re rewarded, with access to discounts, loans and better jobs. If they’re ‘bad’, they’re punished.
When my boyfriend and I sat down to watch ‘Nosedive’, the first episode of Black Mirror’s third season, I found its obviousness a little vexing. Lacie, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is meant to be all of us: an anxious ‘life performer’ who frolics about nervously in a world where people are rated, but – not only that – each of their ratings loom above their heads like some kind of terrifying, faux crown, following them into coffee shops, bus terminals, public bathrooms, their homes. This world, an eerie three-dimensional rendering of a formulaic Instagram post, is explicit. Everybody is working to raise their hard-earned rating through cheap smiles and shallow gestures. There are no secrets.
There are now myriad instant and public ways for individuals to ‘rate’ those they buy services from. A smile is worth a pixelated star. Or five. If you’re good.
This was what I didn’t like: how blatant the surface acting was, the way it unveiled itself so brazenly. What’s so terrifying, perhaps, about the way emotional labour is practiced in our current digitised world is that it is insidious and quiet. It dictates our interactions softly, in a hushed way. We don’t yet have the appropriate means or language to discuss how all of us stage kindness online. Or goodness. Or intelligence. Or whatever else it is we want to convey. How, when we draft a tweet, or order a pizza, or swipe right in a bid to fasten a new lover, we’re signing onto 4G shift work: hoping for love-heart shaped tips, or reciprocated online attraction, or a hike in our Uber rating.
Recently, my grandmother complained to me about the number of Facebook friends she had lost; their profiles disappearing from her feed once she started to draft statuses about Yemen, about femicide, about matters unable to be summarised easily, poked fun at, shared. In a way, friends and family of hers started vanishing the moment she stopped surface acting, when instead she leaked confessions about Big Pharma, and Palestine, and asbestos conspiracies, rather than using her social media page to draft birthday posts to Aunty Bulner and share cheap recipes. But, by Hochschild’s definition, for my grandmother to really be ‘surface acting’, maintaining a genial Facebook profile would be a necessity. A facet of her work duties.
Leigh Alexander, reflecting on – or perhaps even mourning for – once-upon-a-time friendships in the Guardian, considers online interactions to consist mainly of an ‘economy of “likes”’ – economy meaning goods, services and production. In this way, Facebook is work, and Zuckerberg has each of us loyally performing our salient duties behind our simulated desks: masking our true feelings so as not to disturb our hard-earned collection of accumulated reactions, likes, clicks, and friend databases. At our fingertips, a vibrant and bustling economy of people, of pages, of places flourishes, and it is up to us to maintain it appropriately.
Sitting quietly in my living room after midnight, dipping corn chips in chilled, day-old salsa, knowing full well that the taxi driver is long gone, I still feel stuck. Stuck because, beyond a handful of cash and coin and a wave, he drove into the evening like-less. I’ve become hardened to a kind of digitised, transactional system that relies on likes, on five-stars, on plugs – and I feel as if I have robbed him of worth.
On Christmas Day, my grandfather – a man delighted by the festivities – leaned back in his armchair and rested his hands on his stomach. His wife, his ex-wife, and his daughter each buttered bread in the kitchen, and scrubbed saliva and gravy off dishes, and sorted through duffle bags full of gifts. I want to veil each of their necks with five stars, even though a gesture such as this would mean not much at all. Because, although our interactions have become confusing, digitalised and costly in this day and age, if you look up from your screen, you will likely find a woman someplace nearby, scouring bowls and platters.
Nostalgia for a ‘simpler’ time comes undone when we realise that such a time was made easy and endearing due to the invisible, emotional labour of our mothers and grandmothers.
It is tempting to speak about social media – and the self-curation that marries itself to it – as if Instagram and Facebook and Twitter are nothing more than simulated scrapbooks. HTML journals that, due to our capitalist tendencies, have evolved into work portfolios. But online life is real life – and increasingly, the digital economy is not just symbolic. For social media managers, hashtags translate into weekly pay cheques. And social media managers – in some kind of inevitable conclusion – are overwhelmingly (between 70 and 80 per cent) women.
As much as the postmodernist fabric of our digital worlds seem distressingly far from what we know and love – from board-games with paper money, and large feasts that are devoured without being photographed, and car-lifts without synchronised PayPal accounts that track kilometres, and traffic, and time – the way emotional labour fastens itself to women in this day and age bears an uncanny similarity to the past. Women, with full and open hearts, have long healed their nearest and dearest with love-reactions. Nostalgia for a ‘simpler’ time comes undone when we realise that such a time was made easy and endearing due to the invisible, emotional labour of our mothers and grandmothers.
A few days after Christmas, I waited outside a friend’s house for my Uber driver to arrive. He pulled over, and as he slowed down, I walked – slowly but assertively – in front of his car. As I hopped into the passenger seat and smiled, he locked eyes with me and mentioned that ‘I shouldn’t just walk in front of a car like that’, that it was ‘dangerous, Madison’. He was frustrated and condescending, forgetting – for a moment – that the ball was in my court. Hearing him attempt nervously to regain my 5-star rating after that was distressing; overcompensating with an abundance of questions, followed by a collection of cheap jokes, all made with trepidation. I wished, as he pulled up at my apartment complex and my phone buzzed, that I’d called a cab instead.