Obedience the project was born when I moved back to the states after the first wave of Covid, and signed up for Instacart.

I’d been living in Portugal, where the “gig economy” is thankfully less ubiquitous. I’d been following Covid since December 2019, and I was pretty concerned about it long before lockdown. Before March, long before it came to Madeira, I had bought a fair amount of extra toilet paper and canned foods, because I had zero clue how the island’s supply chains would stand up. Luckily we had a great garden and veranda full of tomato and hot pepper. In late March when I shopped for my family I was fully masked and gloved, and many folks thought I was nuts. And as I was always reading a lot of US media, I was following the number of folks who could afford having gig workers to go out for them, and watching some of the gig workers talking about their own conflicted burdon of other people’s risk. It seemed problematic to me, and I was surprised at how easy it seemed for some people to hand off the risk of illness or death to others. I didn’t see remorse. I saw people saying “thank heavens I can have people shop for me,” as if their thankful situation was not directly related to the situation of those less fortunate.

Having worked in the space of drones and teleoperation, it seemed clear to me that this was a clear case of a technology mediating – and making it easier to inflict – potential damage and pain.

Of course, landing in Newark and driving straight to Ithaca, we had to quarantine for two weeks. Shopping would have been an irresponsible violation of quarantine, we didn’t know anyone in the area, so… Instacart. So easy! My guilt was tempered by the fact that we were obeying New York’s guidance, but then everyone who was using teleoperated labor must surely have had some such moral calculus. Here I was, remote controlling a shopper through a smartphone. My mind immediately turned to the Milgram experiments, which it seems to me are the perfect metaphor for the gig economy, especially during Covid.

Here then, will be a thread about my Obedience (working title) project, to remix the Milgram experiments with the gig economy for fun, pain, and profit. I’m currently working with researcher Jordan Aceto on the first prototype, which we’ll write about as we approach our first major version.

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