Chen Long discovered during a system overhaul that take-out platforms are never satisfied with compressed delivery times, and they are always testing the limits of people. That day, all his takeaway orders were overtime.
Chen Long, a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Sociology at Peking University, joined a team of delivery riders in Zhongguancun, Beijing, in 2018 to complete his doctoral dissertation, and spent five and a half months conducting fieldwork, delivering daily deliveries and experiencing the labor process of riders. He was curious about how hundreds of thousands of riders managed to walk the streets of various cities across the country in seemingly chaotic but orderly fashion. The results of his dissertation will be published this year, and all of his investigations have always centered on a central proposition in sociology: how does capital control workers, and how do workers resist?
The following is a dictation by Chen Long.
Wasn’t there a deputy director of the Labor Relations Department of the Beijing Human Resources and Social Security Bureau the other day who went on a one-day take-out run, 12 hours, delivered 5 orders, and earned 41 yuan, and then said that he was aggrieved and worked very hard in his heart. In my experience, he just ran for one day, and then ran for two days to get used to it. After he got used to it, he would not feel that it was hard to run 5 orders, but I can still run, I can run 30 orders, 40 orders, and even complain about the platform, why don’t you give me more orders anymore? Because the limit of your workforce has slowly been propped up.
From early March to mid-August 2018, I joined a team of takeaway riders in Zhongguancun, Beijing, and delivered takeaways for five and a half months. That team was one of the first rider teams to emerge in Beijing, and the station manager at the time said something along the lines of, “Our team is called the number one delivery team in the country in terms of single volume. If the national takeaway team looks at Beijing, then the Beijing takeaway team will look at us. “
We gather at Zhongguancun Square at 9:00 every day, have a morning meeting at 9:30, and start waiting for orders at 10:00. My first day only ran 9 single, when the cost is still higher, send a single 8 yuan, I earned 72 yuan. Later, the limit is open, the most I sent a day 24 single, at that time even think how the platform does not send two more single. I usually run until 3pm and stop running because the electric car is out of power, so I will start looking for riders to do some interviews. Most of the takeaway workers will have two batteries ready to run until eight or nine o’clock at night, the average daily can run thirty to forty orders.
Many people didn’t know I was a PhD from Peking University at first and were reluctant to take me on, suspicious of my identity and thinking I wasn’t worried about making a living. Later, when I found out, many people were willing to chat with me. They think you are a doctor, so they will come to me and ask me what to do in the future.
My dissertation is about the labor order under digital governance. One of the core issues in the sociology of labor is to know the order of labor. There are so many cities and hundreds of thousands of riders walking around at the same time, which looks chaotic on the surface, but there is an order behind them. Where is this order? You will want to understand what exactly makes this orderliness possible.
At that time, I didn’t think of using the word “algorithm”, I used the word “digital governance”. As I realized during the delivery process, the platform was constantly collecting data. Through smartphones and the delivery software installed on them, the platform can constantly track the rider’s trajectory. Once indoors, the GPS signal is generally weak, but it didn’t take long for the platform to collect and record the rider’s data through the merchant’s Wi-Fi network, indoor positioning base stations, etc., including the rider’s movement status, time of arrival at the merchant, length of stay, consumer address floor, length of time waiting for the consumer to pick up the meal, etc.
I later contacted the technical staff of the takeaway platform, and they told me that not only the rider’s data, but also the merchant’s data, including the number of daily orders, weight, contents, and consumer preferences, all of which they can know. For example, if a rider is late in delivering food, some consumers will just give a bad review, and some consumers may not give a bad review several times in a row. The platform will begin to calculate and give you an estimated delivery time, for good talking consumers that may time how much does not matter, for the more calculating people, the platform may deliberately put more water on the delivery time, originally 30 minutes can be delivered, the platform to the time is 35 minutes.
We have a saying called “feeding”, all the data, each person’s habits can let the system to learn and absorb. The platform has a lot of data, and then use the data to give you planning how to pick up food, delivery, how to give each order pricing. The last thing I wrote is actually this point. The reason why such a huge and complex labor order becomes possible is that there is such a data-supported system, which is a highly controlled and accurate prediction that incorporates everything that can be included, to the extent that it can be calculated.
I deliver that time, most of the time will also complain about one thing, is the time, especially the noon peak hours, the list is really particularly large, but also rushed tight. At this time you are more or less panicked in your heart because you will not be able to make it in time, and it is also usually this time when accidents are most likely to happen.
I remember in March, Beijing was still quite cold. At that time, I hadn’t started running and was in a state of observation. A rider led me to run, we both ran the same distance, same time, and entered the elevator of the company together. I was thinking that I ran with him, and indeed the body was a little hot, but not to the extent of sweating. I said you are not tired? He said no, I was panicking in my heart.
The earliest delivery of a single on the takeaway platform takes an hour, then everyone is grabbing, who can break the 30-minute mark, and finally they can now reach 28 minutes. Compressed so much time, on the one hand, there is a technical update, but this is after all very little, because the computer computing power is very strong, it saves is also a few seconds. So you see most of the time saved in a few minutes, it’s by the rider.
I was very impressed that in June 2018, the system made a big adjustment just to improve the time. All my orders were late that day.
The platform had a “customer expected arrival time”, originally the delivery time for this order was 45 minutes, the system changed it to the customer expected you to deliver in 40 minutes. If I deliver in 42 minutes, the customer will see that I have not exceeded the time limit. In the end, it is determined by the system, and what is the criteria for this determination? No one knows. Some people exceeded two minutes to determine that he did not exceed the time, and some of them were determined to exceed the time.
You can think of it as an experiment done by the platform to test whether you can still run faster. The day a large number of riders overtime, in the group everyone reacted very fiercely, directly began to curse, because the cost and consequences of this experiment is the rider to pay the bill. Once the time is over, this single earn not even, but also may deduct you a few dozen dollars, and even stop number. A stop number is half a day or a day can not run, pull you to do offline training.
I previously did a questionnaire survey, a rider living in Beijing, a day open eyes is 100 yuan of expenditure, including rent, a variety of living expenses. So you can imagine how much a penalty, or even a half-day stop, affects them. That was a big stimulus for me, I found that the platform is trying to compress the delivery time, they are constantly testing the limits of people.
In the process, the riders would also rebel. I later researched whether they really had autonomy, whether they were really free. Because at that time, they all said that delivery was very free, and they were free to go to and from work, and they could quit if they didn’t want to, as if they had a lot of rights in their roles. But after doing the survey, I found that this kind of resistance, in fact, the power is very weak. Data will cause a squeeze on your autonomy.
The platform has its own set of rules to manage riders, such as a huge database, and a game level to riders to divide the standard, from bronze, silver, gold to star riders, to encourage riders to take more orders, one level up. Riders also have a “spontaneous game”.
I remember when we went to NPC Zhixing apartment building to deliver, NPC only allowed riders to enter through the north gate of the campus, so when the system calculates the delivery time for you, it will use the north gate as the basis for calculation, and the navigation will also let you enter through the north gate. The riding distance from the north gate to Zhixing apartment is about 800 meters, which takes 4 minutes. But then someone found out that there is a side door next to Zhixing apartment, the electric car can’t drive in, but people come down and walk two steps to get in, it’s very convenient and the walking time is no more than half a minute. So many riders would change their path and finish the delivery task of Zhixing Apartment early, saving time to run other orders.
This is equivalent to a loophole in the system, and riders also use their own initiative to do what I want to do according to their own decisions and ideas. But after many people do this, the platform also found out, it will give you compressed time to close this “loophole”. The time saved by the rider finding a shortcut could have been used to rest or run more orders, but due to the system’s keen “data control”, it can quickly update the route based on the rider’s trajectory. But because of the system’s keen “data control,” it can quickly update the route based on the rider’s trajectory, which can end up turning the original 30 minutes into 25 minutes.
The platform pushes riders to find shortcuts, and when they find them, I design the standard according to your new shortcut. The rider’s autonomy may actually end up being reduced to a very small margin.
You’ll find that technological advances don’t seem to make life better for people. The convenience of technology is never going to catch up with the needs of the A. When you finish the amount of tasks you’re doing now, there will always be new needs that keep popping up. It is constantly putting people in the middle of the path of involution.
Why are we so hard on time? Is it just the way it is to begin with? Or have we been constructed by the platform to think that way? I think we need to reflect on that.
And this process also involves the expansion of human limits, you say that time can still be lowered, and probably can also be lowered again. In a recent article, I mentioned a concept called “super mobility”, and I wanted to say that take-out riders are running faster and faster, and there is a reason behind this mobility, which is the capital The reason behind this movement is a demand for capital appreciation.
In Marx’s view, the more time capital invests in production and the less time it invests in circulation, the greater the value added of capital. From this point of view, the platform can only hope that the circulation process is as short as possible, preferably the dish just made immediately to you, you can not wait to taste at home and you taste the same experience in the restaurant, you are willing to pay a very high price to buy it, right? So this is essentially in line with the logic of capital accumulation, the ultimate tendency is that they will run faster and faster.
New Year’s Eve, takeout riders are still working.
The invisible platform
There is a problem of redistribution of control in the takeaway industry. Management is generally three-fold, the first is to guide the work, employees do according to the boss’s guidance. The second is to assess the performance of employees in the work, the third is based on the assessment, the decision to give employees rewards or punishment. In the past, these three tasks are decided by the boss.
And now, you will find that the boss does not care. Who will guide? The platform gives the rider the order, and the platform tells them which one to deliver first and which one to deliver again according to the navigation. The consumer decides whether to give a bad or good review. The final rewards and punishments are decided by the platform based on the consumer’s evaluation. You will find that this “boss” can not be found, an invisible software system in charge of the first and third work, the second to the consumer.
Once control is distributed, the corresponding conflicts are pulled elsewhere. Technology obscures the corresponding labor relations, and even if riders have grievances, they don’t know who to vent them to, and they may even vent them in the wrong place. I found that many riders were genuinely cursing the cell phone system and felt that the problem was caused by the stupid system. Another point is that the structure of the takeaway business is added layer by layer, there are regional managers, franchisees, station managers and so on, who is the boss, riders can not find. They can only vent at the system.
From the consumer’s point of view, they do not understand the rules behind the rewards and punishments, which are seriously unbalanced. When I deliver, a good review adds two dollars, a bad review deducts 10 dollars, and a complaint deducts 200 dollars, and the punishment is much stronger than the reward. Everyone is afraid of being punished. Sometimes consumers give a bad review, the rider runs a single only 8 yuan, and finally also owes two yuan, that may “miso” a moment, the rider emotions up.
One of the more ridiculous things is that when consumers and riders have conflicts, the platform becomes an arbiter instead. It is responsible for determining who is right and who is wrong, which should be the responsibility of the platform or capital.
You see some reports issued by the platform, especially like Meituan said during the epidemic, the number of riders rose rather than fell, looking as if everything is fine. But the industry in the end is good, you have to look at its high turnover rate or not. If the turnover rate is high, it means it can’t retain people, which means it still has its own problems.
My interviewees at the time were basically no longer in the industry. The main character in my paper is from Gansu, who originally wanted to open a small restaurant at home, but failed to do so and got into a lot of debts, so he came to Beijing to deliver. He lived in an urban village, where riders gather in similar places, where three or four people have to live in a space of about 10 square meters, and the conditions were not good.
He has been doing this for over a year, and he probably delivers 30 or 40 orders a day. The company’s main business is to provide a wide range of products and services to the public.
Last year, I had dinner with a friend, and I ran into another one of the more important protagonists in the paper. At that time we were sitting in the elevator, he came in with his cell phone, we were wearing masks, but we looked at each other and recognized each other, and did not speak, directly hugged in a piece. After the hug, I asked him, “Are you still doing this? I just chatted for a few minutes. He had to rush to deliver food. He is one of the few who is still doing takeout.
I’m also interested in female riders, who make up about 8% of this group, but there seems to be very little coverage of them. I first observed three types of female riders, the first being older ones, in their 40s and 50s. The second is more masculine in appearance, with many having a flat haircut. The third is a small daughter-in-law type, usually with her husband a piece of work.
The industry is male-dominated, and it’s not easy for women to enter, so they have to lean in the direction of men in their strategies, to discard some feminine features. Some male riders will be quite contemptuous to say that it is not considered a woman anymore.
But a very special place is that in winter, everyone is wrapped up tightly, blue and yellow rider uniforms, you can not tell the gender. But female riders will wrap a scarf, red, yellow, very bright. I think that’s what they actively want, to identify their female identity.
Compared to 2018, I think the situation of riders is probably worse. You think in 2018 the price of delivering a single was $8, now it’s down to $5. They have to keep in-rolling to make sure their income doesn’t fall, pay longer working hours, compress the delivery time of each order and deliver more orders.
In 2018 I thought changing jobs might be a way to rebel, but I don’t think so anymore because everyone is doing platforms, it’s all odd jobs economy, and you think you’re getting out of a cage, you might actually be entering a new one. But there’s no way, because many riders’ own conditions dictate that he can’t dominate the labor market.
(Change) is difficult. Unless the platform wants to change, or the government introduces relevant policies, then there is no way. So I think it is necessary for the deputy director of Beijing Labor Relations Department to experience delivery