Norwegian Nobel prize laureate Christian Lous Lange once said, “technology is a useful servant, but a dangerous master.” He was speaking about the industrial revolution, which shaped the world he lived in, but his words hold true for the digital revolution that we are experiencing now. Technology’s never-ending quest for efficiency can empower us to do things never before possible but it can also be a demanding overlord, dehumanizing and objectifying the people that grease the gears on which it runs.
We have seen this play out in a number of ways. Employees in the supply warehouses that make Amazon such a master at logistics have complained of embarrassing and often cruel working conditions. Facebook, the connective tissue of modern day extended families and casual acquaintances, was revealed to have secretly sold the data of its users to other tech companies and is now being sued for its role in facilitating the spread of false information before the U.S. presidential election.
At first glance it might seem like indentured servitude to the technology of the modern world is inevitable. Machines have become better than humans at most tasks so we all have to work harder to compete. Technology companies are created to extract maximum value so they will eventually find ways to get that value from the people using it. But it turns out that this is not the case. A new breed of tech companies are starting to design technology to empower the people that use it rather than replace, sell or enslave them.
One of these companies might just be the biggest tech company you have never heard of. The company is Hello Alfred, a New York-based PropTech company powering the home of the future through technology and hospitality. They want to create a human operating system for residential buildings by providing residents of buildings with trusted, personal help in the form of “Alfred Home Managers.” These home managers are a powerful part of the building’s offering and might be a glimpse at the future of urban dwelling.
Before you think that this is a niche company that only helps you schedule cleaning services remember that, while algorithms are getting better at predicting what people want, humans are still far superior. “We like to think of our Alfred’s as detectives,” said Marcela Sapone, co-founder and CEO of Hello Alfred. “Our world is about the relationship that our Alfreds have with the resident, built on a foundation of trust, ” she told me. “They are not just help that is in the background, these trained specialists are going to act as a proxy on your behalf.”
Think about it, when was the last time that Google, Amazon or Pandora introduced you to your new favorite product, book or song? Personal preference is about so much more than past order history. What we need and want is tied up more in our aspirations than our browser history. “Once we are in your home we can learn a lot about what you care about,” Marcela said. “Do you like houseplants but struggle to keep them alive? Not only will your Alfred start watering for you they might go out and buy a few more plants for your home. Do you like to entertain? Then your Alfred might find ways to make it easier for you to have your next dinner party.” I would bet that a human would never waste your time by showing you an ad for an item you just purchased. An algorithm on the other hand…
Each Alfred is given a budget to buy things for their residents to try and can offer expertise or recommendations in particular areas From there they can facilitate the order and even set it up in your home. “We have Alfreds that buy furniture and electronics, anything really,” Sapone told me. HelloAlfred partners with vetted and values-oriented local service partners and even work with other brands to get samples of products and invites to special events to their residents.This is akin to what Amazon and Google want to do with their voice assistance but on a much more personal level.
In-home services is a quickly growing sector of the economy largely due to the increasingly popular desire to spend money on experiences rather than “things.” As Marcela puts it, “We are life rich and time poor. People have always been pretty bad at doing a cost-benefit analysis of what is the value of all of our time but that is changing, I think that as a culture we are becoming more aware that attention is the most important currency that we have.”
While all of us have chores that we would be much happier to outsource, some of the barriers to this type of in-home service was a cultural aversion to asking for help. This is a rather American ideal, dedicated in-home help is much more prevalent in other countries, as we see other people doing our dirty work for us as an objectification of others.
But this seems to be changing and this is where Marcela sees her company becoming one of the most important parts of many people’s lives. “Originally we saw that people were ashamed to admit that they had an Alfred but now they are going into leasing offices and asking for it,” Marcela said. “These are good jobs that require craft, there is a lot of pride in a job that creates this level of hospitality.” She said that one of her main sources of new employees is new moms coming back into the workforce since they enjoy doing things for others and understand what it takes to make a household run. There is a certain grace and compassion that comes with helping others in their daily lives. One of the most celebrated movies of the year was Roma, which did a beautiful job showing the closeness between families and their domestic employees.
The analogy behind the company’s name is telling. Hello Alfred is named after Batman’s (or more precisely Bruce Wayne’s) personal assistant but in reality he is so much more than that. Alfred acts as a confidant, sidekick, co-pilot, and even father-figure for his vigilante employer. In her mind, Marcela thinks that having Alfred is Batman’s superpower, “not only is having help not a bad thing it is one of the main ways that you can be successful. Every successful person has people that help them on a daily basis.”
From very early on Marcela and her co-founder Jessica Beck understood the importance of putting their employees first. “We were the first women to win TechCrunch Disrupt and at the time it was the era of ‘uberization of everything,’” she said. “We got a lot of negative press because people thought that we were just a way for people to click a button and get your house cleaned. They didn’t understand that with our Alfreds, we were creating a position of very high importance in the lives of residents.”
Hello Alfred’s commitment to their service providers goes much further than just talk. Since the beginning, they made the often unpopular decision to make every Alfred a W-2 employee with benefits rather than a 1099 contractor like many tech companies prefer. They also created a bill of rights that they expect their coders to follow and consider themselves a “human technology company.” “Everyone that comes on is required to be an Alfred for a week. Our most important customer is Alfred so you have to understand their job. We were finding engineers who didn’t want to do that. We have said no to a lot of great engineering talent because they are not interested in the full human picture.”
In the modern world, tech visionaries tend to be idolized for what they can create. But it is important to understand that they too need to be mindful of the consequences of their actions, or the actions of their creations. Rather than ignoring the digital revolution that is permeating every aspect of our lives the next generation of creators are designing technology so it can be our servant, or our assistants’ servant, rather than our master.