How Food Delivery Service Apps Obscure the Humans Behind Them

Nov. 19, 2021

How Food Delivery Service Apps Obscure the Humans Behind Them

As apps increasingly replace humans in purchasing and ordering food, restaurant and delivery workers risk being entirely dislodged from our collective consciousness, a process that disembodies the people responsible for feeding us.

Words by Nicole Grennan
Illustration by Eleanor King

Editor’s Note: This story is published in The Industry Issue of Life & Thyme Post, our exclusive newspaper for Life & Thyme members. Get your copy.

There is a place 10 minutes from my home, an endearing hole in the wall with a giant cardboard cutout of a smiling french fry by the door. Their fries—which are fried twice and served in white paper cones that become shiny and translucent with grease—are the only thing I order from this place, and I always get them to go. I know nothing about the cashier except that he works here every Thursday and Friday. He doesn’t know me either, but we still ask how one another is when I hand him my debit card.

For most of my life, I would have classified this interaction as “casual care,” a term used by Jessica Barnes and Mariam Taher in their essay “Care and Conveyance: Buying Baladi Bread in Egypt” to mean, “a mode of practice that constitutes care but that is not necessarily performed by its practitioners as such. It is intentional but also habitual, deliberate but also perfunctory.” Barnes and Taher use it to consider the consumption of Baladi bread, a government subsidized bread that is regularly eaten by most Egyptians. They write that casual care is the care “of routinized and quotidian acts. Tied to ingrained social norms, casual care proceeds with little apparent pause for thought.” 

It may be a stretch to suggest that picking up my greasy takeout fries amounts to casual care, or to even compare it to Barnes’ and Taher’s analysis of Baladi bread, which is so central to a daily Egyptian diet. But this framing makes sense because Americans eat out a lot. And we eat a lot of french fries (National Geographic estimated about 29 pounds per person per year). If the average American eats out three to four times a week, eating out is mundane and quotidian. Saying thank you, leaving a tip, and requesting extra sauce could all be taken as expressions of casual care. 

This past year and a half brought a lot of our interactions with people more fully into perspective, including those that hadn’t warranted much of any attention previously. As of March 2020, getting takeout was suddenly laden with anxiety, and sitting down in a restaurant was not possible in most places. Going into a storefront was suddenly fraught, and picking up fries made us vulnerable to something unknown and deeply frightening. There was no need to ask how anybody was—we were all not okay. I remember getting takeout from this same restaurant in late April—I wore gloves and two masks. I couldn’t see because my glasses fogged, and I threw the gloves out before touching the fries. Then I realized I hadn’t Purelled. I panicked. I wondered if I should wipe off the plastic container holding the dip. Every fry was a question: Does this have a germ on it that might make me sick? 

In a world already tending toward technocracy, this anxiety around takeout was like fuel on a fire. While food service delivery apps were previously a matter of investment and convenience, they now asserted themselves as the safest option for consumers. Catchy slogans about the value of staying home and protecting yourself and the people around you proliferated; ordering on Uber Eats was a virtuous alternative to walking into a restaurant. That is, as long as you didn’t have to factor in risks posed to delivery workers and restaurants.  

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It is important to note that these apps have been demonstrably harmful to both delivery workers and restaurants. As I write this piece, New York City became the first in the nation to pass a groundbreaking legislation package that will set minimum pay and address the plight of couriers employed by app-based food delivery services like Grubhub, DoorDash and Uber Eats. While these laws are all critical to securing the safety and dignity of food delivery service workers, advocates for the workers are saying they are the bare minimum. In a New York Times article about the legislation, Dr. Patricia Campos-Medina, Executive Director of Cornell University’s Worker Institute, referred to them as the “‘floor’ of what was necessary to provide ‘basic rights,’” writes Jeffery C. Mays

This legislation comes on the heels of overwhelming approval by California voters for Proposition 22, which would have allowed companies like DoorDash and Uber Eats to classify delivery service workers as independent contractors, and exempted them from having to fully employ drivers, paying for their health care and other benefits. However, the law was recently deemed unenforceable by the California Supreme Court, citing it as “unconstitutional.” 

As for remediating harm to restaurants, New York City was also the first to make its 15% delivery-fee cap permanent, as of August 2021 (prior to the cap, delivery services sometimes charged restaurants fees of up to 30% per transaction). Of course, a 15% delivery fee in an industry with notoriously tight margins is still damaging at best, and murderous at worst. 

In the second half of 2021, we still aren’t out of the pandemic. However, many of us are vaccinated and carrying on with activities we couldn’t have dreamed of a year ago, like eating inside restaurants, going to weddings, and returning to offices. The imperfect transition back to a life that mirrors the before-times has many people asking: what was and is lost without day-to-day human interactions? Can we really connect with people over Zoom? Are we missing something if we don’t return to the office? As technology becomes more and more integrated, many of us are trying to come to terms with these new modes of connection through a passive framing that emphasizes the impacts of absence, and the absence’s impact relative to the positive value of convenience. 

But it isn’t just the absence of humans; technology is present in their place. It’s intimate to order food—to be fed by another person. It’s intimate to journal in a notes app or to speak with a therapist over Skype. As faces on screens replace voices or warm bodies in our day to day, technology is transformed into the object of intimacy. 

This intimacy complicates the casual care I previously mentioned as coding these interactions, always threatening to dislodge people from the engagement entirely. Think about the way you order food on a delivery app—you open the app, you select what you want to eat, and you pay without ever speaking to a person. If you want, the food can even be dropped at your doorstep. You don’t have to think about the hands that made your tacos just as much as you don’t have to think about the cyclist who raced to get to your place. The restaurant worker and the delivery worker are disembodied; in the experience of the consumer, they no longer need to have a physical form because that form no longer needs to be encountered. If we don’t want to and if we can afford to, we no longer have to interface with a human at all. We no longer have to engage meaningfully with the fact that a human is cooking or delivering our food. 

Feminist scholar Donna Haraway’s essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” argues our relationship to technology has become so intimate that we can no longer say with certainty where the line exists between ourselves and our machines. In a 1997 interview for Wired, Haraway tells Hari Kunzru, “Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us. We’re living in a world of connections—and it matters which ones get made and unmade.” Food delivery apps are not exempt, and they are not neutral.  

Compare this process with more classic processes of takeout, sans app. In one scenario, you might call to order your food. In another scenario, you place an order online. From there, you may have something delivered or you may go pick it up. If you’re having something delivered, it’s likely the delivery person is ringing your doorbell. You might even pay them directly for the food. In either instance, you interface with another person a minimum of once. The final scenario might be like the anecdote I used to open this piece: you walk in and order your food. And on the way out of the store, you might burn your tongue sneaking a still-hot french fry. 

While the nature of restaurant jobs has always been precarious, the role of the delivery driver in 2021 is made distinctly more so because of the way they are uniquely disembodied by food delivery service apps. In being disembodied by the technology of these apps, these workers are also dehumanized. Their most basic rights, including the right to use the restroom in privacy, are an ongoing battle, subjected to the fluctuations of what’s trendy or significant in the political and social spheres. They are not entitled to basic rights by virtue of being a human because their humanity has been effectively robbed from them, or at least veiled by the technology that replaces them in interfacing with consumers. The abuse and exploitation of food service delivery workers has been well-documented in major publications, including The New York Times, Rest of World, and more. Yet, only now, in fall of 2021, is any legislation being brought to the table to protect even the most basic of rights. 

I can’t imagine a world where we rollback food delivery apps, and I don’t think we need to. I’m not suggesting that picking up takeout protects food delivery service workers, or that anyone is a bad person for using DoorDash. But if it’s true that technology is in us, that we are in technology, that the intimacy is such that we are often unable to distinguish between the two, then it seems important to consider what (and who) is affectively obscured when we buy our food from an app, and the consequences of that abstraction.  

The place with the french fry cardboard cutout has survived the pandemic thus far. I order and the cashier hands me a crunchy, brown bag with a cone full of fries, heavy and still hot. The exchange is visceral and almost thoughtless. To be handed the bag of fries from the person who made them, if only once in a while, is to be reminded that we are accountable to the people veiled by technology, that we are implicated by where we place our intimacy and our attention. For a moment, it’s embodied care.

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