Squid, who has a queer name for a dog, arrives at my flat with his South African owner and a strained expression, then urinates with visible relief on the photographer’s bag.
I’ve booked him through a website with the twee name BorrowMyDoggy, whose staff, as pressingly enthusiastic as the noisiest handbag chihuahuas, sign off their emails with “Best woofs”.
You may know about the service: thousands of people have joined it. If you like dogs but circumstances make it difficult for you to own one, this can assuage you. And if you have a dog but are going on holiday or need a regular babysitter for it, the system makes it easier.
In west London, where I live, “doggy daycare” is a tenner a day or more. Dog owners pay £45 a year to sign up to lend out Squids: even the borrowers are billed £10 annually.
Businesses such as this are surfacing constantly; so many that it hardly seems surprising you can use the internet to get a dog delivered to play with.
This strange new experiment, glibly named the “sharing economy” (it has a younger and flashier sibling, the “concierge economy”), is exploding the ways in which people formerly interacted with each other.
We are beyond supermarket wall-cards and newspaper small ads; Gumtree and Craigslist appear ancient.
The editor asked me to spend a week living through my phone, using it to organise as much of my life as possible. It turned to be an effortless delight, of course: ease is the triumph of this new world. But doing it in a relatively focused way also highlighted a couple of intriguing things about our society.
Greg the Dubliner arrives a few minutes after Squid. He’s a sculptor, really, he tells me, working in “digital 3D media”, but like many artists before him he gets by as an artisan.
He is here to put up some shelves: I booked him on TaskRabbit, a website that claims to make people “live smarter” by “outsourcing household errands and skilled tasks to trusted people in your community”. Greg charges £20 an hour plus expenses. When he arrives I congratulate him on his 97% approval rating.
“You start with 100%,” he mopes. “I kick myself for one bad job.”
I offer coffee, lemonade — or there’s beer? His Irish eyes flash, then narrow: “Is this going in your piece?”
“Er, lemonade is fine.”
People use TaskRabbit for almost anything; to find someone to wash their dishes, dispatch people to queue for an iPhone for them and (on one occasion) to scuba dive for lost keys in a lake.
The company whacks 20% onto whatever the customer is paying — a typically ferocious mark-up. But this is where all serious money seems to go nowadays: to a tiny number of men running websites in California. Buy something from one of Amazon’s UK “fulfilment centres” (aka warehouses)? Travel via taxi on British roads in an Uber car? Your transactions are with companies in the tax-friendly regimes of Luxembourg and Holland.
Travis Kalanick, Uber’s widely disliked and “bro-tastic” boss, built that company to a $40bn (£27bn) valuation in six aggressive years.
As someone recently wrote in a much-shared piece on a technology website: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.”
It is a phenomenon; in American cities and, if the rumours are correct, in British ones soon, people are turning themselves into part-time taxi drivers by joining, via an app, a company called Lyft. You can rent out your parking space on JustPark and your home itself on Airbnb, find a cleaner on Homejoy and hire a drill or carpet-cleaning machine using Zilok.
Personal shopper apps are huge in the States; if you’re too lazy to buy your own soya milk, someone will bring it to your apartment for a couple of dollars without you even getting off the couch.
My godmother has broken her arm and is finding it hard to do things around the house. I download an app called Laundrapp, thumb in my card details and someone pulls up at her address that evening and collects a load of laundry. This is returned, beautifully pressed and folded, before 6pm the next day. (Cost: a punchy £25.50 for some sheets and a towel, plus £2.50 for one pillow case.)
The doorbell goes. Yesterday I gave a company called Enclothed my measurements online, clicked on photographs of men in various states of dress that I liked the look of and sat back plutocratically.
The delivery box contains a linen jacket, jeans, some chinos, shoes, shirts and a jumper, all from good-quality labels. They fit well, on the whole, and I would wear most of them.
You don’t have to keep any of the items; the company charges the shop price for what you want to hold on to and comes to collect the rejects. Many men don’t enjoy shopping for clothes; if I were richer I would use Enclothed a lot.
An enclosed letter from “your personal stylist” (no name) reads: “The longer we work together . . . the better each box will get.” This is true of almost everything in this new society where algorithms know us best.
The sharing and concierge economies appear different but are essentially the same. The internet — and smartphones in particular — has made it cheaper and more efficient to connect customers with goods and services.
Although one thing, technology, has made this possible, another has made it inevitable. Many people in western societies are no better off than they were before the 2008 crash.
Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, said last week the average Briton is earning £1,600 less than they were five years ago. An army of debt-laden graduates is struggling to find work. This new economy is probably keeping many of them off the dole.
I spoke to an Uber driver about the company. “At first it was great,” he said. “Good customers, lots of jobs. But last summer Uber suddenly dropped our prices by 15%.” He has no sickness pay, he added, and little stability.
Clutching his brackets, Greg says: “This is perfect for me. I can work when I want, turn it off when I want. I don’t have a boss; I can say no to anything. But it’s all a sideline for me — I’d feel differently if it was my career.”
What did I learn from this experiment? That technology has made it easier for any two humans to establish that they can trust each other and that this has made us more efficient.
Also, that the internet will continue to satisfy our yearning for instant gratification in almost every area. (Amazon does one-hour delivery on some goods in New York; and for those who want them there are probably apps for prostitutes and drugs.)
Most of all, though, I learnt that any worries about the position of workers within this matrix can be temporarily forgotten as you load your sturdy new shelves and stroke your borrowed dachshund.