Mini Object Lesson: 'Uber for X'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

It’s 1999. Perry Wang’s eyes are bugged out, like he’s seen a ghost. He’s just returned to the conference room holding a Cherry Garcia Ben & Jerry’s ice cream bar. In a meeting that had started 45 minutes earlier, he had paid $3.50 to have it delivered by a startup called The bar is still frozen.

None of us felt comfortable eating it, as if an ice cream bar that could materialize in less than an hour was a poltergeist. Still, the questions! Who would deliver just an ice cream bar for free? The answer was: no one, at least not for long. fired its thousand employees and shut down in April 2001, like so many of its compatriots in the dot-com bubble. Failure or no, Kozmo was one of a few signals (remember Webvan?) of the purported future of convenience.

Today, Uber has reanimated the once-dead, mobile on-demand industry.

The “Uber for X” trope reigns, sometimes in mockery but more often in earnest. Actually existing “Ubers for X” include: Uber for alcohol. Uber for haircuts. Uber for house call doctors. For laundry. For street parking. For cleaning. Massage. Dog walking. Storage. Medical marijuana. Taking the trash to the curb. Even Uber itself has become a speculative design workshop for the convenience industry, experimenting with delivering ice cream (like Kozmo) and kittens (for cuddling) on-demand.

Recently, Amazon followed suit with Amazon Flex, an Uber for Amazon Deliveries. The name “Flex,” short for “flexwork” is telling. The term once referred to flexible arrangements made for full-time, weekday 9-5 workers, such as telecommuting or shifted hours. But today, “flexworker” is usually a derogatory term for someone subjected to precarious labor practices, such as zero-hour contracts. Today, flexwork is two-faced: precarious, just-in-time labor presented if it were a perk for full-timers.

Perhaps that’s what Perry and the rest of us found so harrowing all those years ago. This was tainted Cherry Garcia that had made its way to us by unclean methods, like buying fleeced ice cream out of the back of a truck. But Kozmo didn’t last long enough to test our moral mettle; the market decided for us. Today, it’s hard to know if we’ve been presented with that same test and made our choice, or if we don’t even remember that we have a choice in the first place. This ambiguity is the true meaning of the on-demand economy.