How a Virtual Assistant Taught Me to Appreciate Busywork


I don’t need help scheduling more things to do; I need to do less. Often these services suggest that users throw money at that problem (which is not very helpful if one of your problems is that you do not have enough money). The apps transform parents from workers into consumers, translating our to-do lists into shopping lists. Somebody is still performing our “joy-stealing” tasks, and it may be a call center worker or one of the many other invisible laborers who make artificial intelligence systems seem to run automatically.

The boundary between the human and the artificial is slippery; Yohana emphasizes that it employs “actual humans (not A.I. chatbots) that can do the grunt work,” though according to Forbes, those humans are using generative A.I. to assist them with our tasks. When these services style themselves as “worker bees,” “secret helpers” or “fairy godmothers,” they lean on the iconography of fantasy to obscure the grimmer reality of farming out your “grunt work” to an anonymized labor force.

The work that these services hope to eradicate (or at least obscure) is feminized. It’s “women’s work,” and indeed, most of my Yohana helpers had feminine first names. One of the most helpful things a virtual assistant can do is assign family burdens more equitably among its members, a duty commonly demeaned as “nagging.”

Last year, Meghan Verena Joyce, the chief executive of another task delegation service, Duckbill, argued that “with its capabilities for efficiency and customization,” artificial intelligence “could play a crucial role in easing the societal and economic burdens that disproportionately affect women.”

In an illustration on Yohana’s website, a typical user is portrayed as a bespectacled woman who wears a baby in a sling, anchors a square of wrapping paper under a foot, balances a bowl of dog food on a lifted leg, stirs a pot with one hand and types on a computer with the other. She resembles Rosie from the Jetsons, each mechanical limb firing autonomously in order to labor more efficiently. We are familiar with A.I. helpers, like Apple’s Siri, which are modeled after feminine stereotypes, but here it feels as if the opposite is happening: A mother has been recast as a robotic being, her work dismissed as rote and easily outsourced.

In the few weeks that I spent as a virtual-assistant taskmaster, I realized that much of the busywork claimed by the apps is actually quite personal, often rewarding and occasionally transformative.

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