by CJ Verburg
A new crossover between human and robot made its PBS NewsHour debut last week. In “Dirty Laundry? Batman’s Butler to the Rescue,” Paul Solman introduced us to Alfred. Combining the virtues of Apple’s Siri and Downton Abbey’s Mr. Bates, Alfred is named for the butler who looks after Bruce Wayne (AKA Batman) in comic books and on film. The latest Alfred is pitched as more democratic than traditional butlers: available to any busy professional out there who’d love to unload those pesky domestic chores like picking up the dry cleaning and filling up the fridge.
From the company’s website:
“One fateful night after a long, demanding day at work, [Alfred co-founders Marcela Sapone and Jess Beck] ran into each other in the laundry room of their apartment building. The overwhelming sentiment? Frustration. Leisure time shouldn’t be a luxury; it should be a right and a reward for working as hard as both of these women did (and still do!) A pact was made: No longer would they let mundane chores control their lives.
“The year was 2013 and the idea for Alfred was born. Since then, Marcela and Jess have worked tirelessly to create the first ever non-intrusive, recurring, in-home service that virtually everyone can use. With Alfred, these innovative women have ensured they personally will always come home happy – and they want the same for you.”
By this point in the presentation, bells were ringing for me. Even now I can vividly recall, as a busy young professional 40 years ago, telling my colleagues: “I need a wife!”
Anyone who’s watched Downton Abbey (which may not include professionals too busy to buy their own groceries) knows that the role on the human stage described by Marcela and Jess isn’t “butler.” Butlers don’t wash your socks, feed your cat, and refill your fridge. It’s a role TV fans recognizes less from Alfred than from Donna Reed, June Cleaver, and the other female stars of the 1950s. Tireless domestic P.A.? Resourceful problem solver? Cheerful all-purpose paragon? That’s a wife.
“Man labors from sun to sun,” the saying went, “but women’s work is never done.”
In those days, gender was the dividing line between those who saw leisure time as their “right and reward for working hard” and felt entitled to “come home happy,” and those whose job it was to make those wishes come true. In our time, as more and more working women expect the same perks as their male colleagues, the dividing line has changed.
Who can hire Alfred? You can, whoever you are, as long as you live in New York or Boston and are able and willing to pay $99 per month for a once-a-week visit. If you live somewhere else, don’t despair — an a la carte version called Hello Alfred is on its way nationwide. According to TechCrunch:
“The company thinks of it as a remote for your home. Text Hello Alfred to get groceries at the last minute, or have laundry picked up before a big trip. For folks outside of Boston and New York, it will function as a single way to handle maintenance of the home . . . The idea behind Hello Alfred is that Alfred, as a brand focused on trust in the home, can be the portal for all of your on-demand needs. So rather than placing on-demand orders on a handful of different apps, you can text Hello to 917-382-8028 to get access to Alfred’s web app, wherein you can place special requests in a single place for Alfred to take care of in the back-end.”
Who is Alfred? A scrupulously vetted employee who’s willing to play the role of semi-invisible wife for several dozen people a day. That’s how many “husbands” it takes to support both the company and its myrmidons. The particular myrmidon interviewed by Paul Solman is a pretty young woman who moved to New York from Scandinavia, wants to get to know the city, is OK with getting her daily exercise hauling other people’s groceries and laundry up multiple flights of stairs, and, yes, would rather be using her education and training in psychiatry, but what can you do when there are so few good jobs and such a chasm between the overworked young professionals and the rest of us?
What do you think? Is Alfred an inspired (& overdue) solution to the down side of gender equality? i.e., a culture in which everybody’s expected to do everything? Is it a step toward a new feudalism?–a 21st-century Downton Abbey, starkly divided between haves and have-nots, masters and servants? Or is Alfred just one more hopeful startup offering a shortcut between people who need services and people or businesses who can provide them, like TaskRabbit, Fivrrr, Uber, and AmazonFresh?
Would you hire Alfred?
Would you apply to be an Alfred?