Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

The future of services: Inconveniencing others

I was held up on my way home today by a limo on Santa Cruz Avenue, which had stopped to discharge several people who were on their way to dinner. The limo didn’t bother to pull over into parking, or otherwise get out of the way of other drivers who wanted to share the one-lane road: it just stopped, then the limo driver helped four people out of the limo, saw each of them to the curb, then got back in his vehicle. The whole thing felt like it took an hour, though it probably absorbed about five minutes.

This and other experiences has led me to formulate the following theory. We know we live in a service economy, but we also have reached a point where most everyday exclusives have been democratized– and hence degraded. It’s relatively easy to get “gold card” credit cards, get “exclusive” memberships to places like Costco, etc.. What once truly signified privilege is now available to many. So what’s a service economy to do? What’s the next frontier in cool services?

Zero sum services: services that you enjoy at the expense of others.

The people riding in the limo wouldn’t have gotten the same experience if they hadn’t inconvenienced a dozen people trying to get home during rush hour. As it was, they not only got to be driven somewhere, they got to make other people wait while they ambled into Le Pot a Feu.

Skeptical? Consider these other examples of zero sum services:

  • Some amusement parks now have “guided tours,” whose main virtue is that they let you go to the front of the line, accompanied by a park official (who presumably is trained in martial arts, to defend you against the people who’ve been waiting for three hours for their turn and want to kill you).
  • First class service on airplanes.
  • Sport utility vehicles, which give their drivers the advantage of space and a clear view at the expense of those of us closer to the ground (and which in collisions are more likely to kill drivers of sedans and compact cars).
  • The deli at one of my local supermarkets, which will remain nameless, appears to have an informal policy of letting people who are older and/or better-dressed jump to the head of the cue. This happens so often I have a hard time believing it’s just random coincidence.
  • The most recent tax cuts.

I think I’m onto something here. Unfortunately I don’t like it one bit, except for the first class service….


  1. I think you are on to something here. I can’t say I like it, but I think you’ve called the trend accurately — ick.

  2. Sometimes the future’s not pretty!

  3. Michael Dennis

    June 12, 2003 at 9:34 am

    Actually, I think this is the democratization of privilege (Sp). All of these benefits have long been available to the truly wealthy, the American aristocracy; now, you too can purchase these services. All that matters is the cash; the service is secondary. After all, at amusement parks or sporting events if you knew the owner you got a special tour or a better seat. Now, instead of trading on friendship or a personal connection we now have an economic transaction. It is a great example of how market relationships are able to replace personal relationships, or serve as surrogates for them. If you have enough money, you too can behave like a celebrity. Great.

  4. This is an example of what Eugene Genovese described as capital’s function as a universal solvent of social relations. I think.

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