Few aspects of the English language are so thoroughly maligned as the passive voice. And for good reason. The passive (“mistakes were made”) as opposed to the active (“I made mistakes”) permits wriggly writing. It acknowledges that something happened without explaining who made it happen or how. As such, the passive voice isn’t just the hallmark of sloppy prose; it’s a rhetorical device that evades recognition, dispenses with attribution and, according to one style guide, “liquidates and buries the active individual.”
Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that at a time when major e-commerce platforms and app-based delivery services are brazenly trying to erase any trace of human labor, our smartphones and inboxes are inundated with notifications written in passive voice. Messages from Amazon, DoorDash, Instacart, and others are haunted by an eerie peoplelessness. One notification tells you that “your package has been delivered.” Another informs you that “your delivery has been completed.” Yet another announces that “your food has been dropped off.”
Perusing my own backlog of purchase notifications from the last several months, I found they were as generous with passive voice and verbal avoidance as they were stingy with giving credit to the humans who made the deliveries possible. Linguistically, it was as if prescription medications, pad Thai, KN95 masks, weed, pizza, running shoes, and ice cream simply appeared on my doorstep. No human labor necessary.
In many cases, I encountered the quintessential passive triplicate, a series of messages narrating my order’s journey from the moment of purchase to the moment it arrived at my front door:
“Your order has been processed.”
“Your order has been shipped.”
“Your order has been delivered.”
Clearly someone took the order, packed the boxes, loaded the trucks, picked up the food, and made the deliveries. But these people were rarely (if ever) acknowledged for their efforts. Judging by notifications alone, it would’ve been hard to tell whether human labor was involved at all.
And maybe that’s the point. Through passive voice and other forms of labor-erasing language, delivery notifications ask us to imagine a world where things simply materialize, as if by magic, on our doorsteps. They help to uphold an economic fantasy that our purchases are not the result of human toil but rather the frictionless outcome of efficient market forces. Were they to acknowledge the role of human labor, the whole illusion would come undone. After all, it’s not the invisible hand that puts packages on our porches. It’s a human hand that companies have rendered invisible.
Historically speaking, the erasure of labor is nothing new. Consider the back staircases in Southern plantations, an architectural way of keeping enslaved persons hidden from view of the plantation class while working in slaveholders’ homes. Or consider the organizational erasures built into the heart of the industrial economy. Assembly lines broke production into infinitesimally smaller tasks, thereby undercutting the visible contributions of skilled craftspeople. Or consider department stores at the advent of American consumer culture. Marketers used colorful displays and fashionably dressed salesclerks (who were trained to smile) to cultivate carefree shopping experiences and distract shoppers from the dreadful labor conditions and low wages on which their consumption depended.
Capitalism has always depended on the manipulation of our imaginations. As Karl Marx argued, it’s a lot easier to compare and exchange all sorts of goods when we disavow their origins and the human labor required to produce them. Once we strip away the scuffs from the factory and erase the idiosyncratic markings of individual workers, we can begin to think of goods as if they were magical. They serve us, speak to us, and make us feel things. We reimagine the relationship between consumers and producers as a relationship between consumers and products. In the process, the laborers on whom we depend are relegated to the shadows—rarely acknowledged and often forgotten.
George Orwell captured the point in his vivid depiction of coal mining in The Road to Wigan Pier, musing that, despite coal’s centrality in everyday life, “we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves.” Instead, coal seems to appear “mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it.”
Nearly a century later, Orwell’s insight still holds. We dress ourselves in the ephemeral trends of fast fashion, wearing clothes sewn by underpaid garment makers who, thanks to global trade and toothless accountability standards, are easily forgotten. We eat produce that has been planted, picked, and processed by a vulnerable migrant workforce, mistakenly addressing pre-meal prayers of thanks, as one meme puts it, to Jesus rather than Jesús. We flock to the latest smartphones and electric cars, buying hyperbolic claims that they work like “magic” and remaining oblivious to the fact that their rechargeable batteries come to us via people laboring in Congolese cobalt mines under slave-like conditions. For the most part, it’s not until something disrupts our tidy economic imaginations—like a deadly garment factory collapse, a mass-shooting of agricultural workers, or reporting on militia-controlled mining operations—that we spare a thought for the human exploitation that powers our consumption.
While capitalism continues to rely on the erasure of human labor, the modern economy has shifted these erasures into a higher gear, facilitating a more perfect realization of the laborless economic fantasy. In the past, even when commerce depended on the thankless toil of strangers, consumers would eventually interact with some human laborer such as a servant, a salesclerk, or a delivery person. The experience was inescapably social, even if that sociality only extended to the final link in a long chain of invisible human labor.
But as a growing share of retail purchases take place via screens and from the safety of our own homes, that final link is sheared. It becomes even easier to ignore the people-powered economic infrastructures that make consumption possible. The websites and apps from which we order present a digitally depopulated facsimile of what was once an in-person shopping experience. They remove all traces of humanity and allow customers to imagine their orders as if they simply materialized through the digital interface. It’s like a souped-up Wonka Vision that delivers more than candy bars: “It’s unbelievable! It’s a miracle! It could change the world!” But while we fawn over the technological convenience, the Oompa Loompas still have to work.
Convenience sells. Digital intermediation has quickly spread throughout the economy. In the U.S., e-commerce sales have grown nearly threefold since 2013, with a 43 percent jump in total sales occurring over the first year of the pandemic. Today, nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults have an Amazon Prime membership. And, thanks to habits developed during shelter-in-place, food delivery services have become a mainstay of at-home dining. DoorDash’s total revenue more than tripled in 2020 alone, and some analysts predict that online grocery shopping will absorb more than one-fifth of grocery sales by 2025, which is more than double its current share of the grocery market.
Even if the pandemic-inspired e-commerce frenzy has slowed—and the recent spate of tech layoffs suggests it has—the offline world doesn’t offer much of a reprieve, especially as companies invest heavily to make in-person shopping feel more like the online experience. We’ve grown accustomed to self-checkout kiosks which, despite their documented inefficiency and need for regular human intervention, are becoming inescapable. Whole Foods recently introduced “Just Walk Out” stores—oddly bearing a name that sounds more like a labor protest than a retail innovation—which use dystopian levels of surveillance to allow customers to skip checkout lines (and human interaction) altogether. And many restaurants now ask patrons to order via QR-code menus, a move that effectively eliminates front of house hospitality work. (The very idea of a “touchless” dining experience should remind us that back of house labor remains just as invisible as before.)
Recent projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics corroborate the story. By 2031, employment prospects for retail sales workers will decline by 4 percent, with cashiers specifically—one of the largest in-person sales occupations—declining by 10 percent; meanwhile, opportunities for delivery drivers will grow by 12 percent. Direct human interaction is quickly fading from the daily consumer experience.
Today’s social arrangements were anticipated by futurist Alvin Toffler back in 1980. As he saw it, the advent of personal computers and other such communication technologies would transform the family home into a sort of “electronic cottage”—one of the principal organizing units of the digitized economy. Because knowledge work could easily be performed from home, less time would be wasted commuting to and from centralized offices. People would have more energy to devote to domestic life and community affairs. The catch, Toffler conceded, was that this new arrangement would ultimately result in two kinds of social relationships: “real” face-to-face relationships and vicarious relationships mediated by “the electric screen interposed between the individual and the rest of humanity.”
What Toffler failed to perceive, however, was that these relationships would sort along lines of class and race. Thanks to our “electronic cottages,” one can easily live as a shut-in, going weeks without encountering someone from different socioeconomic strata. And, in an era of rampant residential segregation, the opportunities for interaction across class lines—even those that occur during everyday consumer transactions—are quickly dwindling. In many communities, the daily parade of delivery vehicles paints a stark picture of social and economic division. Precariously employed, lower-income workers, often people of color, slip quietly into largely white, upper-class neighborhoods, deliver packages, and retreat back into obscurity.
The degree to which we have grown accustomed to the new economic order becomes exceedingly obvious in those rare moments when invisible labor becomes visible, and you find yourself face-to-face with a delivery driver whose work you seldom pay much notice. These moments, in my experience at least, tend to happen when something has gone awry. There was a mistake with the order. The driver got lost. They accidentally delivered to the wrong address. Now you’re standing outside with the driver, hearing how his car broke down and how he trudged three-quarters of a mile in the dark to deliver your Indian food. And when you return inside, the notification that pings your phone—“Your order has been delivered”—seems to have missed several important details.
For the company overseeing the exchange, these off-script moments are a rhetorical resource. In fact, the only time customer service puts you in direct contact with the person doing the delivery is when something goes wrong. It’s a move that seems to shift blame from the infallible app to the imperfect human worker who interfered with an otherwise flawless transaction. What goes unspoken is that, were it not for that human, the transaction never would have happened at all.
For the customer, however, these seemingly insignificant interactions reveal what is to be gained when we stop pretending the contents of our digital shopping carts magically materialize on our doorsteps and instead engage with the human toil taking place behind the scenes. Interaction, as a growing body of research attests, is the bedrock of social cohesion. We are less likely to dehumanize people with whom we converse or interact face-to-face. What’s more, brief interactions with someone from a different background can dramatically reduce our prejudices with regard to that person’s identity and increase our support for measures protecting that person’s rights. Such research confirms an underappreciated feature of in-person shopping: when someone takes your order, rings up your groceries, or fetches an item off an inventory shelf, you’re forced to acknowledge that person’s humanity. And the more we recognize workers as fellow humans—and not just the fleshy conduits of our consumerist whims—the more likely we are to treat them with moral decency.
It’s no wonder the e-commerce and app economy giants are so quick to hide human labor from the consumer experience. After all, these same companies have racked up disgraceful scorecards of government safety (OSHA) violations and spent millions on union busting and legislative campaigns to deprive workers of state and federal labor protections. When pushed on their abysmal labor records, they produce slick videos depicting workers as upbeat and satisfied. “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?” Amazon’s PR team tweets. It’s a tenable piece of propaganda (despite copious evidence to the contrary) for the hordes of customers who rarely interact with, let alone imagine, the workers in question.
And therein lies the dual nature of erasure in the modern economy: these companies are not only striving to keep labor out of sight, they’re also trying to keep labor out of mind. Power, after all, resides in one’s ability to control the scope of others’ attention. According to sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel, this means both determining the information people can access and influencing what features of that information are deemed noteworthy or irrelevant. The insidious power of e-commerce capitalism is not that these companies tell us what to think—it’s that they tell us what to think about.
We can see this discursive power at work in the language of contemporary consumerism. There’s the labor-erasing doublespeak of “frictionless,” “touchless,” and “contactless.” Then there’s the very labels of “e-commerce” and “app-based economy,” which suggest a fanciful infrastructure composed of bits and bytes that somehow stands apart from the concrete infrastructure of trains, warehouses, and delivery trucks. Some companies struggle to maintain the illusion of virtuality, resorting to problematic euphemisms like “ghost kitchens” and “dark stores”—brick-and-mortar establishments that handle food preparation and order fulfillment on a delivery-only basis—to describe physical entities that actually exist but don’t really exist. In other words, you can eat food from Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen, but you can’t visit Flavortown in person, let alone find it on a map.
Other companies go so far as to celebrate the elimination of human interactions, often touting the antisocial nature of their services as a selling point. Vrbo’s “Only Your People” ad campaign smugly reassures consumers that they’ll never encounter a stranger “making things awkward” or “taking up space” when renting a home through the company’s app. Food delivery services paint a similar picture. Seamless encourages you to “satisfy your craving for zero human contact.” And Postmates recommends its app for people who “want pad see ew without pad seeing anyone.”
Beyond the bullshit bingo and misanthropic publicity, we’re witnessing an even deeper transformation of the grammar through which we understand the economic experience. Passive voice notifications—stand-ins for what were once face-to-face interactions—speak to a broader truth about modern capitalism. Studies in psycholinguistics have demonstrated that statements phrased in the passive voice (e.g., “the woman was abused by the man” or “the person was killed by the police officer”) are less likely to provoke moral outrage or calls for accountability than similar statements phrased in the active voice (e.g., “the man abused the woman” or “the police officer killed the person”). This linguistic trope is so prevalent in reporting on policing killings (or “officer-involved shootings,” as the perpetrators prefer to call them) and reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that some mock it as the “exonerative tense.” Whereas the active voice puts the person who performed the action at the center of the sentence, the passive voice relegates that agent to the background, diminishing their salience. So, in much the same way that the passive permits powerful agents to evade responsibility, it prevents powerless agents from receiving recognition.
Making matters worse, the passive voice increases psychological distance between the reader and the event being described, making the event seem hypothetical or as if it occurred in a remote time and place. In other words, the passive voice can make things feel simultaneously more objective and more surreal. If ever there was a grammar for an economy that blurs the virtual with the actual, where deliveries simply appear at your front door, and where the people who perform labor are routinely denied credit, the passive voice is it.
Such labor-erasing language belies a deeper ideology at the core of the gigified economy: human workers are best thought of as quiet pieces of machinery and not as people with needs and rights. We shouldn’t be surprised when the companies that make up this economy outfit their delivery vehicles with surveillance cameras instead of air-conditioning or use terms like “deactivate” to describe what is colloquially known as “being fired.” These same companies routinely praise the accomplishments of AI and other proprietary technologies—often using the active voice to do so—while omitting mention of the human labor on which these innovations are based or that, in many cases, actively pulls the levers behind the scenes. Flipping between both active and passive, Amazon says its Photo-On-Delivery technology “provides visual delivery confirmation, showing customers that their package was delivered and where it was placed.” The fact that the words “by the driver” are so easily lobbed off the end of the sentence makes it feel as if we’re being prepped for a fantastical economy where machines serve our every desire. Until then, as the Wizard of Oz insists, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
It’s hard not to see this spate of obfuscatory language as part of a deliberate effort to suppress our collective awareness of the workers who fulfill our orders. Acknowledgement would breed recognition. Recognition would promote solidarity. And solidarity would be bad for business. It could also be that techie grifters—many of whom are hemorrhaging money—are pulling all the stops to dazzle investors with the chimera of automation and artificial intelligence. Or perhaps it’s that, were these companies to actively acknowledge the humans on which their business models depend, they’d end up shattering the illusion that these people are merely “independent contractors” over which they have no control. What better way to disempower your workers than with language that pretends they don’t exist?
Whatever the reason, the cumulative effect of such erasures is to subvert public understandings of how the economy actually works, replacing them with idealizations of a laborless marketplace where the convergence of supply and demand seems natural—something that occurs via its own volition and not via the intervention of human hands. Grasping the power of obfuscatory language helps to explain how these companies—with their unsavory records of exploitation and dangerous working conditions—continue to appeal to otherwise well-meaning people who, were they to regularly consider the humanity of the delivery driver, the warehouse worker, or any number of other laborers, might feel a twinge of guilt and reconsider their shopping habits.
To be sure, there are occasions when companies acknowledge the human face of their digital empires. In mid-2022, with food delivery apps coming down off pandemic highs and with growing support for reclassifying gig workers as employees, DoorDash launched a rebranding campaign, “A Neighborhood of Good in Every Order.” In it, your “random impulse wine purchase from a local pharmacy” is cast as an act of beneficence for the “Dasher around the block.” And while DoorDash now references drivers’ names in delivery notifications and even features generic images of the kind of second-job striver they want you to imagine is fetching your food, these concessions are nothing but feel-good maneuvers to maintain narrative control over an otherwise invisible workforce. Clearly, DoorDash is afraid of what workers might say if allowed to speak for themselves.
As the late scholar Mike Rose, who studied working-class America, put it, we live in a time when labor “has less immediate grab on the national imagination.” Giving it more grab—that is, overcoming consumer complicity—could prove critical in the drive for labor rights in a world of e-commerce convenience.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that delivery workers ought to endure the additional uncompensated and emotionally-draining labor of chatting with consumers about the difficulties of the job. What I am suggesting, however, is that we should embrace an active language that centers workers and more accurately depicts the causative order of the modern economy. If the language of capitalism is designed to obscure the relationship between consumers and the workers on whom they depend, then progress requires that we develop a language that re-establishes this connection.
By determining if and how to refer to human labor (and by deciding how to apportion credit for that labor more generally), companies like Amazon, DoorDash, and their ilk are quietly establishing unsettling norms for how we think about economic relations. To combat this campaign against our collective understanding of how the economy actually works, we must begin acknowledging the human workers who often go uncredited in our consumerist discourse. And while we shouldn’t kid ourselves that changes to the language through which we understand the economy will, on their own, improve working conditions or restore humanity to an inhumane economy, such changes will make our collective indifference—our porch-bound complicity in the continued exploitation of others—harder to sustain.