City City Bang Bang, Columns

The 10 Minute Question

There is an unusual conversation that is taking place around the question of 10 minute deliveries. Unusual because otherwise all manner of technological advances have been welcomed. If anything, there is an expectation that every few months the technology-assisted habitat we live in gets upgraded. So why should the idea of quicker deliveries become the issue that it has?

As has been widely discussed, one big area of concern is the pressure it puts on riders to drive recklessly in order to meet this deadline. Even without a committed 10 minute delivery time, our roads are full of young riders driving dangerously in order to meet their daily target of deliveries. The companies behind this innovation argue that the faster delivery time is being made possible not on the back of the presumed racing skills of their riders, but by a combination of predictive technology and local hubs that cut travelling time, but the track record of companies when it comes to squeezing more out of their delivery people in the name of efficiency has been less than reassuring.

The bigger issue is the fact that this is not something that consumers really want. To be sure, if they have the option to get something delivered faster rather than slower, they might lean towards speed, but in an absolute sense this innovation does not solve a significant existing problem. There certainly would be some cases where speed would be of the essence, but it is telling that perhaps the most deserving use case- that of getting medicines in a hurry is not yet being catered to. As it stands, this is a solution looking for a problem.

Most significantly, it does not seem that such rapid deliveries make commercial sense. The company that started the whole process has faced financial difficulties, and it is not difficult to understand why this should be the case. Faster deliveries call for significantly larger investments without a corresponding return. There is the real danger of making consumers getting used to a service standard they don’t need and then finding it impossible to revert to the more financially prudent option.

So despite all these factors, why is it that the 10 minute delivery idea is still being backed? Now that Zomato has also announced its own effort to adopt this model for a limited number of core food items, it is set to become a more mainstream part of our lives. As with most things in the start-up space, this innovation continues to exist because there are people willing to bet capital on it. There is perhaps a sense that all the protestations notwithstanding, there is an underlying need that this innovation serves and that this will become the norm sooner rather than later.

It would seem that what is at work here is not a defensible rational argument based on current evidence but a hope that rests on a mythic understanding of digital technology. All the advances that we have seen in this domain seem to be focused on reducing the gap between desire and its fulfilment. In the virtual world this is easy- we can download a book seconds after the first thought about reading it strikes us. We can look up a fact or figure out which song is playing the moment we encounter a gap in our minds that needs to be filled. We pay people instantly with a flicker of a fingertip and respond to people across the world in real time, taking a day to reply to a mail feels horribly tardy- in every sense we are gaining the ability to react as soon as we act.

The physical world however stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the change that has taken place. The forces of physics do not get frequent upgrades and that has been a challenge. It is easy today to convert desire instantly into action when we are shopping, but to actually get our hands on the product still requires for a series of physical actions to take place. Goods have to be packed, they then need to be physically transported from one location to another till they finally get physically delivered to the customer’s doorstep. And while the time taken for these have been shortened quite dramatically over time, there is still a gap between thought and action. The 10 minute delivery idea is the result not of a consumer need but of an innate technological impulse, it is part of an inexorable movement towards erasing the constraints imposed by the physical world.

Unfortunately, there is only so much that technology can do to make up for the inefficiencies present in the real world. It can use predictive algorithms to prepare dishes before they are ordered, it can set up ‘dark’ stores across the cities it operates in an effort to reduce distances, but it cannot make its drivers go faster than what their machines, Indian roads and the law allows.

The human consequences of actions rooted in the technological impulse are difficult to account for. The toll this system takes on those charged with executing it is not part of the calculations of the viability of such an idea. Digital technology has without question enabled us in several dramatic ways, but perhaps there is a limit to what it can goad the physical world to deliver. Till such time as people and goods are able to teleport themselves, the quest to eliminate the distance between desire and its fulfilment is likely to be a doomed one.