How a Virtual Assistant Taught Me to Appreciate Busywork

I recently downloaded a virtual assistant that promised to ease the burdens of modern parenthood. The app is called Yohana, and it offered to handle a pile of tasks on my behalf. It suggested enlisting a professional to wash my windows, scheduling a lesson with a “private sports coach” or planning a “stylish and sustainable” Earth Day party featuring décor, recipes, activities and party favors, none of which interested me. Finally it volunteered to produce a “chef-curated menu” for Passover.

Well, sure. I was already planning on attending a friend’s Seder, and at least this task did not involve Yohana siccing an expert on me or making me host an elaborate event. So, I agreed to the Passover idea. Yohana assigned the “to-do” to a faceless assistant identified only by a first name. The next day, she sent along a confusing list of menu options that included a recipe for ham mini quiches — a provocative choice.

Yohana is one of a growing crew of virtual-assistant apps that combine artificial intelligence and human labor to help parents manage their family lives. For $129 a month, Yohana promises to “offload joy-stealing tasks, improve your family’s well-being, and find more breathing room in your schedule.” Ohai ($26.99 a month), a text-based “A.I. household assistant,” wants to “lighten the mental load of Chief Household Officers,” and Milo ($40/month, with a wait list), an “A.I. co-pilot,” hopes to calm “every form of family chaos.”

These apps are styled like cutesy helpmeets, and their names — Yohana, Ohai, Milo — would be at home on a Brooklyn day care roster. Though pitched to “busy parents,” they implicitly target affluent working mothers who are struggling to manage household tasks on top of work and child care, and who might even be convinced to spend some (though not too much) extra cash to make them go away. But when I gave Yohana a spin, I found that I did not want to do the things she can manage, and that she cannot manage the things I want to do. She made me start to believe that the busywork I might delegate to a machine is actually more human, and valuable, than I realized.

Mothers have long been served fantasies about how robots will relieve the drudgery of housework. In the first episode of the animated sitcom “The Jetsons,” from 1962, Jane Jetson tires of pressing all the buttons that automatically cook and clean for her, so she buys Rosie the robot maid to run her smart house instead. In 1965, General Electric urged housewives to “Let a Mobile Maid Dishwasher give you priceless time for the wife-and-mother jobs that really count.”

And yet automation has failed to eliminate the burdens of those “wife-and-mother jobs.” In a culture that promotes ruthless competition and intensive mothering, a mother’s tasks (the ones that “really count”) are capable of expanding endlessly.

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