If you outsource your life to India, don’t be all imperial about it

Millions of Westerners fear their jobs may be offshored as the Internet and cheap telephony make it easier for countries with abundant supplies of labor, such as India and China, to compete with Western service firms. The world is flattening, you might say, and it makes many people nervous. So, should we be afraid that ...

597927_071129_iwantapa_05.jpg
597927_071129_iwantapa_05.jpg

Millions of Westerners fear their jobs may be offshored as the Internet and cheap telephony make it easier for countries with abundant supplies of labor, such as India and China, to compete with Western service firms. The world is flattening, you might say, and it makes many people nervous.

So, should we be afraid that our jobs are all going to be sent to India? On the contrary, I see yet another opportunity for trade to give us what we want, whether it's extra leisure time or getting things done more efficiently. Thousands of ordinary Americans, for instance, are embracing the use of affordable "virtual personal assistants" (VPAs) in India via sites like GetFriday.com for such tasks as booking dinner reservations, helping the kids with their homework, or even playing "World of Warcraft."

And they love it. Take Michael Levy, a U.S. lawyer who employs a VPA in India. He relishes his new-found freedom: "You become lazy... It's just wonderful." And Web sites such as IwantaPA.com offer "empowerment" not only for independent professionals, but also for small to medium enterprises and large enterprises, 24/7, and without the burden of office space or paying out benefits. All for a third the price of regular PAs.

Millions of Westerners fear their jobs may be offshored as the Internet and cheap telephony make it easier for countries with abundant supplies of labor, such as India and China, to compete with Western service firms. The world is flattening, you might say, and it makes many people nervous.

So, should we be afraid that our jobs are all going to be sent to India? On the contrary, I see yet another opportunity for trade to give us what we want, whether it’s extra leisure time or getting things done more efficiently. Thousands of ordinary Americans, for instance, are embracing the use of affordable “virtual personal assistants” (VPAs) in India via sites like GetFriday.com for such tasks as booking dinner reservations, helping the kids with their homework, or even playing “World of Warcraft.”

And they love it. Take Michael Levy, a U.S. lawyer who employs a VPA in India. He relishes his new-found freedom: “You become lazy… It’s just wonderful.” And Web sites such as IwantaPA.com offer “empowerment” not only for independent professionals, but also for small to medium enterprises and large enterprises, 24/7, and without the burden of office space or paying out benefits. All for a third the price of regular PAs.

That said, having a VPA is not all gumdrops and lollipops. Two years ago, A. J. Jacobs of Esquire wrote a humorous account of his experience outsourcing his life to a number of VPAs in India, including a woman named Honey. Jacobs writes:

I THINK I’M in love with Honey. How can I not be? She makes my mother look unsupportive. Every day I get showered with compliments, many involving capital letters: “awesome Editor” and “Family Man.” When I confess I’m a bit tired, she tells me, “You need rest. . . . Do not to overexert yourself.” It’s constant positive feedback, like phone sex without the moaning.

Sometimes the relentless admiration makes me feel a little awkward, perhaps like a viceroy in the British East India company. Another cucumber sandwich, Honey! And a Pimm’s cup while you’re at it! But then she calls me “brilliant” and I forget my guilt.

Sounds great, right? But Jacobs’s story raises some interesting questions: Is employing a VPA in India to respond to your every whim a neo-imperial, exploitative phenomenon? (Jacobs did experience other pangs of guilt as he found himself making stranger demands simply because he could.) Or is it a genuine win-win transaction, where clients in the West make the most of their purchasing power while entrepreneurs in the East expand their markets?

Prerna Mankad is a researcher at Foreign Policy.

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