Comment: the PropTech boom is a chance for agents to show their humanity
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Are robots coming for our jobs or will they save us all? As we work out what it means to be human in a digital age, estate agents should capitalise on their emotional intelligence to stay relevant
The sleepless digital news cycle has spat out its verdict: the live action remake of Ghost in the Shell is a flop. Beset by accusations of whitewashing by casting Scarlett Johansson in the lead, the real issue seems to be that the soulful meditation on what it means to be human in a technologically advanced world has had its heart carved out by Hollywood’s attempt to shoehorn a Western philosophy of the heroic self into the original Japanese tale.
A technology driven future is rushing up upon us all in an unstoppable wave, bringing with it all manner of anxieties. Whether it will be a case of a rising tide lifting all boats, or an apocalyptic tech tsunami is the subject of fierce debate.
On the one end of the spectrum you have the idealistic dreamers of Fully Automated Luxury Queer Anarco Space Communism types, who hope the automation of mindless, soul sucking jobs will destroy the lies of Capitalism, setting us free in a new age of equality, creativity and super sexy space travel.
At the other you have the dystopian nightmare-brokers warning of a future where we delegate all decision making to our algorithm driven overlords and suffer under even greater levels of inequality, the epoch of “Dataism” Yuval Noah Harari predicts in his new Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.
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In reality, the wave has already broken and we’re scrabbling to find an ethical framework to keep us afloat in the murky floodwater.
There’s the growing gig economy that gives working people the freedom to chose the hours they spend driving people or delivering food around the city but takes away their workers rights and a steady income.
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The ‘Bro’ CEO’s, such as Uber’s Travis Kalanick, were once championed as the boy-kings of Silicon Valley but are rapidly losing their crowns as whistle-blowers lift the lid on toxic start-up culture.
Even the more benign tech innovations demand closer interrogation. When Amazon created their artificially intelligent personal assistant they deliberately gave it a female name and voice. The decision to gender an AI you can delegate the emotional labour of making your to-do list as explicitly female suggests the post-gender cyborg landscape imagined by Donna Harraway is still an android’s dream.
The one tech tale that seems to unite opinion is that digital advances spell the end of the high street estate agent.
What use will we have for the estate agent’s window when we have the glowing screens of online portals to filter our search for a dream home through streamlined engines? Why leave the house when a virtual tour can let you inspect for rising damp without having to leave your sofa?
Estate agents have a bad rep for being pushy and profiteering, but replacing them with robots is not the answer. At a residential level buying and selling are deeply personal activities. Delegating the task of finding shelter to an algorithm might help you narrow down to properties at the right price point within the desired 100 meters of a coffee shop, but house hunting needs a level of heart that robots just can’t simulate.
They might not admit it, but estate agents know that their real work isn’t cutting deals, it’s the hand holding required to shepherd clients through the deeply emotive process of leaving or finding a home.
Intimate knowledge of the local market is something that can be provided by the hivemind of the Cloud. Taking your out-of-hours phone call for the umpteenth time or giving you personal, one to one advice isn’t.
There are mutterings in the industry that the internet has divorced agents from basic manners. Why shake hands when someone walks into your bricks and mortar store when you can capture their data and spam them with unsolicited emails?
I’d argue instead that the PropTech boom is a PR gift from the gods. Now is the time for agents to reveal their human hearts. Well, until Fully Automated Luxury Queer Anarco Space Communism comes about and all galactic property is deemed theft.