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Delivery robots and the concerning commodification of campus space

| Wednesday, February 22, 2023

If you’ve taken a stroll across campus in recent weeks, you’ve no doubt noticed a new resident ambling amongst the various pedestrians, cyclists and scooter-riders inhabiting the sidewalks of Notre Dame. Sleek new Starship delivery robots, moving with either extreme confidence or halting uncertainty, are now serving up Grubhub orders for the low delivery fee of $3.50. While I’ll begrudgingly admit that they are a bit cute, in the way a confused toddler might be, I can’t help but see them as the massive red (or should I say blinking orange) flags that they are. Their beeps and boops should serve as a siren warning us of the increasing commodification of campus space — a commodification that has accelerated since the start of the pandemic. Communal space serves a purpose far beyond the surface level — it’s where we meet our neighbors, form connections and foster community. These robots represent a serious, potentially irreversible threat to the baseline, unwritten assumptions regarding communal space that have until now governed our campus reality. 

Notre Dame is lucky enough to possess a wonderful commodity that is rapidly dwindling across the country: the third place. Third places are spaces where we go to socialize and form community that are not our homes or places of work. Typical examples include neighborhood cafes, restaurants, bars, libraries, churches, gyms and public parks. While they might include a purchase like a drink or meal, these are fundamentally places to be and to belong — not your space or my space, but our space. While suburbanization, car-dependency, increasing individualization and other cultural trends have killed off many third places, at Notre Dame we get to enjoy our quads, gyms, dorms, study rooms, restaurants, sidewalks, libraries, lakes, chapels and communal work spaces not just as destinations for consuming goods and services, but as spaces of community and belonging. This fundamental conception is under attack from multiple angles. 

Take, for example, the introduction of Grubhub as the go-between for all meal orders. When it was introduced during the pandemic, I thought it was a temporary measure to provide contactless food options during unprecedented times. I longed for the days when I could go to a campus restaurant, order a meal from a real person and sit down to enjoy that meal with another real person. In other words, I missed my Notre Dame third places. When I finally strode back into one of our eateries post-pandemic, I was greeted by a solitary tablet, followed by to-go orders by the dozens. Not only was I unable to interact with the people making my food, I saw countless people sprint in and out, grabbing orders and leaving to hole back up in their office, dorm or study space. This experience prioritizes an expedited transaction and obscures the intangible benefits of entering a third place. At best, you get your food a few minutes faster, but the opportunity cost is a chance encounter with a friend, a wave to a professor or a break from the demands of constant productivity. The tablet and to-go counter convey a very different message: consume and get out. 

Call me hyperbolic if you want. Yes, I know we can still get our meal and eat in the restaurant with others. I know that sometimes a deadline is a deadline, and you just need to grab and go. You might say, “You’re just against these changes because they’re new, plenty of things like this have already happened and you’re just used to them!” All these things can be true, and at the same time, we can reject these changes that signal individual consumption and increased productivity as the end-all-be-all of human existence. I am not against change, but that change should serve the common good and the flourishing of the human person, not the bottom line of some faceless megacorp. 

While the Grubhub kiosks and similar “improvements” for the sake of more efficient consumption are worrisome, they’re at least contained within existing systems. Much more concerning are the delivery robots. These robots represent an egregious and unprecedented paradigm shift in the way that campus space is utilized. Letting delivery robots trundle across our walkways is an inappropriate and previously unfathomable privatization of the Notre Dame campus. Our quads and sidewalks are not playthings for further commodification as Grubhub or others attempt to eke out a marginal profit increase. As a friend put it, these devices, as cute as they might be, “tell a lie about the meaning of this campus’s space.” We should not have to dodge these little agents of extractive consumption as we make our way to classes, offices and community spaces. 

Notre Dame, of all places, should recognize the importance of bucking these consumeristic trends. This university is willing to swim against the tide of other collegiate norms. We maintain a dorm system that promotes deeper community and familial belonging, even though it might not provide the more convenient and individualized environment common on other campuses. We have fiercely maintained a pedestrian-oriented campus even though it requires us to trek through the rain and snow when we might prefer not to. Most importantly, our Catholic faith recognizes that we are made for much more than productivity and consumption, and that our communal environments should reflect this. In other words, encountering those things and inhabiting those spaces that help us become more fully human, perhaps, is worth a bit of inconvenience. The slight convenience of a delivery robot or a contactless ordering tablet will never outweigh the benefits of third places, human connection and communal space free from excessive privatization and commercialization. If we want to preserve, and even begin to regain, these spaces across our campus, it’s time to draw the line. The robots are a step too far. If you agree, please join me and hundreds of others in opposing the continued presence of these unnecessary guests in our communal spaces. 

Edward Jurkovic

BA ‘15, M. Ed. ‘17

Feb.  17

Edward Jurkovic is a program manager with the Pulte Institute for Global Development at the Keough School of Global Affairs. A 2015 Mendoza and 2017 ACE graduate, his work focuses primarily on education, systems thinking, and business in development. His interests include urbanism, faith and all things South Bend. When he isn’t working on projects in Jenkins-Nanovic Hall, you can find him at the climbing wall or downtown at the Catholic Worker. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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