Uber: A Cosmopolitan Canopy

Fig. 1. Ormseth, Holly. In the Driver’s seat: A closer Look at the Uber Partner Experience

In his essay, Elijah Anderson defines the term “cosmopolitan canopy” to refer a place where “people become intimate through such shared experiences, certain barriers are prone to be broken” (17). He stresses out the importance of a cosmopolitan canopy because in this neutral, non-threatening space, people can easily communicate with one another. There are many cosmopolitan canopies around us. In particular, Uber is qualified to play a role of a cosmopolitan canopy. Uber Technologies Incorporation is the maker of transportation app Uber, which enables people to book drivers using their own cars. It was founded by Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp in 2009, and the app released in June 2010. According to the article written by Hall, Uber app is available in 60 countries and over 300 cities worldwide. It fulfills one million rides daily and has over eight million users. Now, Uber is a part of cultural and social phenomenon around the world. Not only does Uber provide a transportation service to customers, but it also acts as a cosmopolitan canopy where people can meet others from diverse backgrounds and communicate with each other (see fig. 1). The image above shows how Uber works as a cosmopolitan canopy. The driver and customers are having a conversation. They don’t care about their races, genders, and social backgrounds. Uber ride provides a space where people can contact with strangers. This is possible because Uber users are not limited to certain groups of people, and they can use Uber whenever and wherever they want. Uber gives a chance to meet new people and share their own stories while they are heading to a destination. Even if they do not communicate directly, Uber can be a place where “people watching for ‘all kinds’ of folk are presented” (Anderson 21). As Anderson mentions, “people can observe each other closely … people can look at others without feeling threatened” (25). This is because of a characteristic of Uber. Both drivers and passengers share their space while they are on the way to the destination, so they can observe others comfortably. Also, their common purpose and intimate spatial atmosphere make them feel safe to interact with each other. There are some limitations of Uber to be a cosmopolitan canopy because it is a business owned by individuals, but still, Uber ride serves a cosmopolitan canopy in our society.

Uber acts as a cosmopolitan canopy because it provides a socially secure place to customers. To be more specific, while normal taxi users usually don’t know anything about taxi drivers before they ride, Uber users can directly access to drivers through the app, and they can find out basic information about drivers such as rating, a driver’s name, and a car number. This makes customers feel safer, and it is one of the important conditions of a cosmopolitan canopy because a secure atmosphere enables people to talk about their own stories more easily. In addition, since both the driver and customer know that they will hardly meet again, they become more honest with their thoughts and beliefs. In his paper, Aaron Ben-Ze’ev states, “The relative anonymity of cyberspace and the ability to control which matters we wish to reveal allow us to safeguard our privacy while increasing emotional closeness and openness.” Uber has an environment similar to cyberspace. Even though drivers and customers communicate in person, they don’t know much about each other, so Uber ride can function as “the relative anonymity.” Also, like cyberspace, a relationship between drivers and clients usually doesn’t persist for a long time. Some might say that this is undesirable because their relationship is superficial; however, it could be a positive aspect of Uber as a cosmopolitan canopy since people can show themselves without considering their social status. This environment causes people to let their guard down, and they find themselves disclosing personal opinion we would otherwise only share with close friends and relations.

Uber gathers people from diverse backgrounds, and it enables people to have various perspectives and learn how to get along with others. Anderson points out, “Essentially, cosmopolitan canopies allow people of different backgrounds the chance to slow down and indulge themselves, observing, pondering, and in effect, doing their own folk ethnography, testing or substantiating stereotypes and prejudices or, rarely, acknowledging something fundamentally new about other” (27). In this respect, Uber is a perfect place to interact a variety kinds of people regardless of their social background, occupation, and ethnicity. In fact, according to Hall, Uber drivers have diverse backgrounds due to its low barriers to entry and flexible options. He says that 14% of Uber drivers are women, which is an enormous number considering that only 1% of NYC taxi drivers are women. Also, over 62% of Uber drivers are working full-time or part-time on another job which shows Uber drivers are not biased in a specific group but have various backgrounds. In reality, many Uber drivers that I have met were working in a varied area from information technology to art industry. I use Uber almost every week, and photos below are the ones that I took while I ride Uber (See fig. 2). Let me tell you my own story how I could experience a cosmopolitan canopy during Uber ride. One day, I used Uber to go to San Francisco. A middle-aged man greeted me with a cheerful voice, and I replied him with a big smile. He asked me first, “Why are you going to SF today?” and that was the start of our conversation. I introduced myself and said I came to the United States a year ago. He was surprised that I can speak English quite fluently within a year, and he said, “You remind me the day when I just immigrated to the US.” He told me about his life as a foreigner in the US, and in just a few minutes, I felt like we are old friends even though we have a different ethnicity, age, gender, and background. Surprisingly, he also offered me an internship opportunity in his financial company. It was just a 30 minutes conversation, but it was such a great experience for me. And it changed my attitude toward strangers. Without using Uber, I would not have met him. Some people might think a small talk in the Uber ride is not that important to us, but it can give us a chance to talk with strangers without having a stereotype to the counterpart. Sometimes, just as my experience shows, communication with Uber drivers and other fellow passengers can provide unexpected opportunities to us or even change one’s beliefs or manners of life.

Fig. 2. Kim, Chaeyoung. Me using Uber

However, it is a complicated issue whether Uber perfectly fits into a cosmopolitan canopy because Uber is privately owned by individuals. Anderson mentions Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market to give an example of a cosmopolitan canopy. It is a public space where everyone can access. People in this place have a symmetrical relationship, so they can communicate freely. In contrast, people using Uber are not in the equal status because Uber is a kind of service industry. Uber drivers have to be polite since Uber is their job, and they concern about their rating, which is highly related to their living. Therefore, it is hard to say that all people are having a frank conversation in the Uber. Also, a limited time makes it hard to develop into deep and meaningful communication. Once customers arrive at their destination, they leave the space, so it is difficult to build a strong relationship. Humans tend to be indifferent to people who are unable to sustain their relationship for a long time because they don’t want to waste their time and efforts.

We encounter strangers in many public places, but we can hardly find a place where “strangers may approach one another to talk, to laugh, or to share a story” (Anderson 16). It is important to have a cosmopolitan canopy in our society because “such places are the important setting for diverse strangers to ‘learn’ how to get along with one another” (Anderson 23). Without communicating, we can’t have various perspectives that other people might have. To understand others, riding Uber can be a good chance to get to know people from different backgrounds. It seems a small place to get along with strangers, but in fact, it could be more effective way to communicate with strangers because Uber provides a comfortable atmosphere to people. In addition, since it is a mobile cosmopolitan canopy, it will impact not only a few people, but also many others. In the end, this small move will bring a positive change to the society.

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