Don’t put your faith in Uber

I’ve been working on a piece about Uber (and other sharing/gig economy companies) as a protocol for several months now. The recent loss of Uber’s license to operate in London has been an excellent kick in the ass to finally write this post. It’s going to be scattered and maybe self-contradictory and I apologise, but I just wanted to get it out now before I lost my nerve.

The big point I want to make is this: you can believe in Uber-the-technology while not believing in Uber-the-company. There is a world in which the technology that powers Uber and thus the very real efficiency gains it brings still exist, while Uber itself does not.

Uber does not want any of us to be able to imagine this world. Insofar as you can ascribe a motive to an amorphous entity like a for-profit corporation, I think it’s safe to say that Uber’s whole strategy is focused on ensuring that Uber continues to exist. They want you to think that “transportation efficiency gains” and “a giant for-profit void swallowing up London and eventually the whole world” are completely inseparable from each other, and so there is no way to have one without the other.

Whether or not that turns out to be practically true is up to all of us.

Given that we know that Uber’s whole motive here is to make themselves look good in order to ensure their continued existence, we can take a deconstructive approach that may yield some broader insights into the situation. Let’s start by unpacking the first two paragraphs of Uber’s statement written in response to TFL stating that they will not renew their license:

3.5 million Londoners who use our app, and more than 40,000 licensed drivers who rely on Uber to make a living, will be astounded by this decision.
By wanting to ban our app from the capital Transport for London and the Mayor have caved in to a small number of people who want to restrict consumer choice. If this decision stands, it will put more than 40,000 licensed drivers out of work and deprive Londoners of a convenient and affordable form of transport.

The way they separate out “Londoners who use our app” and “drivers who rely on Uber to make a living” is clever. It’s framed as an issue of convenience for the app’s users, but an issue of livelihood for the drivers. Which implies that even though the users aren’t exactly facing a life-or-death situation — they can, after all, use a different ridesharing app, or hail a taxi, or use public transit — the drivers will be in dire straits. It’s an astute manoeuvre, a response to the workers’ rights strain within the anti-Uber camp: quite a few people who oppose Uber on economic grounds do so because they believe the drivers are being exploited. This statement shrewdly turns that around to imply that those who don’t support Uber are making life worse for the drivers.

If Uber’s statement is correct, not just in the literal words on the page but in the subtext that the drivers need Uber for survival, then we are in a very bleak situation indeed. We are in a situation where these drivers have no way of making a living other than through Uber. We are in a situation where 40,000 people will be totally screwed because there is no alternative (and hopefully less exploitative) ridesharing app they can use, there are no other occupations they could pursue, there is no welfare state to take care of them while they retrain or look for jobs.

I don’t think this is the case. I don’t think it’ll be easy, but I think we as a community can and should find a way to ensure that these 40,000 drivers will be supported during this transition without having to turn to Uber. I think Uber wants us to believe that the drivers need them because then they can guilt us into supporting Uber no matter what, no matter how many scandals have weakened our trust in them. I think Uber is cynically using the drivers as a human shield to deflect criticism even though they don’t really give a crap about the fate of the drivers. I think that Uber is hoping we’ll forget all the time and money it spent on trying to classify its drivers as contractors instead of employees, which blatantly belies their current narrative. If Uber really wanted to make sure that the drivers had a way to make a living, Uber could help them find alternative work with other ridesharing providers and even just give them money to tide them over in the meantime. But they’re not going to, and in fact the idea that they would is laughable, because this is not something anyone would ever expect from a for-profit corporation.

And look. I’m not saying all this because I would rather we eschew wonderful technological advances simply because they are deployed with the aims of maximising profit. As a software engineer who hates inefficiency and loves the idea of applying technology to alleviate it, I think Uber the app is wonderful. On the other hand, as someone who has recently gone down the long slide of reading lots of books about capitalism (and its associated problems), I don’t think Uber the company is wonderful. I think that the technological paradigm that Uber helped introduce all over the world is too useful and too important to humanity to be locked up inside an organisation whose primary motive is to generate shareholder returns.

What I want is to see Uber’s technology become a protocol. Same with Airbnb, same with Postmates, same with other companies in the gig and sharing economies. Same with lots of other important technology companies, while we’re at it. Obviously this can’t happen overnight, but if the technology is useful enough to provide real value, then it’s too useful to be subjugated to the whims of profit forever. I would love to see these technology platforms either fully decentralised, or centralised in such a way that the entity running it is not-for-profit and, ideally, accountable to all stakeholders. The actual mechanisms for making this work are beyond the scope of this post, but I want to throw this idea out there and get people thinking about it, because it’s the only way of making the future work for all of us.

I suspect — and feel free to call me naive, but I don’t think I’m wrong— that the majority of people working on Uber’s technology would prefer to build a system whose social impact they could be proud of. Based on my admittedly limited sample size of people I know in the tech industry, I feel like lots of people working at companies like Uber are there because they want to solve interesting technical challenges and deploy useful innovations in the world. I believe that if given the choice, most would prefer to build a system that makes the world a fairer and more equitable place. The problem is that this choice is, for the most part, withheld from them, and whatever individual intentions they may have are inevitably co-opted by the capitalist structure in which they make their living. By working together to counteract these prevailing systematic forces, though, they may be able to open up a space in which to envision alternatives.

Do I think TFL made the right decision in stating they won’t renew their license? I’m not sure, to be honest — my long-term goals for Uber are pretty clear by now, but in the short term, letting Uber operate might actually be better. Given that their fares are kept artificially low by what are effectively subsidies from venture capital, it could be useful to allow them to keep operating for now and only revoke their license once there’s a socialised alternative that’s able to handle the load.

However, the decision was made, and even if it turns out to be merely a bargaining chip that will soon be reversed, it’s sparked an important discussion. Whether or not Uber continues to operate in London for for now, we need to start planning for how we can transition to a post-Uber economy in which both drivers and passengers have a worthy alternative. Either way, we shouldn’t go back to an uncritical faith in Uber. Uber is, at best, a local maximum; they might not have created the conditions of underemployment that allowed them to flourish, but they’re taking advantage of these conditions in a way that makes it hard for us, as a society, to rise above them. I believe we can rise above, and we can start by not letting Uber limit the scope of our imagination.

We need to move past the idea that if we want innovation, we’ll have to uncritically accept the corporate mask it wears. We need to break free of the illusion that it’s Uber-or-nothing (or, as one reader suggested, “Uber über alles”). We need to find a way to dispel the myth that corporations are the only way of improving efficiency or quality of life. If we have to accept short-term corporate dominance due to a lack of alternatives, then we need to start working on the alternatives ASAP. We know that unfettered corporatism is not always good in the short run, and even if we believe that things will come around in the long run, we have to remember (as Keynes said) that in the long run we’re all dead anyway, so let’s not hold out for that.

I’m going to conclude this with a quote from one of my favourite short reads, written after the United Airlines fiasco in April:

But the point is: You are not the corporation. You are the human. It is okay for the corporation to lose a small portion of what it has in terrifying overabundance (money, time, efficiency) in order to preserve what a human has that cannot ever be replaced (dignity, humanity, conscience, life). It is okay for you to prioritize your affinity with your fellow humans over your subservience to the corporation, and to imagine and broker outcomes based on this ordering of things. It is okay for the corporation to lose. It will return to its work of churning the living world into dead sand presently.

In the end, corporations are systems we’ve created to better serve our needs and the needs of our fellow human beings. They are not an end in themselves. There is no guarantee that untrammelled market forces will convert corporations into better citizens without active participation from us — as employees, as consumers, as human beings — to hold them to account. The extent to which corporations have drifted from their original goal is the extent to which we need to correct that drift, through whatever means we can.