Being Human vs. Rating People

Even if a rating is right, it’s also inhuman: something that’s fine for machines to do to machines, but not for people to do to each other.

I’ve hated rating people ever since I first encountered the practice. That was where everybody else does too: in school.

After all, rating people is what schools do, with tests and teachers’ evaluations. They do it because they need to sort students into castes. What’s school without a bell curve?

As John Taylor Gatto put it in the Seven Lesson Schoolteacher, the job of the educator in our industrialized education system is to teach these things, regardless of curricular aspirations or outcomes:

  1. confusion
  2. class position
  3. indifference
  4. emotional dependency
  5. intellectual dependency
  6. provisional self-esteem
  7. that you can’t hide

It’s no different in machine-run “social sharing” systems such as we get from Uber, Lyft and Airbnb. In all those systems we are asked to rate the people who share their cars and homes, and they are asked to rate us as well. The hidden agenda behind this practice is the same as the one Gatto describes above.

I bring this up because yesterday my wife and I had our first less-than-ideal shared ride. To spare everyone involved, I won’t say whether it was with Uber or Lyft, or where the ride went. I will say the ride is normally around half an hour, and we’ve taken the same ride dozens of times.

What went wrong:

  1. The driver didn’t leave his seat to help us load our two heavy bags into the trunk of his car, which also had a lot of loose crap in it. (To be fair, lots of shared-ride drivers have messy trunks.) Maybe he declined because there was heavy traffic and we all needed to get a move on, or maybe he didn’t see the bags; but let’s just say that wasn’t normal. Nearly all drivers get out to help passengers with luggage.
  2. Soon as we were on the road, he asked if we’d mind if he stopped at an ATM, because he needed money for tolls. Seems his EZ-Pass transponder had a problem and needed to be sent in and exchanged, so he was operating without it. We said okay and took a slow parallel city boulevard where he hoped an ATM could be found. He eventually found one at a gas station mini-mart, but the machine had a problem calling home, he said. That delay took about 20 minutes, during which we just sat in the car.
  3. After he got the money, we found our way back to the main toll road, and eventually to our destination. At one point at a toll plaza I reminded him that he should get a receipt for the toll he paid in cash. I don’t think he would have asked (or been compensated) if he didn’t get that receipt. At our destination he did get out of the car to help with our bags, but I had already removed them from the trunk.
  4. The whole ride took an hour and thirty two minutes, according to the Moves app on my phone. Since it was rush hour, I’d say the ride took about 45 minutes longer than it should have.

The upside was that he seemed to be a genuinely good guy, trying to make a living and dealing with the world. He recently moved into the area to seek work as a recording engineer, to use skills he learned recently at a trade school after tiring of an earlier career as a technician for a mobile phone company. His wife is pregnant with their first child, he said, and they are struggling to make ends meet. That’s why he felt he had to work giving rides, even though he started the day without two essential conveniences: an EZ-Pass and cash.

He had a lot of interesting things to say about working for Uber and Lyft (he drives for both), what makes a good or a bad ride (he’s had both as a passenger), and whether telling the story of their coming baby would make a good YouTube mini-documentary or podcast. We also talked about history, architecture, culture and travel. He speaks Spanish as well as English and would like to go to Spain someday. He also apologized for the delays, and thanked me for understanding his situation. (Or situations.) And I gave him a tip. (Which I always do, at least in the U.S.)

So, while the ride itself wasn’t great, the conversation was one of the better ones I’ve had with a driver. And I wanted to support the guy’s work.

But I couldn’t not rate the guy, or I wouldn’t be able to get a receipt or book the next ride. So I gave him four stars out of five. That’s the first time I’ve given any driver less than five stars. (And this is after many dozens of rides.)

When I clicked on the fourth star, the app said what you see in the screen shot (from my phone) above. “Okay, could be better” was about right. Still, I would much rather have said nothing — or to have sent a note to the company. Anything but giving the guy some number of stars.

And no, I don’t know a better way. I am just sure that rating people is icky, and I would rather say nothing than damn somebody with a star.

Speaking of damned, on Uber you can go to their Help section online and see how well you’re rated by drivers. Here’s where I stand:

I couldn’t find the equivalent with Lyft and Airbnb.

Here’s what Gatto says about the role of grading in schools, and how it affronts our humanity:

Our world wouldn’t survive a flood of confident people very long so I teach that your self-respect should depend on expert opinion. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged. A monthly report, impressive in its precision, is sent into students’ homes to signal approval or to mark exactly down to a single percentage point how dissatisfied with their children parents should be. The ecology of good schooling depends upon perpetuating dissatisfaction just as much as commercial economy depends on the same fertilizer. Although some people might be surprised how little time or reflection goes into making up these mathematical records, the cumulative weight of the objective-seeming documents establishes a profile of defect which compels a child to arrive at certain decisions about himself and his future based on the casual judgment of strangers.
Self-evaluation, the staple of every major philosophical system that ever appeared on the planet, is never a factor in these things. The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents, but need to rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.

No, they don’t. But we’ll keep thinking they do, so long as we continue to operate inside mental boxes built in the Age of Industry to respect the needs of organizational machines rather than those of human beings.