What The Uber Backlash Means In A Digital Economy

When Twitter turned on Uber this week, they really turned. Buzzfeed revealed a plot to establish a secret committee for personal attacks on journalists, and suddenly, Uber’s willingness to disrupt ethical boundaries hits a little too close to home. Waves of bad press followed, as high-profile users raced to delete their apps and cover every angle of the controversy. I’ve never seen a news item capture a larger share of my feed. Doesn’t this seismic shift in influencer opinion seem a little abrupt?

We urban-dwelling intellectuals were primed to turn on Uber because we always knew it was bad news.

It’s never been a secret: Uber, led by a moneyed technolibertarian disciple of disruption, was always willing to play dirty — breaking the law as freely as moral boundaries. Uber callously abuses their competition, their employees, women, “influencers,” the government, even their own customers. Uber is mired in a ceaseless war with anything outside of the company. With each egregious lapse, they double down, refuse to repent and reframe debate in the most wide-ranging and self-aggrandizing scope possible. Yet, for far too long, we were willing to look the other way because the product was convenient.

Few technology firms are as pugnacious and self-centered as this particular smartphone taxicab company, yet there is a very real social and economic fallout from a wide range of tech companies — venerated industry giants and hot startups alike. The efficiency and accessibility of tech products are a layer that obscures the human costs of the service economy.

We had cabs prior to Uber. Before Seamless, I got food delivered by calling a number from a drawer full of menus. Homejoy certainly didn’t invent the “cleaning lady” concept. (doesn’t that title make you throw up in your mouth a little?) What’s really different about these apps is that they buffer consumers from the marginalized service workers who actually deliver the “product” the apps sell. Tech firms know it’s uncomfortable for tech-savvy, upper-middle-class consumers to directly hire behind-the-scenes labor. When you look into how the sausage is made, the sausage looks back at you.

Even in products that are allegedly 100% digital, there are still menial laborers toiling thanklessly behind the scenes. Adrian Chen offers a fascinating glimpse into “The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed” — invisible, low-paid foreign workers risking their mental health to safeguard sanitized social network feeds. In The New Inquiry, Shawn Wen introduced us to the mostly black and Latino workforce responsible for scanning texts for Google’s Books project. Wen also points to a 2010 New York University study of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk workforce. He finds they’re predominantly women, 50 percent American, and earn an estimated wage range of $1.20 to $5 per hour. Of course, Mechanical Turk workers don’t receive benefits or paid leave and remain on the hook for payroll taxes. The employers who commission Turk tasks, however, are allowed to reject work (and without payment) for any reason.

Uber’s moment of excessive honesty is an opportunity to reflect on why we waited so long to call out their ethical lapses. But it should also be a cue to consider the other tech products so tightly integrated into our lives they seem to fade into the background. When we chose digital convenience, what are the real costs?