Please don’t rate your waitress 4/5

The precariat have enough problems as it is

What do Uber’s star rating system and coach tickets have in common? More than you’d think.

Tickets aren’t to stop people fare dodging, you’ll be surprised to hear, or at least, they weren’t originally. They were to stop coachmen ripping off the coach owners and stealing their fares. You could transport eight people, only tell your manager you took six and take home the difference. Ticket inspectors used to check on staff, not customers.

Uber’s star ratings work in the same way, outsourcing staff monitoring to customers. By taking tickets customers were helping bosses watch over their workers. By asking customers to rate their drivers, Uber has outsourced its monitoring role to its passengers. Websites like Tripadvisor and AirBnB serve a similar purpose, as does every company which you can rate. If a restaurant gets a bad review at 9am on Sunday, then you can be sure management can link it to last night’s staff.

The sharing economy has been criticised for the precarious employment of its workers. If you work for Uber, or Deliveroo, or whoever, your wages are uncertain and your employment rights ill-defined. But another negative aspect, and perhaps more serious in the long-term, is the outsourcing of management to customers. Chris Dillow often mentions the idea of power-biased technological change improving monitoring, increasing worker effort, reducing the need for efficiency wages, and so boosting profits. The rush to rate every experience and interaction has much the same effect. The ever present manager monitoring your output is a reality and we’re all involved.

There are obvious flaws with this system, but the benefits are massive as you can increase worker effort while reducing management cost. When I was in Vietnam the woman giving me a streetfood tour of Hanoi was on trial, she would only have her trial extended if she got enough people to vouch for her on Tripadvisor. I had a suit made and staff only received days off if they accumulated enough 5 star reviews. While this is cheap and effective it is obviously unpleasant. But being unpleasant never meant something might not be worthwhile in the long run, factories were unpleasant. Maybe Tripadvisor is a better boss than a person, more objective, less arbitrary, and more transparent.

I think not, for two reasons.

First of all, the numbers are easy to game. If I’m asked to score someone five stars and their employment relies on it, then they’ll get five stars, absent someone getting dismembered. Likewise inducements to good scores are easy to provide. Tripadvisor nominally prevents people exchanging good reviews for free shots, but guess who is meant to endorse it? you. And I don’t know about you but I’m in no state to do that after a free shot. Or if you’re less moral than me, who wouldn’t withhold a five star review for a little extra?

It’s Goodhart’s Law in action. Any measure which becomes a target ceases to be a good measure. What’s true of M2 is true for 5 Stars. The proliferation of five stars reviews degrade its value. Destroying information and making the ratings themselves useless. But that isn’t even the worst of it. Dumb numbers can’t substitute for effective management. What is a 4? It means nothing, without context. Management is what is meant to provide that context but if you disaggregate management to thousands of actions and delegate it to hundreds of customers how can anyone provide that context?

Uber should be fantastically safe, few workers are more hyper-monitored and Uber being unsafe for female passengers shows the limits of relaying on delegated management. Uber, under new management and in response to TfL’s ban, may be improving its monitoring, but it won’t be doing that by using more ratings systems.

As well as being easy to game monitoring is not management. Outsourcing supervision, motivation, performance feedback and guidance to customers is a recipe for stagnation and alienation. In lots of ways star ratings are truly disruptive. They’re worse than good management, but they’re much cheaper than they are worse. Ikea furniture is worse than antique furniture but it sure is cheaper. E-books aren’t nearly so nice as real books, but they are cheaper. Mobile phone cameras were worse than real cameras but still killed that market. PCs were less powerful than the mainframes on the market but still gobbled marketshare. All of that is great for consumers, but if more and more people enter precarious employment in the sharing economy, or more businesses adopt those rating systems it won’t be good enough. Nobody is forced to be a consumer, but we’re all forced to work.

That brings us to the least obvious, but most damaging effect of rating your waitress. Good management is good. Better management can drive big improvements in productivity. And everyone knows how bad it is to have a bad manager, it can be utterly hellish. In fact, one of the benefits to the sharing economy is exchanging bad bosses for no bosses — or distributed, delegated monitoring by your customers. But in losing your bad boss you lose your good boss too. The boss who can help train you, help you move up the ladder, who can teach you how to do you job better, who can watch your work and help you upskill.

There’s lots of benefits to distributing monitoring and transparency, but rating systems alone make for a capricious and lousy manager. I don’t have time or expertise to discuss other areas of rating systems — I understand sex workers have used rating punters as an effective means to keep each other safe and cannot comment on this. But when it comes to most workers the rating of workers as a substitute for management should be resisted. The quality of the data provided is poor, it is easily gamed and it replaces something valuable, management, with something arbitrary.

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