The trouble with ‘The Trouble with Uber’

I use Uber from time to time. I’m no apologist for the company – but I found it very useful in Boston, where I first encountered it, as well as in a number of other cities around the world. Over the past few days in London – especially during yesterday’s tube strike, it’s come in very handy. It’s also an extremely good customer interface and service.

This morning, thanks to a Facebook friend, I came across an article in Jacobin about the service. They have come in for some pretty bad press recently – but this article is particularly damning.

“Uber takes 20 percent of my earnings, and they treat me like shit — they cut prices whenever they want. They can deactivate me whenever they feel like it, and if I complain, they tell me to fuck off.”

Uber is, of course, far from unproblematic. But when articles appear explaining that it’s basically worse than Ebola and that the so-called ‘sharing economy’ steals jobs and ruins lives, I tend not to have what I imagine to be the desired reaction. Instead of outrage, I experience deep suspicion.

First, and most importantly, a seriously disruptive business model challenges the status quo. And the status quo usually has the best press contacts. Second, the problem is not the sharing economy model, but the fact that in this particular instance, the model is driven by the logic of corporate capital. Third, while it highlights some important and valid points that need discussing, the article misunderstands or misrepresents employment vs entrepreneurialism as binary (perhaps because Uber also make that false claim in the other direction). The fact is that creating a platform that allows people to earn, and taking a percentage of revenues for providing the architecture and technological back end isn’t inherently corrupt (see, for instance, Bandcamp).

Uber is incredibly problematic, and there would seem to be some particularly unpleasant individuals involved in its management – but there are worse business models. In fact, there are worse business models in the taxi industry. The trouble with this kind of journalism is that it contributes to the rather unhelpful cultural project of dividing the world into goodies and baddies. It is, of course, actually more complicated than that. Things always are.

Michela Magas wrote a very good blog post about this very thing just yesterday.

Dialogue between innovators and legislators needs to be ongoing, and focus on the ethical ‘first principles’ from which the laws arise, rather than from the rules themselves. Disruptive innovation will often be transgressive by nature, but it need not be at odds with what is good for society, culture and the economy.

I’d argue that Uber is in large part a very good idea. It’s certainly a very good customer experience and user interface design. It’s probably even fixable on the ethics front, with some major soul-searching, a bit of legislation and some change of management. But journalists running around shouting ‘burn the witch!’ when people do new stuff smacks rather strongly of a protectionist lobbying position. And that makes me suspicious of the author’s intent… and by extension, the article itself.

And that’s the real “trouble with Uber”. If, as the Jacobin article claims, the business is worth $18b, then somewhere, a budget line allocating large sums of money to swaying popular opinion against them is certainly in somebody’s balance sheet. As a public readership, we have no way of telling where the lines are between PR, journalism and lobbying.

The line between the digital world and the physical one is imaginary

There have been some really interesting projects spring up recently that make use of physical objects in three-dimensional space to negotiate or interact with digital media. This seems important.

It’s something I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to recently – and I’ve been paying close attention to this development, especially with respect to music making and music consumption – but it applies right across the realm of things we like to think of as ‘creative’ or ‘playful’.

To show you what I mean about the erasure of the line between digital and physical, take a look at Osmo – an iPad toy that uses wooden puzzle pieces to engage children in creative play and group activities.

As you see from the video, users arrange the wooden shapes on a table in front of the iPad and get instruction and feedback to let them know when they have it right. It puts the play in physical space rather than simply on the screen, but also uses the intelligence of the iPad to make the experience entirely interactive.


Music Technologism

I’m really proud to have been involved with the drafting of the Manifesto for Music Technologists, or #MusicTechiFesto, as it’s being called on Twitter.

Nancy Baym and Jonathan Sterne brought together a group of world leading academics from a wide range of different disciplines at Microsoft Research on the Monday after the Music Tech Fest we held there in March. We called it the ‘Afterparty’.

We discussed and debated what we thought to be the most important things about music and technology – and we came up with a declaration that reflects what we believe and what we hold to be important. Things like:

“We call on companies to produce music technologies that matter, that foster meaningful communities, that consider musical culture and user bases as much more than cash registers.”

While not all of us make things with tech, all of us work in an area of intersection between music and tech in some way. That makes us music technologists – not as an occupation, necessarily – but as a movement.

“We are Music Technologists. We work in science, art, engineering, humanities, activism, social science, policy and industry. We believe in music technology and we want to build better worlds. We invite you to join us.”

Read and sign the Manifesto for Music Technologists.

Manifesto for the future of Music Technology research

New technologies for producing and circulating music have led many to question the status and purpose of music.

At Microsoft Research New England on Monday this week, Nancy Baym and Jonathan Sterne brought together a fantastic group of leading academics from around the world and from a wide range of disciplines at the intersection of music and technology for a one-day symposium which addressed the fertility of music as a subject that bridges computational, social scientific and humanistic approaches.

The symposium followed and developed ideas from the three-day Music Tech Fest (for which I am Festival Director), hosted at Microsoft’s New England Research and Development (NERD) Centre in Cambridge, MA.


Talk about social change…

I spoke at Music Tech Fest in May.

I met the festival’s founder Michela Magas at the London blogger’s meetup I spoke at back in April, and she asked me to come along and simply talk about what it is I do. I decided that since everyone else at the event would probably be talking about music and digital media, I would focus on the other stuff I do. The “music as a tool for social change” stuff.

It seemed to go down well, and they filmed it for posterity (see above). There’s a lot of really fascinating presentations on the Music Tech Fest YouTube channel, so if, like me, you have an interest in that intersection of ideas between music and technology, I’d suggest spending quite a bit of time there.

Since I did this talk, not only have I been over to Brazil to work on Occupy Music (the film I discuss in the video), but Michela is now the executive producer of that film, and I’ve become one of the organisers of Music Tech Fest.

So that all worked out rather nicely.

Hacking music radio

Logo orangeI decided to stay on at Music Tech Fest after my presentation yesterday, and ended up joining in with the hack challenges. There were plenty that I had nothing to contribute to, as I can’t write code or programme in any way – but one of the hack challenges caught my attention: “reinvent music radio”.

In fact, the brief was actually posed as follows:

Radio is crucial to the music industry. It promotes music to the masses and largely determines the taste of the public. The problem is that the channel to make and promote music is controlled by a few large stations. Can you develop an alternative to radio that allows independent labels to promote their music to the public?

I asked if anyone in the room was keen to work on this, and had no response. Most people wanted to invent new musical instruments, design a “3D playlist”, create a software oscillator, build a hardware drum trigger, hack the robot bartender – that sort of thing. Sexier projects where you get to make things, in other words.

However, once I finally decided to tackle the radio problem myself, I was quickly joined by a designer by the name of Jedediah.

Between us, by about 2am, we had come up with the core concepts for RADIATR: a mobile platform that aims to solve some of the problems discussed in the hack challenge above. Here’s the document I wrote, with some of Jed’s mockups in the mix.

ЯADIATR by adubber

Later today, I’m giving a presentation that outlines some of the key ideas. It’s not perfect, of course – it was created in less than 12 hours in an all-night brainstorming and development session fuelled by junk food and Red Bull (perfect hacker sustenance, apparently…), but I think there are some interesting concepts in here.

Here are the slides from this evening’s presentation. There are prizes at stake.

Interested to hear your thoughts. Whether we end up doing something with this remains to be seen – but I think we could stand to kick it around a bit more before we abandon it. I may be utterly sleep deprived, but I feel like there’s potentially something worthwhile in here somewhere…