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.