In a two-part investigation, CCT student and guest author Jeremy Mohler examines the social and economic implications of car service app, Uber. In part 1, Mohler gives an overview of the culture of Uber: is the tech company an innovative disruptor to the traditional market, or is it another example of Sillicon Valley exploiting the labor of many to benefit the few?
The car I was looking for, a Nissan Altima, was parked across the loud street. Upon closer look, its windows were tinted so black that the driver was an outline on glass. I glanced at the license plate and dropped into the back seat, vibrating in the engine’s rough idle. “I’m going to Northwest, near Georgetown’s campus,” I said.
At a stoplight, I asked how to pronounce his name.
U Street bar lights bulged and contorted in the car window. “Do you drive Uber full time or…?”
“Yea, I’ve driven Uber for two months, but only until I can go for some of my dreams.”
I asked if ‘go’ meant going to school, and mentioned that I had been researching Uber.
“School is a waste. A waste of money. If you can work and come up with something, identify a need. Whoever comes up with the next Uber, the next Sweetgreen, the next thing everyone needs, will do well. And then every few years there’s another thing.”
Uber, the ride-sharing app, is collecting that dank blend of controversy, hype, and growth that hypnotizes investors. The company’s cheapest service, uberX, which connects riders with drivers who offer rides in their own cars—and for which Uche was driving—has been nothing less than a bull in brittle transportation markets the developed world over. Anxious taxi companies and drivers are appealing to local jurisdictions, who in turn are making a mess of reconciling entrenched taxi companies, shrinking public transportation budgets, and the speed of Uber’s venture capital. Patchwork and often contradictory regulations aimed at taxis and ride-sharing are leaving drivers to choose between the lesser of evils. Pop-up unions like the California App-Based Drivers Association are forming to represent the collective interests of drivers who, despite Uber’s claims, aren’t getting rich.
The ‘disruption’ hasn’t been wholly economic: allegations of sexual assaults and rapes by uberX drivers, who have access to some of a passenger’s personal information, are becoming routine. After an alleged rape of a passenger by a driver with three outstanding criminal charges, New Delhi police found that Uber had been conducting background checks and managing drivers out of hotel rooms, and barred them from providing rides in India’s capital city. And the company’s disregard for its customers’ safety and privacy seems almost part of their PR strategy. Last year, an Uber executive tracked a journalist’s location to prove a point to her in an argument. “I was tracking you,” the exec said, after the journalist arrived via Uber to interview him.
In our moment of privacy anxiety, the company’s penetrating collection and crude handling of data is worrying but representative of the inseparability of Big Data and Big Government surveillance. For the NSA and other public and private institutions to surveil, there must be ever more precise and associative data to mine. Silicon Valley and the Pentagon may sit on opposite coasts, but for some time now most of the Internet’s information has been directed into one ocean dominated by corporations and the state, who may disagree on specifics but in general march to the same capitalist beat. Sure, many companies are riding the waves and being loose with data, but Uber’s sloppiness is causing real suffering. And there are other ride-sharing services, but public transportation’s blood is in the water due, and we can all sense who the biggest shark is.
To borrow a bureaucratic euphemism, under all the hype Uber is a ‘transportation network company.’ That’s the term the California Public Utilities Commission has used to differentiate ride-sharing from taxis and limousines. Elsewhere, I’ve seen them called a ‘tech startup,’ a ‘ridesharing service,’ an ‘app,’ a ‘disrupter,’ a ‘taxi company,’ and ‘just a tech company.’ Uber call themselves a “technology company that licenses the Uber App to transportation service providers.” Does it matter what they’re called? No. But where there’s confusion there’s contradiction and struggle, and open space for action. Contrary to media cynics and technological determinists, there are other options, some that may be good for riders, drivers, and local governments, all at the same time. But for us to dream that big, Silicon Valley’s latest venture capital fantasy will have to be exposed for what it is.
Uber is not just a tech company. It’s more like a logistics company that happens to use the technology of the moment. UPS delivers packages; Uber delivers people. Hailing a ride with a smartphone does have real social utility, offering convenient and cheap transportation, and cutting emissions by taking cars off the road. But considering the app within the political and economic forces shaping the early 21st century reveals not only how Uber is ‘disrupting’ transportation markets, but how the company wields a particular form of labor to do so. This new form of labor has been sneaking up on diverse industries in developed capitalist economies for some time now. This freelance work is at the heart of what’s been called by hucksters of utopia the ‘sharing economy.’ “At such moments of profound social change, anyone who can offer a simple explanation of what is happening will be listened to with great interest .”
Contractual freelance work isn’t new, but its current relationship to technology and the state is a novel development. Uber and other “sharing economy” pioneers are the visible spearhead of this reconfiguration of labor. As I will explore in Part 2, technology is what allows these companies to dodge the state’s grasp. And given that such technologies of precision will continue to be developed for the foreseeable future, thinking through the Uber question allows a glimpse of the general shape of work—from freelance projects to adjunct pedagogy—in what’s come to be called ‘neoliberal society.’
 Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron “The California Ideology,” 1996, http://www.imaginaryfutures.net/2007/04/17/the-californian-ideology-2, page accessed 2/23/2015.
Jeremy Mohler is a writer and student in Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) program, studying the political economy of digital and cultural production. His writing, along with an ongoing blog, is accessible at www.futuredebris.com.