Q: Given all the terrible stories that have come out about Uber, should I erase the app from my phone, even though the CEO has resigned?
Let’s list the bad things. Uber, which rightly or wrongly feels like patient zero in the plague of horrible tech startups, had a bad rep even before the events that brought down CEO Travis Kalanick last week. It set the gig economy standard of classifying its drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, to avoid giving them benefits.
Among those it did, unavoidably, have to employ, it inculcated a culture of sexism that has generated allegations of harassment among female engineers and resulted in only 15% of its tech staff being women. It obtained the medical records of a woman in India who was raped by an Uber driver (the driver has since been sentenced to life imprisonment), and this was all before David Bonderman, an Uber executive, made a joke at a board meeting two weeks ago to the effect that having more women on the board would fill meetings with useless chat. The brouhaha around Bonderman’s comments seems to have been the last straw for investors, who asked Kalanick to resign. He did.
This might be regarded as a fitting end to the matter, given that Kalanick, who founded the company in 2009 and raised more venture capital than for any startup in history, is considered largely to blame for its so-called “brogrammer” culture. With no Kalanick, and in light of the independent investigation Uber commissioned into its own failures – from Eric Holder, the former US attorney general no less – which concluded that internal slogans at Uber such as “Always Be Hustlin” had “been used to justify poor behavior”, perhaps now is the time to update our ideas of the company.
The problem is that Uber is just one example of a much broader trend. OK, so it’s the worst example, but if you boycott Uber, don’t imagine you can shift over to other ride-share apps with cosier reputations – in the US, Lyft, say, which also denies its drivers employee status and counts the delightful Peter Thiel among its investors – and come away with a clean conscience.
And why stop at transport? Every week, a large part of my groceries are delivered to my door by Instacart, a San Francisco-based startup which gives half of its workers – those who do the actual shopping – employee status, but denies it to those who do the delivery. The experience of using Instacart is more guilt-inducing than taking Uber; you can’t avoid eye contact with someone on your doorstep the way you can with someone giving you a ride.
The question then becomes one not only of how much responsibility do we, the consumers, bear for conditions across an entirely new work model, but just how bad is that model in the first place? Advocates of the gig economy, among them David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s former right-hand man and until recently an executive at Uber, and Chris Lehane, head of global policy at Airbnb and a former strategist in the Clinton administration, credit Uber-type apps with funnelling income down to those struggling in the job market. Critics call it exploitation.
This debate is too large to resolve here, other than to say that it’s true lots of people do very well gigging, but they tend to be people who do very well anyway and any mention of “trickle-down economics” – chief proponent: Donald Trump – should be treated with scepticism. I wiped Uber from my phone years ago after it hit me with a price surge and I ended up paying almost as much for the 40-minute journey to the airport as I did for the five-hour flight from New York to LA. I dislike the way it undermines public transport infrastructure and fills cities with creepy black SUVs. But I’m also a complete hypocrite; I use Via, Uber’s ride-sharing rival with a nicer reputation, without knowing the first thing about it.
Here’s what I think: that Uber represents a new breed of company, the culture of which is still in development, as evidenced by the raft of first-generation lawsuits under way. Not only are Uber and Lyft being sued by former employees, but so are cleaning startup Homejoy, delivery startup Postmates and Instacart.
Uber is by far the biggest of these companies and what happens there matters, so that in spite of recent changes at the top, now would seem to be a bad time to remove the pressure. Quite the opposite. We should be complaining about the grosser aspects of the new economy as loudly as possible lest they become imbedded – normalized, shall we say – in a way that five years from now makes them harder to root out.
I’m put in mind of Madeleine Albright’s famous response to the question of why the US singled out Cuba for sanctions when so many other countries in the world were as bad. “We do not have a cookie cutter approach to policy,” she said. “China is a world power … Cuba is an embarrassment to the western hemisphere.’” In this analogy, Uber is the world power and as things at the company still stand, it’s a world many of us don’t want to live in. Personally, I’d delete the app.
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