Thursday, May 28, 2015

Driving Uber Mad

MAY 23, 2015

Maureen Dowd

WASHINGTON — ON a reporting expedition to Los Angeles recently, I realized I could stop renting cars.

I would never again have to brave the L.A. freeway behind the wheel. I would never have to obsess, like the characters in the “Saturday Night Live” skit, “The Californians,” about taking the 101 to the 110 and Canyon View Drive over to San Vincente to the 10, then switching over to the 405 North and getting dumped out onto Mulholland.

I had Uber.

Even in the land of movie stars, you could feel like a movie star when your Uber chauffeur rolled up. Standing in front of the Sunset Tower Hotel, I tapped my Uber app and saw five little cars swarming around my location. But, suddenly, they scattered in the opposite direction. I stood in the driveway, perplexed. Finally, a car pulled up, and the driver waved me in.

“Do you know why no one wanted to pick you up?” he asked. “Because you have a low rating.”

(Uber drivers see your rating once they accept the request and then can cancel.)

I was shocked. Blinded by the wondrous handiness of Uber, I had missed the fact that while I got to rate them, they got to rate me back.

Revealing that I had only 4.2 stars, my driver continued to school me. “You don’t always come out right away,” he said, sternly, adding that I would have to work hard to be more appealing if I wanted to get drivers to pick me up.

Uber began to feel less like a dependable employee and more like an irritated boyfriend.

I know Uber has the image of an obnoxious digital robber baron, a company that plays dirty tricks and proves that convenience “makes hypocrites of us all,” as John Naughton put it in The Guardian, noting that its very name has connotations of Nietzschean superiority. (Travis Kalanick, the C.E.O., coined the word “Boob-er” to describe his greater appeal to women because of his success.)

But it is a boon for women out on their own — unless you get a driver who harasses you and knows where you live. (After a driver allegedly raped a New Delhi passenger in December, Uber introduced an in-app emergency button in India.)

What I had loved about Uber was that, unlike in every other aspect of my high-tech world, I didn’t feel judged. My worth wasn’t being measured by clicks, likes, hits, views, retweets, hashtags, Snaps, thumbs-up or repins.

Except then I learned that sitting in an Uber car was pretty much like sitting in my office: How much have you developed your audience? How much have you been shared? How much have you engaged your reader? Are you trending?

I was trending on Uber, all right, and not in a good way. I had avoided Lyft not only because of that pink mustache but because I had heard that you were encouraged to sit up front with drivers and give them fist-bumps. It seemed more like The Flintstones’ car than Cinderella’s pumpkin coach.

But, now, instead of quietly sitting in the back seat of my Uber and checking my phone or reading the paper, I had to start working to charm.

“Your husband likes oysters?” I enthused to one woman driving me in San Francisco.

“What are the kids up to this summer?” I chirped to another.

It was starting to have the vibe of friending, liking and sharing on Facebook, and that always gives me acid flashbacks to the ’80s when I was forced to go to my brother’s house and watch slides of his wedding. Finally, my nephew explained that I didn’t need to grovel or gush. I simply needed to say, as I got out of the car, “Five for five.” If I promised to give them five stars — even in the Wild West of Uber X, where the drivers often seem so unfamiliar with the local terrain it’s as though they’ve arrived from Mars — they would give me five stars.

Bribery. Lies. Cover-up. My Uber app turns out to have all the usual Washington vices.

An article in Business Insider advised giving an extra cash tip and not passing gas if you want a five-star rating. Enough passengers throw up that there’s an official policy. (A fine between $50 and $200.)

Coming from a family of Irish maids, I had been looking forward to the concierge democracy, where we could all be masters of Downton Abbey, butled by drones and summoning staff by just touching our smartphones.

As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, “There’s an Uber for everything now. Washio is for having someone do your laundry, Sprig and SpoonRocket cook your dinner and Shyp will mail things out so you don’t have to brave the post office. Zeel delivers a massage therapist (complete with table). Heal sends a doctor on a house call, while Saucey will rush over alcohol. And by Jeeves — cutesy names are part of the schtick — Dufl will pack your suitcase and Eaze will reup a medical marijuana supply.”

There is also Luxe, which uses GPS to offer a personal parking valet dressed in a blue uniform who will meet you at your destination and park your car for you.

But they’ll no doubt all have mutually insured destruction rating systems, too, so Saucey will reveal how politely I grab my bottle of Grey Goose.

I’ve only yanked my rating up a tenth of a point in the last two weeks. I’m hoping Uber’s self-driving cars will like me more. But somehow I think the robots will be even more judgy.


Meet tech’s new concierge economy, where serfs deliver stuff to rich folk

John Naughton

The rise of Uber and possible Amazon deliveries by drone typify our regrettable need for instant gratification

Sunday 28 December 2014

In a way, the name of the company – Uber – gives the game away. It has connotations of elevation, superiority, authority – as in Nietzsche’s coinage, Übermensch, to describe the higher state to which men might aspire. Although it’s only been around since 2009, Uber, the smartphone-enabled minicab company, is probably the only startup of recent times to have achieved the same level of name recognition as the established internet giants.

This is partly because Uber is arguably the most aggressive tech startup in recent history and partly because it has attracted a lot of bad press. But mainly it’s because a colossal pile of American venture capital is riding on it. Its most recent investment round valued the company at about $40bn, which is why every MBA graduate in California is currently clutching a PowerPoint presentation arguing that his/her daft idea is “Uber for X” – where X is any industry you care to mention.

What lies behind the frenzy is a conviction that Uber is the Next Big Thing, fuelled by the belief that it is the embodiment of what Silicon Valley values most, namely “disruptive innovation” – as in disruption of established, old-economy ways of doing things. In Uber’s case, the ancien regime is urban taxi cab businesses in more than 200 cities worldwide, which are portrayed by Übermenschen as little more than cosy or corrupt local monopolies.

Uber fits neatly into the mythology of the tech industry, which portrays itself as surfing one of the waves of “creative destruction” through which, as the economist Joseph Schumpeter argued, capitalism periodically renews itself. In this narrative, industrial progress involves a good deal of destruction in order to make way for new, creative, wealth-creating industries. The abolition of old timers such as licensed taxi cabs, travel agents and bookshops etc is merely the collateral damage of an essentially benign process – regrettable but necessary casualties of innovation.

You don’t have to be much of a sceptic to spot that this is self-serving cant. Far from being a radical innovation, Uber is a classic example of something as old as the internet itself, namely our old friend “disintermediation”. The idea is to find a business in which the need of buyers to find sellers (and vice versa) has traditionally been handled by an intermediary, and then use networking technology to eliminate said middle man. It happened a very long time ago to travel agents and bookshops. Now it’s happening to taxi firms. If this is technological innovation, then it’s a pretty low-IQ manifestation of it.

Nevertheless, Uber is thriving and expanding like mad. And it’s doing that despite its heroic propensity for emitting bad vibes. As the journalist Bobbie Johnson describes it, Uber holds a strange position in the technology industry. “Among a legion of highly detested companies, in a highly detested business, it is the thing people hate the most,” he writes. “And the reactions against it are powerful, instinctive and often hard to articulate.”

So why do people use it? Answer (Johnson again): “Supreme, ludicrous, almost ostentatious convenience. It’s a company built to directly service what seems to be the guiding principle of 21st-century urban living. There are so many trying to grab a slice of this on-demand industry  –  on-demand cleaning, on-demand dry cleaning, on-demand hair styling, on-demand ice cream, on-demand marijuana – but let’s face it, anyone who knows anything knows this: Uber is The One. It’s more powerful, more convenient, more available, than every other player in the game.”

There are interesting parallels between Uber and Amazon and not just because both aspire to world domination. Amazon is not exactly a lovable company, though it is less obnoxious than Uber, and as a boss Jeff Bezos makes Lord Sugar look like Mother Teresa. His company is wreaking creative destruction on high streets everywhere. And yet millions of us have just done our Christmas shopping on Amazon’s site – despite our ostensible disapproval of the company’s employment or tax-avoidance strategies.

What this suggests is a pandemic of cognitive dissonance. The real reason so many people hate Uber, Bobbie Johnson thinks, is that “because whatever we do, we can’t stop ourselves from making it bigger and more successful and more terrifying and more necessary. Uber makes everything so easy, which means it shows us who, and what, we really are. It shows us how, whatever objections we might say we hold, we don’t actually care very much at all.

“We have our beliefs, our morals, our instincts. We have our dislike of douchebags, our mistrust of bad behaviour. We have all that. But in the end it turns out that if something’s 10% cheaper and 5% faster, we’ll give it all up quicker than we can order a sandwich.”

Convenience, in other words, makes hypocrites of us all. It explains why we may moan about surveillance but continue to use Gmail and Facebook; why we shudder in distaste at what goes on in the Chinese factories that make Apple products yet continue to enjoy our iPhones; and why we are horrified by lethal fires we read about in Bangladeshi sweatshops and yet pounce gleefully on T-shirt bargains in retail outlets whenever we can find them.

Interestingly, our addiction to convenience has recently received a powerful boost from another regrettable human failing – our craving for instant gratification . We’ve gone from being satisfied with “3 to 5 working days” delivery estimate to next-day delivery.

“Last-minute shopping was so 2013. It’s last-second now” was the Guardian headline on a Boxing Day report that Amazon had experienced a spike in gift card sales at 10am – on Christmas morning!

Sensing that there are opportunities in encouraging this madness, US online retailers have been moving to one-hour delivery in urban areas. SpoonRocket delivers hot food within minutes to addresses in San Francisco. WunWun provides a similar service in Manhattan. Amazon has just launched a one-hour delivery service in New York City . And in case you think that this will just be confined to urban areas, remember that Amazon, Google and others are experimenting with using drones for rural deliveries.

Even if there’s an element of a tech bubble in all this, the long-term direction of travel is clear enough. In urban areas, at least, we’re moving towards a kind of concierge economy in which legions of network co-ordinated serfs deliver products and services to folk who are cash-rich but time-poor. And, in the longer term, urban dwellers will come to regard ownership of a car as a foolish extravagance – realising that the savings in fuel, tax, insurance, depreciation and maintenance would pay for a lot of Uber rides.

Which perhaps explains what the venture capitalists see in the company: one taxi service to rule them all. An Überservice in Nietzschean terms, in which – incidentally – Google happens to have a very large stake .

After all, Uber may one day be able to dispense with those pesky human drivers. And guess who makes driverless cars?

No comments: