Ubergate: Considering the Ethics of the Services We Use

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Warning: This is a rant. Turn away now.

I have been an enthusiastic user of Uber for some time. My rides have always been good.

I enjoy talking to the drivers about their experience and motivations. I love the convenience and the in-the-background payments. The first time I used it and simply got out of the cab without paying or tipping it was a revelation.

I also liked the idea that Uber was “disrupting” the curmudgeonly taxi industry. I no longer feel that way.

Like others I’ve been disturbed by all the revelations of threatened dirt-digging and surveillance against journalists (i.e., Sarah Lacy), the user-privacy violations, the incidents with drivers, the frat-boy mentality and “in-your-faceness” of the company generally. ‘Sup brah.

The drivers are just normal people trying to make a living. The executives are not. There’s something disturbingly predatory and mercenary in the attitudes coming out of Uber over the past year.

Dropping off a rental car the other week at the Oakland Airport I consciously tried to use alternative services: Flywheel and Lyft. The former had no cabs available and the latter had boosted prices considerably, presumably because of a shortage of drivers at that time. So rather than waiting an uncertain amount of time or overpaying I called Uber.

I felt bad about it because I felt that I was using the service of an unethical company. However the driver was very nice and we had a great conversation. I rationalized my choice accordingly.

I asked him what he thought about the Ubergate revelations. He was marginally aware of them but they seemed distant and even unrelated to his day-to-day driving.

Uber and Lyft are pushing down the prices of taxi medallions in New York. That may not be such a terrible thing. But in San Francisco Uber is helping to put regular taxis out of business.

That wouldn’t be as bad a thing if Uber were an admirable company. If the executive team were replaced (or at least key individuals fired along with some sincere mea culpas) it would go some distance to restoring the company’s image and integrity.

Investors aren’t in the least disturbed by the Ubergate parade of revelations and negative stories, they just valued the company at $40 billion.

The “bro-culture” problems or the single-mindedness and quasi-nihilism of the Silicon Valley mindset aren’t limited to Uber. Most recently the controversy surrounding Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and The New Republic (editorial mass exodus) is symptomatic of similar problems with Silicon Valley values permeating the larger marketplace.

Much is good about them but there’s also a very dark side to some of these “disruptions.” One gets the sense that Hughes doesn’t actually know what he’s doing or how it might impact the publication ultimately.

However Hughes defends his effort to turn The New Republic into a “vertically integrated digital media company” (an empty slogan in this case). Essentially he wants to duplicate The Atlantic Wire or perhaps more likely Buzzfeed. It’s a sad day when Buzzfeed becomes the new model and exemplar of online journalism. (Buzzfeed would not have broken this corruption story for example)

But that’s where we are it seems. Click bait. Native ads. Advertorial.

Back to the question of ethics. It’s very difficult to back up your values with your spending for many reasons (stores like Whole Foods make it somewhat easier but everyone can’t afford to shop there). Yet it’s important that we at least try.

If people across the US and abroad were to stop using Uber in a coordinated way for a couple of weeks to protest the way its executives are behaving, they would panic and take action.

The market can be a very powerful thing and so is conscious spending among informed consumers. My hope is that the “transparency” wrought by the internet will make it easier for people over time to buy in accordance with their values and have an impact on the culture and direction of some of these companies that are taking over as more traditional enterprises fall away.

This is a version of what Small Business Saturday is supposed to be about: spending to protect the diversity and integrity of our communities.

I recognize this post isn’t totally coherent but I’m increasingly disturbed that some Silicon Valley companies and the often unreflective mentality that accompanies them are sweeping aside established institutions. As I mentioned, in some cases disruption is needed and good.

Uber is an impressive company. But what it also represents is an attempt to generate immediate, short term wealth for a small number of insiders without much thought to those who actually deliver the service (the drivers) or its larger, long-term impact on the society as a whole.

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