Is Uber, uber? – Ride Share to Greater Equality?

uber.pngI remember a time when “uber”, meant something like cool, interesting and engaged.

Today, “uber” represents a company – one of the fastest growing in the world, and one possibly on the cusp of an Initial Private Offering.

I reluctantly and occasionally use Uber, so have some first hand experience of the service. The biggest change recently is that just like Apple, to use the service I need to provide them with my debit card details. Previously I use to simply pay cash and they required no banking details. I felt like I was forced but kinda free, but worried not just about my privacy, but how this simple change brought me more and more into a world controlled by platforms.

(Yes, South Africa is part of the ride share wars, and I am keenly following whether a local company can compete against the likes of Uber and Taxify).

In the last few days, Bill Gurley (who represents one of the major investors) has written a an article on why Uber is well uber. The article makes the usual claims, but one struck me as being really important – Uber can create jobs and provide these workers with work without having to sacrifice family time. But, am I correct to call them workers? Uber as a platform argues that it owns no cars, has only entrepreneurs (not workers) and and simply connects the entrepreneurs with customers. Gurley argues,

In spite of all the ink that journalists, analysts, and pundits have spilled on Uber over the years, no mainstream article has focused on what I consider to be the most elegant feature of this now ubiquitous, high growth global service — no driver-partner is ever told where or when to work. This is quite remarkable — an entire global network miraculously “level loads” on its own. Driver-partners unilaterally decide when they want to work and where they want to work. The flip side is also true — they have unlimited freedom to choose when they do NOT want to work. Despite the complete lack of a “driver-partner schedule” this system delivers pick-up times that are less than 5 minutes (in most US cities (with populations over 25K) and in 412 cities in 55 other countries. The Uber network, along with Mr. Smith’s invisible hand, is able to elegantly match supply and demand, without the “schedules” and “shifts” that are the norm in most every other industry.

Om Malik – veteran tech journalist, venture capitalist and a writer i think is uber – has responded. The article is perceptive, demanding and tackles a range of issues. Specifically, it asks questions on what a fair deal between platforms and drivers would look like. In the end, Malik argues for some kind of driver share scheme. He writes:

What if Uber created an option grant for Uber driver-partners using a formula based on time driving for Uber, total miles were driven, and total rides were given. These can be kept in a trust, which entitles it to a board seat, taken by an independent board member, who speaks for driver-partners. The drivers get their options vested when they reach their goals. It will be an excellent way to reward those loyal driver-entrepreneurs by giving them enough wealth to change their lives, in addition to providing them a voice in helping build a platform that could one day be worth over $100 billion.

It raises the question, if Uber’s goal is emancipation of people as argued by Bill Gurley, surely that emancipation cannot be complete without the emancipated sharing in the wealth that is produced? Or is Uber what its critics say it is – a technological platform that disempowers workers and emasculates the working class into disconnected workers without collective muscle, and keeps them there under the ruse of freedom?

These are important questions, in the context of discussions on superstar firms as a reason for the declining share of labour’s share of GDP.

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