The hue and cry over Uber’s well-known and much-maligned taxi service is reaching a crescendo. Lawsuits, labour law reviews, strikes, violence, safety and privacy concerns etc. are just a few of the issues surrounding Uber. Regardless, Uber’s service is striking a chord with all of us at multiple levels. It’s a cool app and is very “techy”; its convenience and utility value for users at large is very compelling; the disruption it causes and the debate it stirs up on the future of work in society and labour laws is breathtaking. I am compelled to discuss it sits at the convergence of technology, business, and society, the core themes of this website. Controversies apart, Uber epitomizes what digitization does to a traditional stodgy business. Here is a look at how in a lighter vein…on the power, promise, and problems associated with automation.
The Mean Taxi Dispatcher
In the late 70s, Taxi was a very popular TV drama. It starred Danny DeVito as Louie De Palma, the evil, abusive dispatcher, pit boss, and cashier who stood behind the safety of his iron cage, hurling abuses at his colleagues – the drivers, the mechanics, and anyone who crossed his path. He reigned for five years unchallenged in his realm with a flair for drama. His persona was not that far from some dispatchers I encountered when I tried to hire cabs by phone. But it all changed with Uber.
Uber and Louie De Palma
While the Uber and Louie De Palma have never crossed paths and are separated by three decades, Uber has dispatched with the lovable (?) Mr. Palma, and how!
Uber virtualized Mr. Palma and put him inside computers caged in the cloud. He was reincarnated as a piece of driver-dispatching software (minus the abuse and drama). With the aid of a slick App running on our slicker phones and the phones of the drivers, all connected to this digital avatar of Mr. Palma, Uber digitized the taxi-cab business. Whether he has been dispatched for good or not, it is too early to say since this reality TV show is still in its early season.
Who shall we digitize next?
To me, this Uber drama is more interesting than the next stage of this evolution involving Google’s autonomous car. The Google car, in combination with an Uber-like App will digitize not just the dispatcher, but the drivers too. That will put the hapless drivers out of business when fancy cars talk directly to the cloud with their ET-like headdress. It is too much machine, devoid of humanity. And we all know that where there is no driver, there is no drama. Of course you could always put Siri in it and try to inject some humanity back.
The graphic above shows this three-stage transition; from Mr. Palma behind his cage vocally dispatching his drivers in their yellow cars, to drivers and passengers being orchestrated by Mr. Digital Palma, to Mr. Palma and his minions ending up vapourized! Er, digitized, I mean.
This potential Google-Uber concoction of “Güber” cab service will be cheaper than Uber cab service not the least because, as the CEO of Uber observed wryly, “you are paying for the other dude in the car [with Uber]“.
Güberization: Digitization by Another Name
So, no human means no drama, which means lower fare? Fair enough, I say. Well, not so fast, says the socialist! What happens to the unemployed drivers who can’t find a job in this digital economy? Well, let’s pay them something so that society is not destabilized by the high rate of unemployment; so that the de-stabilizing divide between the 99% and the 1% that is wider than the parted Red Sea is kept in balance. How do we find the money? Oh, let’s tax the riders of the Güber cab. Okay, I don’t know about you, but I am not paying more when there is no drama and I am the only dude in the car with just the eerie silence of automation around me. Even Siri can’t sweet-talk me in to paying more. What about all the other benefits of fully autonomous cars? Fuel, emissions, parking, less crowded roads? Can’t we find money from somewhere else to pay these Güberized drivers? Does it always have to be the burden of the 1%? Grumble, grumble, grumble…off we go again.
So, my fellow ride-sharers, ponder this before you settle in to the front seat of your Güber cab and start to Netflix your favorite episode of the Game of Thrones on your iPad, while sipping your favourite drink from the pre-stocked mini-bar in the cab (yes, I know you are drinking and not driving): Who shall bear the social cost of Güberization? How shall we fund for the welfare of the society and keep it stable? Ponder on. Take the next decade and ponder on.
While you and the economists and the government consider that deep question, here is a soft-ball for ya.
So long until the next ride.
Also published on Medium.