Uber is in turmoil. Soon after former Attorney General Eric Holder's investigation into the company's alleged culture of sexual harassment and misconduct was completed, CEO Travis Kalanick announced he is taking a leave of absence. During a meeting to discuss Holder's findings, board member David Bonderman made a sexist comment. He resigned Tuesday night. Meanwhile, the company was recently hailed for losing just $708 million in the first quarter of this year.
It's probably a good time to consider what Uber—the most valuable private company in the United States—actually is, and what's happened to it. Uber was the rare startup that so quickly became ingrained in our culture that it's hard to remember a time without it. But Uber today also represents the worst of Silicon Valley, modern business, and capitalism: Its first mover status has conferred it a too-big-to-fail status that it doesn't deserve and that we no longer need.
Thankfully, we have a perfect case study that proves we don't need Uber. Just over a year ago, Uber (and Lyft) voluntarily left the city of Austin, Texas after the city had the audacity to ask the rideshare companies to require their drivers to submit to government background checks, which is what taxi companies in most cities have to do.
Austin did not immediately fall back into the clutches of evil taxi companies. Instead, the vacuum Uber and Lyft left was filled by local startups and nonprofits
The experiences of that city is instructive: Austin did not immediately fall back into the clutches of evil taxi companies. Instead, the vacuum Uber and Lyft left was filled by local startups and nonprofits such as Fasten, Ride Austin, Fare, Wingz, Arcade City, and the Austin Underground Rideshare Community. Getting a ride in Austin today isn't any different than it was before Uber and Lyft left town. Same drivers, same riders, same smartphones, same traffic.
Uber and Lyft continue to hemorrhage their funding in an existential game of chicken that pushes fares lower with subsidization from Silicon Valley's venture capitalists—a high stakes gamble that bets human drivers can be automated out of existence before VC pockets empty completely. Meanwhile, Austin's startups have realized that connecting driver to rider might be good enough—most people just want to be able to hail a ride from the comfort of the bar while it's raining outside.
By design, Uber's trajectory has always been one designed to crush the competition and capture as much power and money as is possible without consideration for its social costs. In Uber's early days, Kalanick subscribed to an Ayn Rand-ian Libertarian ideology, telling the Washington Post in 2012 that Washington DC's taxi and limo regulations were reminiscent of the regulatory mess depicted in Atlas Shrugged. Kalanick and his friends now say he's backed away from the "libertarian" label. A 2015 Fast Company profile noted that "the only ideology Kalanick subscribes to is contrarianism."
If your founding theory is more-or-less "the rules don't apply to us," it's little surprise that Uber has apparently paid little mind to established norms about workplace respect.
Uber long ago stopped being a company whose fundamental purpose was to connect local drivers with local passengers—instead, it has become a political powerhouse that ignores local and state regulations and lobbies their way out of trouble later. Rather than comply with local law in Austin, Uber and Lyft forced through state-level legislation that superseded Austin's local regulations and allowed the companies to return to the city.
"The people designing our technology are not our people"
Uber's decisions—the self-driving car research, the ignore regulations now, lobby away the problems later tactics, the selling of rides below market value to drive out competition—all make sense as a capitalistic endeavor designed to maximize long-term profits. But for the average driver, rider, or city, Uber is not a good actor. Drivers just want to earn some extra pocket money, and riders just want to get home, ideally without the moral quandary that comes with supporting a company that is perennially wracked with controversy.
The good news is that many people are realizing there's no particular reason why we can't replace Uber with a systems that favor the human over the dollar. At the Left Forum in Manhattan earlier this month, a panel of people seeking to make technology work for people laid this out plainly.
"The people designing our technology are not our people," Samir Hazboun of the Highlander Research and Education Center, which studies social movements and educates activists, said at the forum. "They're against us."
"We need to control the technology, we need to own the internet, we need to design it for what our needs are"
Uber and Lyft may soon reign again in Austin, and Uber will likely survive its current turmoil. But the question we should all be asking ourselves is simple: Why? Why do we need Uber? Its technology was innovative several years ago, but much of the software has been open sourced or reverse-engineered now, and the most important part—the human drivers—Uber never owned nor cared to employ. We use Uber because of pure inertia, because of its first mover status, because its app is slightly less clunky than its local competitors, because it has substantial political clout, because its rides are (temporarily) subsidized.
Uber started a revolution, but it need not be a lasting regime. All these years later, Uber is still essentially just an app. And not a particularly complex one.
"We need to control the technology, we need to own the internet, we need to design it for what our needs are," Alice Aguilar, of the Progressive Technology Project, said at the Left Forum. "They're telling us what they want and we're doing it. But we can use these tools in a way that's appropriate for us without it leading to the demise of our work and our communities."