Blame Uber

Ben Thompson’s Stratechery is one of the best technology blogs. I don’t subscribe to the Daily Update portion of it, but the main site entries are more than enough to keep my FeedWrangler inbox full of stuff to read. He’s remarkably good at forecasting trends (his “Two Bears” entry about Apple is a classic) and revisiting his old opinions. However, I have been generally disappointed in his take on Uber, the ride sharing company that Peter Thiel recently called “ethically challenged.” Thompson’s entry on the subject – “Don’t Blame Uber” – is ambitious, in that it veers into politics, but it devolves into cognitive dissonance as he goes after left wing and right wing alike.

Let’s step back: Discussions of technology’s impact beyond technology – its politics – are essentially taboo in the tech press, from publications (TechCrunch, Recode, Pando et al) to sole proprietor blogs. Just think about how almost all news, and every “smart take,” takes as given that neoliberalism is the only economic framework in which the Internet can exist. For tech journalists, the ideological battle between Thatcherism, free markets etc. and its alternatives is settled in favor of the former.

So, the many authors of entries about technology’s effects on serendipity or the Internet’s reliance on advertising rarely stop to question the intentions of the companies that now handle so much of our data. They don’t propose¬†that the communicative power of the Internet be instead managed publicly or by a government – ironic, considering the hysteria over “Internet balkanization” that belies a concern that the centralized, globalized infrastructure of the Internet could be shattered – they don’t see it is a public library or a utility – despite likening it to electricity – and they’re ultimately anti-competition even as they whine about net neutrality.

The latter may seem counterintuitive. Still, just think of all the free press given to Google, Facebook, et al, the seldom questioning of their political – rather than technological – effects, and you can begin to see the outlines of a neoliberalist ideology in which monopolies are good for the consumer and questions about the diminution of perspective, privacy, and happiness can be discarded by saying that enormous corporations are simply giving consumers what they want – which brings me back to Thompson’s piece.

He opens by saying that “much of the opposition to changes wrought by the Internet undervalue the positive impact said changes have on normal people.” This is code; “the Internet” is not a reference to raw IP connectivity in the way that “radio” is a reference to actual equipment. It is instead a narrow reference to for-profit Web companies, which he makes clear when he moves on to talk about Google and Facebook. He doesn’t question what they have accomplished but seems to take for granted that the effects have been positive. I’m not so sure, but then I’m not a proponent of this narrow construct of “the Internet” in which “the Internet” can do no wrong and is pushed as a post-political solution to all problems (“God,” anyone)?

To his credit, he acknowledges that Uber is more of a lightning-rod than Google or Facebook. Yet he defends it as being superior to taxis in every way, listing off the purely consumerist advantages such as ease of paying, getting in and not having to wrangle with car ownership. What about Uber’s treatment of the disabled or the less tech-savvy? These are political issues that are hard to address from the current neoliberal mindset surrounding tech. Sure enough, Thompson cuts through Avi Asher-Schapiro’s scathing critique of Uber by observing that “actual consumers were not mentioned once in the article.” The ensuing list of consequences that would attend Uber actually hiring its drivers is filled with drawbacks that would put Uber out of business, but not wreck society. The concern is for business, not social welfare – which is fine, but it’s a limited perspective.

The latter half of the entry, about health insurance, is difficult to parse and likely beyond my scope here. Yes, healthcare is too expensive in the U.S., and the current system somehow manages to punish both patient, employer, and physician simultaneously. Uber didn’t create the system, and one could – as Thompson does – make a good case that its business model makes the best of being constrained by it. How did we get this employer-based system in the first place, though?

The Truman Administration wanted to set up a national healthcare system, but it and the labor unions folded under intense pressure from the Chamber of Commerce and American Medical Association, among others, which labeled the initiative “socialism.” If you’re not American, then understand that “socialism” never has a positive connotation in American politics, and has been used a cudgel in every battle against universal coverage. But surely, it’s just a stupid boogeyman that can be dispelled with logic, right?

Wrong, and the troubled history of healthcare reform – even Obama couldn’t implement single-payer! – speaks to it. There are superficial political issues that have kept reform from happening, but there’s also a long-term mindset – glimpsed in the occasional remarks about “socialism” – that shows deep-rooted commitment to the types of low government spending, low taxes, deregulation, consumer satisfaction above else, and general private sector strength that continue to drive up inequality in the U.S. There’s a useful umbrella term for such beliefs, and I’ve already mentioned it – neoliberalism.

There’s significant cognitive dissonance in praising the consumer-first benefits of Uber et al while bemoaning the healthcare system, which is a relic of anti-socialist hysteria that remains in place due to similarly singular commitment to markets, now best seen in the ruthless competition between Uber and taxis. You can’t provide amenities to workers – benefits, livable wages – without regarding them as citizens first and consumers second. Uber and the rest of Silicon Valley, despite all their resources, don’t seem to be pushing for such perspective.

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