“Like Uber, but for…”: The basic assumptions of disruption

wordleAs the employment landscape evolves, the way in which basic assumptions play out in this increasingly fragmented environment will continue to change nature of work and how we understand work. The new age creates new pathologies which will require new solutions, which will then cause new problems.

For example, calling your start-up’s service “Like Uber, but for [whatever]” has become a cliché. There are at least two Twitter accounts tracking silly uses of the phrase. Googling “like uber but for” gathers 45 million results. There’s an Uber for short-term accomodations (AirBnB), takeout (Foodora), minor home repair and skilled trades services (Jiffy), even therapy (Talkspace). You can theoretically meet your needs for housing, transportation, food, and emotional support entirely from your smartphone.

I’m sure we all know what Uber is, but on the off chance you don’t (lucky you! What are you doing reading this blog when you have the whole internet to explore?), Uber is an app that connects people looking for rides with people providing them. Basically they are illegal cabs you order with your smartphone. They are much cheaper than regulated taxis (at least most of the time). To maintain access to “the platform”, drivers must maintain a high rating, so are supposedly immune to the petty venalities of the taxi trade (the driver who takes a roundabout route to jack up the fare, refuses a short-distance fare to go for a longer, more expensive one, pretends their debit machine is not working so you have to make an expensive detour to a bank machine, and so on). Uber drivers are also not employees, have no worker protections, and often have inadequate or invalid auto insurance (as personal auto insurance doesn’t cover commercial driving). Uber drivers are vulnerable to assault by their passengers, and, perhaps more frighteningly, have themselves been accused of robbing and assaulting their passengers. And to add insult to injury, at times of high demand – whether it’s New Year’s Eve or a natural disaster – Uber often doubles, triples, or quadruples the fare to whatever they think the market will bear – sometimes unbeknownst to the rider until after the fact.

Now, taxi driving in Toronto (and elsewhere) is notoriously badly-paid and exploitative. Taxi drivers don’t have much in the way of worker protection either, working 12-14 hour days to make anything approaching a living wage, and are also almost always “independent contractors”, ineligible for unemployment or sick days or parental leave. In the Uber vs Taxi fight it’s hard to feel very sorry for the taxi companies, who sit back and take the profit while their drivers are struggling, and don’t even make it cheap for the customer.

While Uber was not the first to develop this model (that would probably be AirBnB, founded in 2008 to Uber’s 2009), its name has become synonymous with it: the decentralized middle-man/woman organization stepping in to a top-heavy market (transportation, hotels, and so on) to connect customers and providers for low-cost, low-commitment, low-accountability service, using a smartphone app and/or a beautifully-designed, minimalist website.

If you’re up on your basic assumptions from group relations this might sound familiar to you. The model outsources as much responsibility as possible for both employees AND customers. Uber doesn’t think of itself as a transportation company, but as a technology company – its product is the app which connects drivers and passengers, not the service of providing the ride. The driver and customer bear all the risks of the encounter, with Uber merely setting up the interaction, handling the payment, and taking its fee.

The insistence that the group is not a group (or that the workforce that delivers your core service are not your employees and the people who pay for it are not your customers) is called the basic assumption of me-ness. Like all basic assumptions it arises from the unconscious needs and desires of the group – maybe, in this case, a phantasy of childish omnipotence, of pleasure and power without responsibility. The rider gets something for less than it would otherwise cost, the driver gets money with no boss or set hours, the company gets unlimited profit with decidedly limited responsibility for its workers or customers. Like all phantasies it is, well, a fantasy. The low cost to the rider comes with a social cost. The low responsibility of the driver comes with low, insecure wages, and considerable risk. The theoretically unlimited profits of the company are currently rather massive losses.

Whether or not “Uberisation” is a good thing in terms of the economy or society depends on your perspective, your politics and how you understand group dynamics. As I’ve spent my entire adulthood avoiding a 40-hour-a-week 9-5 schedule you’d think I’d be all over it, but I am pretty suspicious of a model which leaves the rank and file with the majority of the risk and the company with the majority of the profit. However, that’s where I believe capitalism is right now, even with non-“Uberized” companies (think of those conventional taxi drivers earning well under minimum wage even in a highly-regulated framework!). As we move forward into this brave new employment marketplace, what new phantasies do you think we’ll develop?

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