re: publica 19: Uber or the boss is an algorithm

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re: publica 19: Uber or the boss is an algorithm

Is the “gig economy” the future or are the platforms exploiting their “employees”? At the re: publica in Berlin, ethnographer Alex Rosenblat criticized Uber’s business practice and hesitant regulation. Uber treated the driver as a self-employed entrepreneurs when it comes to workers’ rights, but they contain information that rational decisions made possible.

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Uber sees no communication between the drivers on its own platform. “But they’ve created their own workplace culture online, through Facebook groups, WhatsApp, web forums, and Uber driver sites,” Rosenblat said. 300,000 drivers belonged to these forums in the US alone. The scientist had watched such communication for years and interviewed hundreds of drivers.

According to Rosenblats findings, the reality that presented itself in these communities, clearly different from the self-representation of the company. Uber likes to present itself as a neutral technology provider. In fact, Uber drivers have no human supervisor, but communicate with the company almost exclusively via the app.

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The apparent lack of any hierarchy of work is perceived by the drivers in part as very positive, Rosenblat said. So it is customary in the taxi industry in part, that drivers would have to bribe the vehicle dispatchers to come to lucrative jobs. Also, the route algorithm is initially an immediate advantage for the driver.

But although Uber had replaced the dispatcher with an “algorithmic boss,” the riders soon became acquainted with the arbitrariness of the seemingly neutral system. For example, with high demand in a particular area, the company activates “surge pricing”, in which the fare quickly rises to a multiple of the usual.

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“Drivers describe this as a kind of herd control,” said Rosenblat. As prices rise, many Uber riders pour into the area, which promises high sales. In principle, this could be a free business decision. But the practice is different, said Rosenblat on the example of a driver who had gone into the high-price zone, but then got assigned a ride outside this zone. After he had refused this trip, he had been threatened with the deactivation of the account

Generally, drivers would be deprived of essential information to make their own business decisions. Uber sees the drivers as customers instead of employees or partners. This also shows in the communication with the company: For example, drivers would be deprived of complaints with pre-formulated e-mails. Anyway, complaints would rather be ironed out.

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Rosenblat sees in Uber no exception – the company embodies in many ways the ideas of many companies in Silicon Valley. Thus a culture of the experiment prevails, with which profound changes are made, without informing those concerned sufficiently. So drivers found out only after extensive exchange of travel statements that the payout algorithm had been changed.

In recent years, Uber has also introduced some improvements for the drivers – for example, protection against bad ratings, which had nothing to do with the behavior of the driver. The corporate culture makes it difficult to sustain such improvements in the long term. So there is no guarantee that an improvement still exists after six months.

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Uber benefits from the positive image Silicon Valley corporations have in the US. The achievements of the online corporations would be considered here with a kind of national pride. In addition, the application of algorithms would be considered positive. Consequence: regulators allowed the company to grant first, even if there were doubts about the business model. Partly, the drivers were also officially denied to negotiate higher tariffs together.

The app provider had entered the market at the very moment when many Americans lost their jobs due to the US economic crisis. Politicians did not want to do anything to deny voters lucrative jobs. The consequences reached far beyond Uber himself: “Uber has changed what we mean by work,” said Rosenblat. The company, which is now to bring in the IPO of up to 90 billion US dollars , was designed entirely to avoid social obligations.

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