As a tech writer, every holiday season I take on a side job as an extended family tech support jockey. In this role I gamely help older family members "Force Quit" the Mail application, restart their iPhones, and change the clock on their Fitbits. And yet this year, as my family turned their conversation to the transit giant Uber, I found they weren’t interested in my opinions. To them, Uber is just a different kind of cab company, not a tech company.
My experience is all anecdotal, but it points to a critical problem with the latest iteration of the web, which companies like Uber are busy ushering into the mainstream. It doesn't feel like technology, at least not in the way that we popularly conceive of it, and casual bystanders (read: most potential users) don't see it as technology. And that’s a serious problem. The Silicon Valley tech company ethos, forged throughout decades of building hardware and software, is predicated on the notion that, equipped with better ideas and better technology than the establishment, the innovators can bypass establishment rules on their way to changing the world. The problem: “Move fast and break things” works when the "things" are software. It works slightly less — and poses a serious safety concern — when those "things" are people.
Uber, like Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Instacart, or any of the poorly labeled "sharing economy" apps, are part of what research analyst Jan Dawson has labeled "the digital layer": services that are powered and made possible by technology, but exist primarily in the physical world. Packaged in app form, Uber’s technology has rendered it transformative. But to call Uber an app doesn't quite do the service justice. Uber is, for better or worse, a massive, world-changing dispatch company.
Uber's physical-world experience of getting in a car and ending up in a different place is so familiar that my family, which doesn't pay attention to Silicon Valley or VC valuations, thinks of Uber like a traditional cab company with a push-button feature. And yet, companies like Uber seem to see it the other way around, envisioning themselves purely as tech companies positioned to destroy market inefficiencies with their world-changing ideas.
The problem is that tech companies — at least many of the social, software, and digital media startups I cover — move differently and have vastly different expectations than, say, widget-producing traditional companies. "Move fast and break things," Facebook says! Digg sent me a sticker last month that said "Fuck it, ship it!" After all, what's the worst that can happen? You roll out some dumb, bad software update or hardware that nobody uses or you scale too big, too fast and your company goes under so you start another one. It's software or soon-to-be-obsolete hardware, so who cares?!
That all goes out the window with the digital layer, which takes all that wonderful, complicated, and fragmented internet you've got trapped in what is essentially a pocket computer and connects it to the physical world, turning that device into a remote control for your life. But the physical world operates at a different (read: much slower) pace from the tech and startup world. The physical world is full of logistics and red tape and regulatory battles and, most importantly, people. Just ask Uber: Disrupting a physical-world service is a terribly costly, time-consuming, and maddening endeavor and it's why the company has had to become experts in local city regulations in roughly 50 different American cities. It’s precisely because of these hurdles that any tech reporter who spends their time covering the sharing economy is now, essentially, a labor reporter.
Ultimately, the red tape and the logistical hurdles and the regulatory battles of the physical world exist to protect people. Providing physical-world services for people is complicated and risky by nature. To Uber and its competitors' credit, the company has provided an overwhelming majority of its customers with a safe and reliable service (which, of course, is why it's so popular), but there have been sobering reminders of what happens when important logistical procedures like background checks for drivers take a backseat to expansion pressures. Last month's rape of a Delhi woman by an Uber driver is one such horrific reminder.
And yet, Uber and Lyft continually try to duck local governments and law enforcement. Currently, Uber and Lyft operate illegally in multiple major U.S. cities, with the companies failing to comply with local laws in order to scale to demand, as is embedded in their tech company DNA. To try and keep up with the Silicon Valley/startup pace of innovation, Uber has had to adopt aggressive tactics, as Uber NYC executive Josh Mohrer told BuzzFeed News last year. "It's not just like Facebook where you can say, 'let’s add a bunch of servers.' There’s human beings providing services, running their business on a platform and that’s not scaling up a bunch of servers," he said. "It’s convincing a bunch of human beings to bring business on our platform. So we’re unabashedly aggressive in the way that we do that and what that means is there’s very little I won’t do to get in front of someone and tell them about Uber. And that includes taking taxi rides and taking rides with competitors."
The apps and companies that will contribute to the digital layer are transformative technologies with the power to reshape and reorganize our physical world. On-demand services like Uber, Airbnb, Instacart, and Homejoy are responsible for a growing subset of contract gig workers, or "micropreneurs," who shift between services picking up small payouts for odd jobs. Surveying the industry, it’s hard to ignore the number of contract employees: As of August 2014, the New York Times reported Lyft had over 60,000 contract drivers, while services like TaskRabbit have over 30,000 freelance users. According to the same Times report, 17.7 million Americans “worked more than half time as independent contributors” in 2013.
And if and when these companies succeed, they'll do it on the backs of their engineers and technology. They are tech companies. But to think of them as tech companies in the "move fast and break things" sense feels dangerous. Downloading a social app opens you up to harassment, hacking, and any number of other digital concerns, but downloading and hailing and stepping into a cab brings with it far more visceral — and potentially serious — risks.
When I finally joined my family's Uber conversation, the subject turned to an argument over regulating businesses and stemming the tide of disruption, but that seems to obscure the larger point: that tech companies whose tendrils reach into and wrap around the physical world must be seen as such and not simply as software providers.
And that means, for better or worse, not skirting rules imposed by local governments. It's harder that way, sure. There's a lot of rules and permits and certifications and local legislative approval to seek, and many of these logistical hurdles have been put in place by the progress-fearing and corrupt. But there's hope, too, for techno utopians: Uber, Lyft, and these wildly popular on-demand service apps have the ability and goodwill from users not only to thrive but to expose the antiquated and ridiculous flaws and bureaucracy in our regulatory systems (in Washington, D.C., Uber’s rise illuminated the city’s corrupt livery culture), but the only responsible way to do that is to meet those systems head-on.