Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work
296 pages, University of California Press, 2018
As it grew rapidly from a start-up to a billion-dollar global company, Uber was used as a framing device for change. It allied with morally persuasive causes, such as by positioning ridehailing as an alternative to drunk driving, to promote its technology as a positive contribution to society. And a range of stakeholders, from politicians to labor advocates, leveraged Uber’s symbolic value to reinvigorate other issues, from data privacy to portable benefits. In the process, media coverage of Uber turned a tech and business beat into a labor beat. The working conditions of Uber’s drivers illustrate the promise and perils of the gig economy, propelling wider debates on the impact of technology on society. But how Uber treats drivers gives us insights into how we are all treated as consumers of Silicon Valley platforms and services, from Facebook to Google. Platforms algorithmically curate the news we consume on Facebook to the search results we see on Google, and they narrate algorithmic curation as neutral, seemingly both objective and benevolent. Uber brings Silicon Valley practices and culture to the workplace. Just as Facebook quietly experiments on our newsfeeds, Uber quietly experimented with driver pay – without alerting them. The challenges drivers face at work affect their livelihoods, which illustrates how easily we can all be taken advantage of by algorithmic management and platforms because the stakes are clear. And because Uber’s app is in the streets – drivers can be fined and ticketed in a way that Facebook users cannot - entrepreneurial regulators looking to reign in Silicon Valley may look to Uber as a symbol for effecting change.—Alex Rosenblat
Freddy, a driver with both Uber and Lyft, pulls into the parking lot when he comes to pick me up, giving me a moment to search out his large sedan on a bright day in Atlanta, Georgia. With more than three years of vagrant sociology research under my belt, I’ve learned to hop into cars on busy streets as soon as I recognize the vehicle’s license plate from my smartphone screen. His Chevrolet Impala is spacious, and I’m struck by the instrumental jazz on the car radio, which reassures me like a lightweight ﬂeece on a foggy day. Most drivers stick to pop music when I’m in the car, perhaps because of the color of my skin. And I’ve heard some drivers suggest they get higher ratings from black passengers if they play Cardi B. or other rap music. I guess Freddy just enjoys jazz.
Freddy tells me he’s a twelve-year veteran of the army, having left around 1989, just before the Gulf War. I explain to him that I’m not just another passenger; I’m a researcher studying how Uber and technology affect work. As I ask him basic questions, he tells me that he also works full time as the manager of a fast-food restaurant in a nearby city. When he has time off from his primary job, he commutes three hours into Atlanta to take ridehail jobs. During his vacation period, he spends about four days working ridehail jobs, heads home for a day or two and then returns to the lineup of drivers waiting for ride requests in the airport parking lot. “We have a quale [queue], a place where all the Uber and Lyft drivers park, and I stay there.” His sister lives not too far away, and that’s where he showers.
When I ask him where he sleeps in between driving shifts, he nods to the front passenger seat and exclaims, “You’re sitting in my bed!” With a reassuring smile, he adds that he’s not the only one who does it—men and women from outside the city are catching up on sleep in the airport parking lot. Sometimes he works fourteen to sixteen hours in a single day, and the next day he’ll do eight hours, depending on how he feels. He aims to average two hundred dollars a day, and on this trip he’s proud to be earning “double money”—his vacation pay from his fast-food job supplements whatever he makes driving. “During the vacation period, I really had nothing to do,” he says, “and I’m a people person. I love meeting new people.”
As in the case of many of the people I’ve met during my research, driving is a second job for Freddy, and he genuinely enjoys the social connection he gains from conversations with passengers. Taking mental notes as I ride with him, I notice an open pack of Newport cigarettes that sits neatly on a little shelf near the gear shift, and a frayed brown wallet below. After hundreds of Uber rides, I’ve learned that the minimal personal effects that drivers leave scattered in their cars can provide revealing windows into their lives. Most keep their valuables out of sight, except for the phones and charging wires they use to manage their ridehail work. Freddy’s own phone is mounted on the windshield, but I notice that its charging cord runs down and partly obscures a business card tucked into a crevice beneath his wallet: “Learn how 1000’s are earning free gold while being paid a weekly massive residual income.”
The promise of free gold is perhaps a ﬁtting symbol for the gap between hype and reality in Uberland. A culture of shaky and insecure work in precarious times shapes the dynamics of driving for Uber, even though drivers do not individually perceive their employment as being precarious. As a near-geriatric migratory driver, Freddy illustrates the “fool’s gold” of Uber’s rhetoric. Contrary to the company’s marketing, he isn’t “sharing” his spare asset and time with his riders: he is working hard to make ends meet.
Uber claims drivers can earn upward of ninety thousand dollars per year doing ridehail work, but Freddy’s situation is a far cry from the picture of middle-class comfort promoted by the company. Uber rose to prominence as an employer by providing the masses with low-barrier-to-entry employment opportunities—with little more than a car and a background check, anybody could be on the road driving as much or as little as he or she wanted. At its core, Uber does one thing really well: it organizes work for drivers and rides for passengers through a smartphone app. When it comes to marketing, Uber paints itself as the whole package for would-be drivers, pulling off a clever doublespeak. On one hand, it promises drivers freedom, ﬂexibility, and independence. It tells them that they are entrepreneurs who can “be your own boss.” For legal purposes, Uber classiﬁes them as independent contractors, meaning they are largely excluded from the employment and labor law protections to which employees are entitled.
Yet on the other hand, Uber leverages signiﬁcant control over how drivers behave on the job. Rather than supervising its hundreds of thousands of drivers with human supervisors, the company has built a ridehail platform on a system of algorithms that serves as a virtual “automated manager.” Freed from the necessity of layers of real bosses, algorithms manage drivers directly according to the rules that Uber lays out. But it’s not as glamorous as it might sound at ﬁrst. As entrepreneurs, drivers theoretically set their own hours, accept or decline passengers freely, set their pay rates, and build client lists. Some of that is true for Uber drivers. Drivers beneﬁt from ﬂexible hours, but Uber’s promotional offers can effectively create shift work for drivers who need the money. The company may deactivate drivers who try to build their own client lists, and many drivers with whom I broach this subject say they don’t even bother trying because they feel safer knowing they are covered by Uber’s insurance policy (which offers $1 million in auto liability insurance per accident if one occurs between the time a driver accepts a trip and the trip’s completion). They are penalized if they decline passengers, but Uber doesn’t actually give them the information they need to assess whether a ride is profitable in advance. And Uber perennially, and unilaterally, changes their pay rates, usually by cutting them. Drivers are supposedly free and independent, but Uber’s rules, enforced by these algorithmic managers, signiﬁcantly limit the opportunities for entrepreneurial decision making available to them. Drivers have noticed the tension between the promise of freedom and the reality of invasive algorithmic management. In fact, this tension is the basis of legal claims that drivers should not be classiﬁed as independent contractors.
One of the fascinating aspects of Uber’s approach is that according to the company, its drivers are not workers at all—they are “consumers” of Uber’s technology services, just as passengers are. In 2013, a group of drivers and lawyers ﬁ led a class-action misclassiﬁcation lawsuit, alleging that Uber was not justiﬁed in classifying drivers as independent contractors; they argued that Uber treats drivers like employees. In a January 2015 court hearing of the case, Uber’s lawyer explained that the company’s drivers are actually customers of its software. “Fundamentally, the commercial relationship between these drivers and transportation providers and Uber is one where they are our customer, where we license to them our software, and we receive a fee for doing that.” If we follow this logic to its natural conclusion, the company doesn’t have any worker problems, despite mounting lawsuits, protests, and conﬂicts with drivers across the country.
Uberland is book about how Uber created a fundamental cultural shift in what it means to be employed. It is also a book about technology ideology—the stories Uber tells us about users, and the stories we tell each other about the role of technology in our lives. It’s a tale of how a small start-up in Silicon Valley put algorithms in charge of managing hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and Canada. By 2018, Uber employed 3 million active drivers globally. This book traces the story of how the company crafted a narrative that deﬁned workers ﬁrst as working-class entrepreneurs, then as customers, because redeﬁning traditional categories was a clever way of pursuing its own growth. Uberland also exposes how Uber has utilized self-serving arguments to advance its own interests.
For example, Uber self-identiﬁes as a technology company, not a transportation company. As federal judge Edward M. Chen articulated in the same lawsuit where Uber argued that drivers are actually customers, this technology-exceptionalism reasoning is “fatally ﬂawed.” Uber may use software for the mechanics of its business, but it is substantively in the business of arranging transportation. Judge Chen writes, “Uber does not sell software; it sells rides. Uber is no more a “technology company” than Yellow Cab is a “technology company” because it uses CB radios to dispatch taxi cabs.” But by self-identifying as a technology company, Uber has proceeded to argue elsewhere that it isn’t covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because it’s not a transportation company. Therefore, by their argument, Uber is not legally obliged to provide wheelchair-accessible services for disabled passengers under the ADA, unlike its competitors in the transportation business.13 Uber has continued to ﬂourish as a technology company despite misgivings about its rhetoric, though not without certain pitfalls.
More often, Uber’s arguments about its identity or its actions are dressed up in morally persuasive causes that appear to promote the interests of drivers, passengers, civil rights activists, regulators, cities, and the public at large. These alliances each contain a grain of truth, but they mask much more than they reveal. Under our noses, the company has ushered in a wave of changes touching most aspects of society, be it family life or childcare arrangements, worker conditions or management practices, commuting patterns or urban planning, or racial equality campaigns and labor rights initiatives. Uber’s wide-ranging impacts have not just upset the status quo across society but have also created a future of uncertain implications. The company has harnessed technology to create an entirely new business logic for employment, like Napster did for music and Facebook did for journalism. Uber is a symbol of the New Economy, a powerful case study illustrating how digital culture is changing the nature of work.