I used Uber for the first time this past winter. I was in Montreal, visiting a colleague; it was cold and wet, and we were running a bit late for an appointment. Up until that point, I had been a self-styled conscientious objector to this particular manifestation of the so-called sharing economy. As has been pointed out, the sharing descriptor is a misnomer, at least as it’s been applied so far . Platforms such as TaskRabbit, Uber, and Lyft are not as much about sharing as they are about offloading the costs of running a business, such as retirement taxes and costs for health insurance, on the debatably “independent” contractors who create value for both the user and the company. With respect to sharing, it’s worth questioning whether that value—at the time of writing, somewhere north of $51 billion—is distributed equitably between the company, its “driver partners,” and its customers.
But from my perspective as a consumer, Uber solved a number of problems. The design of the user interface is simple and brilliant, eliminating nearly every issue associated with getting a cab or a car service: no call to a staticky dispatch line because you do everything on a smartphone; no wondering where the car is because you can see it on a map; no wondering what the fare will be because you can see an estimate up front. Even the cars were nicer— cleaner and newer, with drivers who were polite to the point of subservience. Whole new worlds opened up to me. I have owned a car since I was 16 years old, but I found myself speculating with a colleague about the possibilities of life if one just Ubered everywhere. We discussed Ubering to and from work—my colleague said he was considering an apartment in a part of town that was hitherto too inconvenient via public transportation to consider. I ran the numbers and concluded I could Uber five to eight times a week for the same cash outlay as my car, insurance, and gasoline. Turning the name of a company into a verb—as in “I just FedExed it” or “let me Google that for you”— is surely the sign of a deep cultural transformation. And so, in the backseat of a Hyundai Tucson somewhere in Montreal, I imagined for the first time a car-less future for myself, a committed car-loving American.
I teach marketing, so I know that car sharing is in the early stage of entering the market. Here is Andrew Callaway’s description of that process:
- When introducing your app into a new city, take heavy losses by overpaying drivers and undercharging customers.
- Offer drivers cash bonuses to get their friends to sign up.
- Once you’ve got a steady supply of drivers invested in the app, start lowering their pay .
It’s a sound business strategy. Of course, the endgame for Uber and Lyft is not to have drivers at all, as made clear by Uber’s mass hire of 40 robotics researchers from Carnegie Mellon  last year. But even in the short term, the business model chews up and spits out the drivers. This is nothing new; before the American economy picked up, Walmart long relied on high rates of employee turnover or churn to hold down benefits costs. And thus my conscientious objection to Uber is underpinned by a moral conviction that a business—any business—should not tear down the very people it is built upon.
Did I mention how nice the drivers were? One even checked with us to make sure we liked the music that was playing. Riding in a warm Uber sure beats waiting on a rainy street corner for the bus. And so the slippery slope of rationalization began. Stupidly, I hadn’t packed waterproof footwear. Suddenly, a few rides seemed to be a more economical choice than going shopping for rain boots—and perhaps even a more ecological one, given that I had a perfectly good pair stashed at home.
By the end of my visit, I had become hooked. No longer could I depend on my friend for a fix; I needed the app on my own phone. But my U.S. phone refused to receive text messages in Canada, the Uber app couldn’t confirm my identity, and so a cab it was back to the airport. It showed up promptly, but it was dirty, smelly, and had the telltale rattle of a neglected suspension. The driver talked on his phone the entire way. As we drew closer to the airport, I reflected on the power and value of Uber’s design of the customer experience.
Callaway, quoted earlier, drove for Lyft and ran errands for Postmates to experience first-hand what it is like to work in the sharing economy in San Francisco, documenting his adventures at www.sharingeconomy.fail. Among a careful explication of the hidden costs of being an independent contractor is a damning observation: “Customers grow to love apps that make the worker anonymous. That way, you don’t have to feel guilty about having servants.” On that note, I’ve heard lots of anecdotal evidence that people prefer Uber to taxicabs in part because there seems to be less social distance between rider and driver. This is not by accident: It’s by design. Markus Giesler, Ela Veresiu, and Anton Siebert have shown how profiles of ideal types of drivers on Uber’s site teach Uber drivers “how to be empathetic agents in the context of helping and caring for their consumers” . Empathetic drivers—like the one who asked about the music—tend to get higher ratings from customers. It’s easier to empathize with someone who talks like you and looks like you. The very elements of customer experience design that make Uber so successful are the same that do the work of cloaking labor. It’s hard not to hear stress when you’re talking to a taxi dispatcher on a busy day. That phone call you’re overhearing in a cab—especially if it’s in another language—suggests that part of your fare may be helping to feed a family far away, a reminder of inequality that doesn’t jibe with the free-market ideology fueling the rise of the “sharing economy.” In these situations in the regular old economy, the consumer is as likely to experience empathy as the service provider. The sharing economy makes this asymmetrical: Only providers are expected to perform empathy. But consider this. In the course of writing this column, I learned that rating an Uber driver is not simply providing feedback; it is also an act with the potential to strip a person of a source of income for even minor infractions, as an aggregate rating of less than a 4.6 (on a scale of 5) is grounds for suspension . I now feel uneasy about the three-star rating we meted out to a driver who turned the wrong way down a one-way street. What would you do if you were an Uber driver with a rating of 4.7 and found yourself the subject of sexist or racist language from a customer: Ask your passenger to leave your car or bite your tongue?
It’s clear that the design outcome of apps like Uber isn’t simply a better taxicab, but rather a transformation of transportation practices, a rearrangement of work, and a ratcheting of consumer expectations. Design is always an agent of cultural and economic transformation. While Uber’s app is undeniably slick and easy to use, the best bit of design may be the naming of the sharing economy itself, for it brilliantly conceals the consequences of massive cultural and economic shifts under the mantle of sharing—and who doesn’t like sharing?
The new economy certainly creates value from sharing: The value of Web companies—Google and Facebook foremost—is based on the sophisticated consumer profiles built from databases of the people we like, the places we go, and the stuff we buy. But calling it the sharing economy disguises what is actually going on, which is selling, albeit in a slightly modified form. The most important modification in this exchange is a reconfigured consumer who expects to receive not only a good or service, but also a consistent experience. Empathy—often said to be at the core of design thinking—is core to this transformation. What is really shared in the sharing economy is an optimistic and libertarian vision of exchange, where nice people are nice to each other. But as Cagle  and Callaway  draw out, this vision is at odds with a society where the difference between the haves and the have-nots is increasing. Niceness and empathy can be a way to mask inequality.
A final note: After it appears in print, this column, to which I retain the copyright, will join other writings on Medium, which, like Uber, has a beautiful, easy-to-use interface. Once posted, according to the Terms of Service, I trade a “worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable license” to my own work in exchange for the potential of readership on Medium, or anything that might succeed it . I do this in the interest of sharing ideas. That’s a nice experience. But it’s not actually sharing, and neither is riding in an Uber.
1. Cagle, S. The case against sharing. The Nib; https://thenib.com/the-case-against-sharing-9ea5ba3d216d?gi=57df8b1a22fe
2. Callaway, A. Apploitation in a city of instaserfs: How the “sharing economy” has turned San Francisco into a dystopia for the working class. The Monitor. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives; https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/monitor/apploitation-city-instaserfs#sthash.D2TUgKlB.dpuf
3. Ramsey, M. and Macmillan, D. Carnegie Mellon reels after Uber lures away researchers. Wall Street Journal; http://www.wsj.com/articles/is-uber-a-friend-or-foe-of-carnegie-mellon-in-robotics-1433084582
4. Giesler, M., with Veresiu, E. and Siebert, A. How to design a sharing market (hint: empathy matters). Huffington Post; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/markus-giesler/designing-a-sharing-marke_b_6621888.html
5. Smith IV, J. Uber drivers: The punishment for bad ratings is costly training courses. Observer; http://observer.com/2015/02/uber-drivers-the-punishment-for-bad-ratings-is-costly-training-courses/
6. Philips, A. The problem with Medium: A shiny content farm is still a content farm. Medium; https://medium.com/@andrhia/the-problem-with-medium-336300490cbb#.k7qgf4jf1
Jonathan Bean is an assistant professor of markets, innovation, and design at Bucknell University. His research deals with domestic consumption, technology, and taste. firstname.lastname@example.org
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