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Summary:

Uber, a San Francisco-based personal transportation oriented startup, is facing a backlash from a few of its drivers. But the confrontation is less about Uber and more about the challenges facing a society being rebuilt because of connectedness.

Uber: A venture-funded startup and mobile app that connects passengers with drivers of vehicles for hire.

A year ago, I hosted a small conclave of fellow (early) explorers of the post-html Internet. And while we are not of the SnapChat generation, most of us grew up connected. There were some who helped build the gear that runs the post-1999 Internet, and some who built the space ships. A neuroscientists who studies mobile and online behaviors, a digital musican and a music enterprenuer; data nerds, visual designers and an infrastructure wizard  who streams happiness  one stream at a time. And then there was me, who starts the day connected and ends it connected.

Connectendess — which is state of always being connected to the Internet and thus to people, things, life, work, commerce, love, hate and anger – is the single thought that dominates my mind, and it defines how I view everything, how I evaluate everything. It is my telescope and it is my microscope. I don’t see the world in silos called mobile, broadband, browser, app or television. Instead, it is all about being in the state of connectedness. I wanted to pick their brain about how the state of connectedness was going to change the future and redefine society itself.

While there were dozens of takeaways from the day-long idea fest, here’s what has stayed front-and-center in my mind: the challenges of the connected future are less technical and more legislative, political and philsophical. The shift from a generation that started out un-connected to one that is growing up connected will result in conflicts, disruption and eventually the redrawing of our societal expectations. The human race has experienced these shifts before — just not at the speed and scale of this shift.

The coming intellectual and societal upheaval brought on by the state of connectedness is aptly reflected in the recent fracas between Uber, a San Francisco-based personal transportation platform, and the freelance army of drivers who man its cars. They were protesting what they thought was unfair treatment by the company. “They’re running a sweatshop with an app. They don’t have the balls to come down and talk to us,” Raj Alazzeh, a driver with SF Best Limo and a spokesperson for the drivers, told Liz Gannes. “Uber chooses to call us partners for their tax benefit. If they called us employees, they’d have to cover us all.”

Follow-up stories including comments by Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick seem to indicate that the protesters are drivers whose accounts were deactivated because of passenger feedback.  It is easy to understand Travis’ standpoint – our customers don’t like these drivers, so we are cutting them out. And I can understand the drivers’ point of view: They have never been rated and discarded like this before, and are rightfully angry.

Are we ready for a Quantified Society

However, if you look at the story from the context of just Uber, then you will miss the real narrative. This isn’t the last time we will hear about it — there are more Uber-like companies with on-demand workforce. There have been incidents on AirBnB.

That last comment by Alazzeh resonated with me because it encapsulates what work will be in the future and what the next evolution of labor unrest could be. And it also highlights a problem we have not thought about just yet: data-darwinism.

In the industrial era, labor unrest came when the workers felt that the owners were profitting wrongfully from them. I wonder if in the connected age, we are going to see labor unrest when folks are unceremoniously dropped from the on-demand labor pool.

What are the labor laws in a world where workforce is on demand? And an even bigger question is how are we as a society going to create rules, when data, feedback and, most importantly, reputation are part an always-shifting equation? (Reputation, by the way, is going to be the key metric of the future, Quora founder and Facebook CTO Adam D’Angelo told me in an interview.)

At present we rank photos, rate restaurants, like or dislike brands, retweet things we love. But if this idea of collaborative consumption takes hold — and I have no reason to think it won’t — we will be building a quantified society. We will be ranking real humans. The freelance workers — like the Uber drivers and Postmates couriers — are getting quantified. The best ones will continue to do well, but what about the others, the victims of this data darwinism? Do they have any protection or any rights?

I admit I don’t have any answers. And while I am as much of a techno-optimist as the next blogger, I don’t even know where to start. I do think it is important for us to start talking about what the etiquette of a connected and a quantified society will be.

I will use myself as an example. I would say, on most days, that I live up to my idea of a normal online citizen — living online like I do offline. I try not to talk about my family. I am an active Uber user. And I take every opportunity to provide feedback.  But I don’t take the ratings system lightly, regardless of whether I’m giving someone one star or three stars or five stars.

Just as I am not shy about awarding five stars for timeliness and quality of service, I am happy to chastise, too. And I do the same for every service I typically use — Postmates or TaskRabbit or AirBnB or Exec. What if I give someone a wrong ranking? Given how often we are likely to rank and rate in the future, will wrong ratings even bring about any sense of guilt?

It is the 21st century. We are more narcissistic and more self-absorbed. Does human decency and sense of fair play shift to the online realm as well? It’s hard to know. I mean, we have seen some of the nicest people in real life turn into a baboon’s backside once they are online and are anonymous. Authenticity in a world where we are trying to play a role in a movie starring us takes on a entirely different hue.

  1. Very thoughtful article. Can you imagine what happens if low ratings tend to happen along ethnic, geographic or religious lines? How do our personal feelings and biases affect the reputation points we issue? What happens when we’re having a bad day? And how do we give people a chance to redeem themselves avoiding a truly vicious “rich get richer” situation?

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    1. ST

      I think those are some issues we are going to confront but I be lying to say that I have any answer to your questions. Let’s put our collective thinking hats together and see how the situation evolves and changes.

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      1. Absolutely. Looking forward to more thoughts from you on this issue. Like you said, we are going to have to confront these issues in the coming days.

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  2. As you say, ratings and rankings will continue to influence more and more aspects of our daily interactions. Today it is very common to rank hotels and restaurants. In the hospitality business, we have experienced first hand the ‘nakedness’ of internet ratings. One employee (or one customer) having a bad day can cause potential customers to choose another establishment. There is no room for bad days. I heard it explained this way: ‘If you are naked, you better be buff’.

    experience first hand how No one feel bad about the effect this has

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    1. DL

      I should head to the gym for I am not buff. Jesting aside, you do make your point very emphatically.

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  3. i think you’re exactly right with this comment:

    > the challenges of the connected future are less technical and more
    > legislative, political and philsophical

    bitcoin is gaining strength. so is online reputation management. this could literally transform the nation state – we’ll be able to work from anywhere, choosing the political system we want to live under, while doing business in other jurisdictions.

    countries undergo a lot of political social engineering to achieve their goals, but they don’t always make for high quality living for those influenced by the policies.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_engineering_(political_science)

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  4. Connectedness. Thank you.

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  5. Suppose a few Uber drivers start to clamor for unionization. Will those drivers be cut out on the basis of their few “bad reviews?” Seems to me there needs to be a healthy dose of transparency in order to use data as the basis for “quantified society,” and not as the justification for unilateral application of a particular labor practice.

    I’m not suggesting that is what is happening here, but it’s very much worth considering the possibility for abuse and how it can be prevented.

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  6. With the economy going the way it is, it will not be long before narcissistic behaviour starts to wind down.

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    1. I respectfully disagree. The economic changes are only going to make the problem more acute.

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      1. On the contrary, it is difficult to be narcissistic when you cannot meet rent or pay the bills. More so if you are homeless.
        Being tight financially teaches you humility.I am of course speaking from personal experience.

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      2. Let us see how Cyprus plays out.

        The solution to the Cyprus bailout reveals narcissistic behaviour on the part of the politicians who want to ensure they are elected once again.

        As for the general population, not so sure.

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  7. In a recent meeting at our office, the data cruncher told us what she found when she run a report. The manger run with it and declared an AHA moment. It was partly true because 70 to 80 % of the data entered was quantifiable. The rest, 20 to 30 %, we relied on observation of the client and ranking of the client by the account / client manager. What about race, ethnicity, language, religion etc…affect the observer and the observed? We have yet to transcend the dualities of life and then, maybe then, we can be unbiased. I changed so much, positively, in my opinion, observation and decision making process because of an experience I had during a few years stay in an islamic country and that is reflected now in my daily life including my work ethics. How does a program, a software or a tech gadget can measure and quantify that? Yes, I work in a non-profit sector where we, as a society, give people a second chance in social intercourse with the society at large?

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  8. Reputation can be broadly applied to the class of social feedback systems. All such systems are subject to attack of the infosec kind. For the small price of N (target) + M (decoy) transactions, one can systematically inject malicious ratings against a target. That’s before looking an unintended bias introduced by the rating system itself, as any statistician will be happy to explain.

    The issue at hand is exactly why we have laws. Laundering opinion via an algorithm does not make it less of an opinion. If opinions were sufficient, we would be confident that suspicion is equivalent to sentencing to death, whether by robot or by denial of cloud-metered services, currency or labor dispatch. Since opinions are not sufficient, we will see new laboe laws which draw upon data as evidence. Which means the security/integrity of this evidence will matter enormously.

    A more pragmatic approach is to assume that the great reputation system in the sky is a benevolent dictator, or if you will, a parent. Why does society/law punish juveniles differently from adults? Because we allocate a grace period for learning, with an investment in measurements, social feedback systems, some records that persist and some that don’t.

    Any reputation system is a learning system. As long as humans are the ones learning, we must look to cybernetics for theoretical foundations, not to brute force machine learning, big data or artificial intelligence. Cybernetics has much to say about second-order feedback. The alternative is to surround humans with a tightening straitjacket of self-fulfilling Heisenberg-limited observations, until something pops.

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    1. Zach

      Fair point but then we are also living in a “Like” world where Like or review means nothing and hence the whole idea falls apart. What do you think?

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      1. Om, Its ok for the whole idea to fall apart. There’s really nothing there. Adding dislikes doesn’t make it any more real. Just more buzz. Better some reputation system that showed # of visitors – and only # who said nice things; or # who would go back. You’d know all you’d need to know by seeing 10,000 people visited and only 6 had good things to say.

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  9. I have stopped ranking except to say nice things. Why play god with someone’s livelihood? You don’t like it? Don’t use it again. Keep your opinions to yourself. Ain’t that a golden rule? “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

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  10. In the absence of common value, ethics, and experience, we are forced to play God and that, is making part of our body, mainly the mind, bigger than the rest which becomes an ego. The schools don’t teach, as they use to and should, the whole body but only the mind which gets bigger and becomes an ego. Isn’t democracy quantified society? We saw the full spectrum of instant connectedness during the 2012 us election with all sorts of surveys and polls swinging the votes in all directions. Alas, let us be one with each other and technology, the next generation.

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