Uber, Data Darwinism and the future of work

81 Comments

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.

81 Comments

ricdesan

Om, this is EXACTLY why I choose to follow your blog way more than many others. It is also why I comment here often. Not only is your discourse spot on with implications, but I think it will establish a connection between the era of ‘good enough,’ that is ending and the start of the reputation, ‘be the best,’ era to come.

it will be based just as much on interaction as it will be quality of service and as you say those that keep that detail in mind will do well.

Robert Schultz

This quantified metric plays a really big role now days in the service industry. My cousin works at a restaurant and during their morning role call they go over Yelp reviews. If there is a negative review the management scolds the team and tells them they need to step it up. If you get specifically called out in the review for doing something wrong you could be fired. It happened with a few employees already.

Shashank Garg

Great article and kind of have potential to trigger debates or preparing us for quantitative society, which in a way might be good, as can create more transparent society that what we have now but agree sometimes numbers misses context and so far we dont know how we can merge both numbers and context until we do some wonders in semantic analysis! http://dearsrk.wordpress.com/

Patra

As dotpeople pointed out, something to be cautious of would be cyber bullying. For example, in the above system, you could threaten to post a negative review and have all your friends post negative reviews if someone doesn’t do what you want. There should be a way to verify a negative review by matching it up with a service so it would be validated. This could provide a measure of protection for the employee, from unjust dismissal, and the employer from losing a valuable employee because would could essentially be considered malicious gossip.

Mark Muldowney

In terms of Yelp and the generation we’re in now when tons of businesses and people are “rateable” online, will we ever reach a time when these ratings won’t be taken with a grain of salt?

For example, if I read Online reviews of a restaurant, I must keep in mind that these people are not like myself, in that I never write reviews for Yelp. Add to the fact that they’re largely anonymous, how should i take this info? And who’s to stop competitors from anonymously bashing each other online?

I think overall this review-everything generation will force everyone to take no easy days in the office – esp when dealing with customers. Everyone becomes extremely accountable for every action. Very capitalist and Darwinian indeed. Great piece, Mr. Malik.

Brian

Very well done Om. Recently had an acquaintance lose her job as a bartender after a fairly pointed Yelp review and it struck me that your post has shone light on this dark (not so cool side) of the digital pilliow. A place where due process subjugates itself at the alter of immediacy and transparency.

Robert M. Enger

It is apparent that some on-line activity is sourced from PR sock-puppets and lobbyist astro-turfers (as well as Government-operated spoofing – eg US Air Force persona-management RFP).

If a “reputation system” gains the influence/authority to cause individuals to lose their employment, it seems crucial to ENSURE that the feedback is authentic: originating from genuine customers.

Without such safeguards, one could leverage the reputation-system to target enemies. For example, it would be easy for management to remove uppity employees (such as union organizers) simply by hiring a covert sock-puppet operator to generate negative feedback. The potential for wrongdoing by government sock-puppets is equally great.

Fair

My manager should read this he could learn a lot he is a baboon online and offline and caused trouble for everyone!

Marshall Kirkpatrick

Related: Mechanical Turk made a drastic change recently – it no longer accepts workers from outside the US. Why? Because of widespread quality of work issues combined with challenges in tracking individual performance.

TK

Maybe Uber drivers should get to rate their narcissistic and self-absorbed customers? Why do the rankings and ratings have to be a one way street?

David Meyer

Another thought: can we see labor unrest when the labor force is too distributed to organize?

Theo Priestley

This is really good. There’s a lot of talk of reputation, quantification, transparency. I’ve written about these before but I like where this is going. Do you think apart from a “Quantifited Society” we’ll also see a “Quantified Enterprise” ?
Something built on all of those concepts but both consumer and employee has access to that transparency and visible reputation ?

Would it mean an organization is only as good as the sum of its collective reputation ?
Would it mean that consumers could very well choose who they deal with on the inside based on individual employee quantification ?
And vice-versa, will companies choose just who they want as a customer based on transparency ?

It could go either way, and each has its own impact.

CatherineFitzpatrick

Yes.

It’s not just that yellow tax drivers who paid for medallions and rent medallions, or limousine drivers, get screwed by Uber’s pretend “market competition” (achieved by practices like this).

It’s that it’s one more brick in the wall of all of us becoming human Mechanical Turks and Internet subsistence farmers supporting the peer-to-peer hucksters:

http://3dblogger.typepad.com/wired_state/2013/02/internet-subsistence-farming.html

This is what I said after the enthusiastic coverage by Forbes of Air BnB, that same lovely “disruptive” force:

They are saying: Oligarchy for me, technocommunism for thee

Indus Khaitan

On a tangent, I see a new kind of union evolving where micro-entrepreneurs would use data to negotiate / bargain and may collectively carry a ‘kill-switch’ to lock such a network out, akin to how traditional unions do a physical lockout.

Jason Thibeault

Great post and I couldn’t agree more that a “state of connectedness” is growing but that the future of it won’t be about enablement. It will be about the ethics, philosophy, and legalities of doing so. It’s the reason I revamped my own blog to [RE]Think (www.rethinkeverythingblog.com) and am working on tackling the issue (amongst others) of defining “human” in such a state of connectedness. You broach this in the end of your piece, begging the ultimate question, “are we still human?” when we are always connected? Are we less than human if we aren’t? What does it mean to be human when we have both a digital self and a physical self? Do we need to redefine what it means to be human (both for ourselves and for our species; this is the position I’m taking in the book I have just about finished)? I love the idea that you are digging into this (even if from a more practical angle) because it will take people like you to tackle these thorny issues. Hope you write some more on this topic soon.

David Spinks

Reputation online is definitely only going to get more important in the near future.

It’s interesting to think about how it will be standardized across platforms as well. That’s where these issues can become amplified.

If you’re a good Airbnb host, should that not translate to trust on TaskRabbit? If you screw someone over on one platform, is that not relevant for another collaborative consumption platform?

Reputation is also separate from trust. Just because students didn’t like your class on Udemy, doesn’t mean you aren’t trustworthy as a person.

I think someone will develop a very compelling solution to standardizing reputation online. I know a number who have been working on it but no one has come close to figuring it out.

And when it exists, the way we all work and interact with each other will never be the same.

-David
(Worked on Community, Trust and Safety at Zaarly)

Roberto

Enjoyed this article very much for its valid points of how we are engaging (connecting) to advance better or more efficient services, but while endangering the personal reputation and eventual job opportunities for some. I have never used these type of services in the article, however can recognize how this social data phenomenon can become a device for prejudice. Likewise, are there rankings that rate the reputation of the person rating the service(s) used? For instance, reading through many ratings on Amazon, one can conclude some of the ow customer ratings are actually paid competitors, some purchasers who misuse products causing malfunction, etc., The best ratings have thorough reviews listing pros/cons and have details of how the product met or didn’t meet their needs as advertised. Maybe instead of just tapping buttons for rating a service, a voice recording will be used to authenticate a valid rating instead of having anonymous screen names or customer id #s.

Jason Clampet

This doesn’t mention the deeper thought: What happens when a very large sector of people posting online review are just assholes? Airbnb addresses this problem by letting both parties review one another, and that would seem to be a good model for Uber to follow. How fun would it be to see drivers review riders?

Sulaiman

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.

Zach

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.”

dotpeople

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.

Om Malik

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?

Zach

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.

Sulaiman

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?

mankul65

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

mankul65

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.

mankul65

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.

Dave Troy

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.

Adrian Bye

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)

DL

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

Om Malik

DL

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

ST

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?

Om Malik

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.

ST

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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