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Uber, Data Darwinism and the future of work

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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 Responses to “Uber, Data Darwinism and the future of work”

  1. KSReddy

    I like how you mentioned that you think about your ratings, even when it’s for 3 stars. However, most responses/ratings are polarized. People tend to rate and comment when they have had either really awful or really great experiences. And the quality of the comments of 3-star ratings and their equivalent tend to be wildly different from the quality of the comments of polarized ratings. Relying on a biased sample of ratings to build a workforce or an economy would be…problematic. At the very least, we need to talk about sample sizes

  2. Most companies pay to receive feedback from customers and then attempt to absorb that information in order to do something better. The idea that services, products and people are continuously evaluated and ranked may simply increase the velocity of evolution. (It reminds me of running one of those evolution simulations that Dawkins had in an early book). With enough data, a bad day may not be significant. So it might not be at all bad, particularly for individuals who are willing and capable of working hard. Providing ‘appropriate safeguards’ are put in pace. And this is the tricky bit. Someone once said to me that ” .. if people want it, and technology permits it, then the regulator will ultimately allow it … ” I think that the connectedness of us all will create inevitable changes everyone; consumers, students, lawmakers, ceos, businesses, workers, politicians & governments – it is an unstoppable force. The big question to me is how to define these appropriate safeguards and enact them swiftly enough in a rapidaly changing environment. Most of the smart people are outside of government – just try imposing bonus restrictions on bankers!

  3. Matthew Hawn

    I think it’s interesting that there have been very few comments thus far on the way that reputation works for employers and companies.

    When a company mis-uses data to fire workers on the pretext of poor ratings when the actual reason might be a labour dispute or something completely unrelated to performance, the company may start to get a bad reputation as well. And may have trouble hiring people. Or getting other companies/governments to work with them.

    I think there is also a laziness at work here and an over-reliance on raw data. When the only tool you work with is the hammer of raw reputation data, everything starts looking like a nail.

  4. I think in the very large scheme of things, ratings are to be expected. And there is no reason to panic. Because the system will find a way for self-correction. For example, raters will also build up a creditability based on their ability to rate judiciously.
    The key thing to remember is, collectively, this means we will become a better species.
    That is all that matters.

  5. Seems like the etiquette is simple and timeless: Do all you say you will do. Don’t encroach on other’s or their property. Make amends quickly.

    With reputations, have people put their money where their mouth is and include a simple, local, expert and fast conflict resolution process.

    Seems like all these things are just resources. So manage them like you would any other resource.