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Cover art for Uberland by Alex Rosenblat from University of California Press. (UC Press Image)

My first Uber ride was memorable. It was 2013, less than a year after the launch of UberX, the service that enabled anyone with an Internet connection to summon anyone with a car and an app. The driver met me in Seattle’s Pioneer Square and we rushed to a hospital on Capitol Hill, where a family member had phoned only moments earlier in a panic. I’d been car-less, there were few taxis around and in my frenzy to get to the hospital, the short distance between where I was and needed to be felt enormous.

Thankfully, everything turned out fine. But later, upon reflection, I realized how grateful I’d been to be able to summon a driver, who seemed to appear out of nowhere.

Since then, I’ve taken countless Uber and Lyft rides, in this country and in Europe. If you are reading this in a coastal U.S. city, chances are you have too. The app is now ubiquitous, and in just a few years ridership has exploded. So has controversy.

Uberland from University of California Press.

In the summer of 2017, Uber’s founder, Travis Kalanick, was forced to step down as CEO following complaints about a company culture rife with sexual harassment and discrimination. Investors subsequently revolted. The city of London tried to revoke Uber’s license, and earlier this year the company retreated from Southeast Asia, selling its business to a local firm called Grab. Under its new CEO – Dara Khosrowshahi, formerly of Expedia – Uber’s reputation is slowly beginning to recover. But criticism continues with federal and state courts being asked whether Lyft and Uber drivers should be classified as employees or contract workers. Their rights as workers are murky.

Put simply: while Uber, Lyft and the concept of organizing freelance drivers has been a boon for some passengers, it hasn’t worked for everyone.

Even free-market writers at The Economist point out that, “Licensed cabbies lament the extra competition. Drivers for the new services complain about inadequate benefits. The latest preoccupation is the impact of ride-hailing on congestion.”

This may be the most visible problem. Beyond their classification of workers, Uber and Lyft dramatically increase urban gridlock, some charge. INRIX, a traffic-information firm, estimates that between fuel bills, time wasted sitting in traffic and increased shipping due to online purchases through platforms like Amazon, congestion cost New York City and London a combined $46 billion last year. This summer, New York City became the first U.S. city to cap the number of Uber and Lyft vehicles on its streets.

Uber was launched with the goal of revolutionizing transportation, but today even its drivers speak against the firm, albeit from within the privacy of their rolling, four-door offices.

A few weeks ago, I jumped into an Uber on Boylston Street in Boston. As I do with most drivers, I asked him how the gig was going. Without hesitation he told me that he preferred Lyft over Uber because “they treat drivers way better.” Normally, he would be driving for Lyft, but business was slow and he had to be opportunistic.

As we approached Logan Airport and the end of my ride, he reminded me that Uber had been hacked and lost its drivers’ data. That was upsetting, he told me, but, worse was that the company delayed informing drivers. (In September, Uber settled the data breach for $148 million.) At curbside he concluded by telling me his driving gig was keeping him afloat while he pursued studies in computer science with a focus on cybersecurity. I thanked him, gave him a 5-star review and a tip.

Author Alex Rosenblat. (Via AlexRosenblat.com)

Over the years I’ve often wondered, is Uber good or bad? That is not the question Alex Rosenblat sets out to answer in her well-researched new book, Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work (University of California Press). But she does weigh in on a lot of the factors and issues raised by ride-hailing apps and the workforce.

For nearly four years, Rosenblat, a self-described technology ethnographer, rode around in cars with strange men (and sometimes women). She estimates her research involved about 400 drivers covering 5,000 miles. She even reveals that Uber once tried to hire her.

In the spring of 2010 Uber launched the first beta version of its now famous smartphone app. Two years later Lyft was launched. In some cities, both can succeed at once. In San Francisco, for example, they each make 170,000 trips per day. The absence of these services in some cities becomes a wrinkle in those cities’ reputations, she writes, a symbol that they lag behind their more forward-looking peers.

But there are differences between the two services.

“Among most drivers I meet in person, and the countless number I’ve observed in online forums, there is a near-universal consensus that Lyft treats its drivers better than Uber,” Rosenblat writes.  “But drivers get more business through Uber, and Uber customers are seen as higher class, more knowledgeable.”

One driver told Rosenblat that Uber is like Walmart and Lyft is like Target. “You’d rather go to Target for a bit better quality, but Walmart is cheaper so you usually go there.”

Uberland is less a history of this young industry than a socioeconomic analysis of the cultural shift in what it means to be employed. Whatever you think of the company, Uber does two things really well: organize work for drivers and provide a service to riders. Its implications, however, are not nearly so simple.

“On the one hand Uber tells cities that it creates the equivalent of full-time jobs,” Rosenblat observes, “and on the other hand it argues that drivers are ineligible for many of the employment rights associated with full-time work.”

She argues that ride-hailing services promise drivers freedom, flexibility, and independence — be your own boss. But algorithmic managers can limit those opportunities by regulating hours and routes.

Given that Uber treats its workers as “consumers” of “algorithmic technology,” and promotes them as self-employed entrepreneurs, a thorny question arises: If you use an app to go to work, are you a consumer? An entrepreneur? Or just a worker?

Despite the company’s claims, according to Rosenblat, the experience that Uber offers its drivers is a far cry from actual entrepreneurship. Between Uber’s pay structure, information asymmetries, and management controls, ride-hail workers are not exactly their own bosses. But the employment model, driven by algorithms, does provide a window onto the ways technology will permanently alter everything we know about work, including how we define it.

(GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

So, back to my question. Has Uber been good? Perhaps it will be for investors awaiting an Initial Public Offering (IPO) on Wall Street when Lyft and Uber go public. And maybe for local economies too. In Seattle, Geekwire has reported that Uber has scooped up new office space downtown to house 750 engineers.

But the JP Morgan Chase Institute, which studies economic trends, is splashing cold water on the gig economy. In a study published this fall it concluded: “Among those who generated earnings through transportation platforms at any point in a year, 58 percent had earnings in just three or fewer months of that year. In the other sectors, engagement was even more sporadic, with less than 20 percent of participants generating earnings in more than half the year.” Like a gig in the entertainment business, it’s nice work when you can get it.

Rosenblat’s Uberland is a timely, accessible analysis of a Silicon Valley innovator that disrupted an industry. The answer to whether that’s a good thing lies, like a car’s destination, out there in a place as yet unknown, looming somewhere beyond the headlights.

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