Move fast and break things. Do more faster. These are the mantras that the tech industry, particular those in Silicon Valley, cut their teeth on. Competition is fierce and timing (first to market) – and perception (category killer: think Google and Facebook) – is everything. So is it a wonder that Uber has drawn so much scrutiny and criticism for its practices lately? On all fronts, it seems.
“Has Uber Gone Too Far this Time? Is Uber involved in a Smear Campaign,?” asks Michael Spencer on LinkedIn, referring not only to former Uber employee Susan Fowler’s blog on the sexual harassment she encountered at the company, which was not unique to her but instead, fairly widespread in Uber’s frat boy culture, according to Caroline Fairchild on LinkedIn.
Then there’s the Google patent infringement lawsuit, which is alleging that Uber is using stolen technology which it acquired through its purchase of Otto, to advance its own autonomous-car development (A Stray Email Caused Google’s Waymo to Sue Uber and Otto Over Stolen Tech).
We certainly don’t sanction sexual harassment, and Uber is hardly the only tech company guilty of it, or of discriminating again women (by its own admission, only 15.1% of its employees are women and it seems even those precious few aren’t being treated very well). Nor do we sanction the company’s decision to police itself in the matter, any more than we condoned Facebook’s policing itself during the suppression of news controversy a few months back, and surprisingly enough, found that there was nothing to see here and – whew! – very happy that that’s settled.
First, what exactly is Uber, and what’s the overarching vision? According to CB Insights (Seduced by the vision), “When Uber came out, it was going to disrupt the taxi industry. And then it was taxis, last mile logistics, vehicle ownership and autonomous driving. And then it was taxis, last mile logistics, vehicle ownership, autonomous driving and trucking (with Otto acquisition). And then it was taxis, last mile logistics, vehicle ownership, autonomous driving, trucking (with Otto acquisition) and drones. And now it’s all the above + flying cars.”
To simplify, Uber wants to own transportation, just as Facebook owns much of the conversation on social media as well as news (and what you can and what they’d rather you not know or find), and Google owns search (and what you can and what they’d rather you not know or find, and are quickly dominating other verticals through Alphabet, meaning, they pretty much want to be able to run the gamut, from A to Z, in case you missed the subtlety).
Lest we forget, these companies are also tracking all of your data. The entire Uber business model involves collection of private data, and Facebook and Google operate the same way. With Uber, all of your trips are tied to a personal identity and a credit card: you cannot register for Uber without one.
To spell it out: with its unchecked/self-policed/look into its sexual harassment policies et al, and its unchecked data collection, this is abuse of power.
Remember when Pando founder Sarah Lacey accused the company of an “as**ole culture” built on sexism and misogyny and said that she would #deleteuber. Result: Uber senior exec Emil Michael, was overheard suggesting that the company should look into the backgrounds of antagonistic journalists. Long live the God View – and worse.
Remember Uber’s God View? To refresh your memory, at its launch party in Chicago, Uber treated the attendees to a look at “Creepy Stalker View, showing them the whereabouts and movements of 30 Uber users in New York in real time. (One attendee) recognized half of the people listed and texted one of them, entrepreneur Peter Sims, revealing that she knew his current whereabouts. He was pissed when he found out, eventually quitting the service because he felt like he could no longer trust it,” according to Forbes.
Not that the God View app is dead, mind you. As Engadget points out, “To settle the God View app issue itself, the company has limited its access to employees that have legitimate purposes. It has also purged riders’ identifiable details from its system, according to the settlement docs. Finally, it has promised to tell the Attorney General’s office if it ever starts collecting GPS information from mobile devices even when the app isn’t open.”
And we trust Uber to, once again, self-police, no?
Says Michael Spencer in The Dark Side of Silicon Valley, “The on-demand economy spawns fast rising corporate entities, which have little else but the mighty dollar to kneel in front of.
Meanwhile, investors keep throwing money at Uber seemingly without blinking, despite the fact that the company is hemorrhaging money. The question is: do they know something that we don’t? Remember: investors don’t expect immediate returns on their investment, although it’s always a nice to have. They take the long view and in the case of Uber (and we’d put the other uberlords in this category, including Facebook and Google/Alphabet), in our humble opinion, that would be AI. Didn’t Facebook recently announce that AI is moderating its newsfeed?
Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates Warn(ed) About Artificial Intelligence way back, and they haven’t changed their opinions. In fact, as time passes and AI becomes more refined and ubiquitous, their warnings have grown more dire, if anything. Terms like Big Data and AI have become part of the tech lexicon, but, in light of the Ubers and Facebooks and Googles of the world and their clear abuse of power, the question must be raised, and Scientific American raises it: Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?
“As chief executive, Mr. Kalanick has long set the tone for Uber. Under him, Uber has taken a pugnacious approach to business, flouting local laws and criticizing competitors in a race to expand as quickly as possible. Mr. Kalanick, 40, has made pointed displays of ego: In a GQ article in 2014, he referred to Uber as “Boob-er” because of how the company helped him attract women,” says The New York Times (Inside Uber’s Aggressive, Unrestrained Workplace Culture).
We pay lip service to these behaviors at present: the sexual harassment/ misconduct, the disregard for privacy, the flouting of local and international laws, all while these companies expand and become more powerful, inserting themselves into more and more areas of our lives, whether through search or transportation, personal digital assistants or connected digital home assistants, all driven by more and more powerful AIs.
We need to be concerned about these tech leaders and their utter lack of ethics and values: these are the people who are defining – and moderating – the future.
Where and when does it stop, or at least, stop going unchecked? More importantly and the question that no one seems to be asking, even as we see investors pour more and more money into Uber, when does it reach a point where it can’t be stopped? Onward and forward.