If you’ve been following the recent fallout from an Uber exec’s comments about tracking and blackmailing journalists, you might be forgiven for glancing past the root event of the scandal. When SVP Emil Michael bragged about being able to blackmail journalists, he was very specifically referring to Sarah Lacy.
Uber is a company that presents itself as a way for people to get home safely after a night of drinking. Uber passengers are often locked, alone, late at night in a metal box with Uber drivers. Because of the service Uber offers as a company, the CEO and its investors need to go out of their way to set the tone that objectification of women is simply not acceptable.
To make matters worse for the company, this came on the heels of several cases of Uber drivers misbehaving in the most disgusting of ways, from sexual assault to taking a drunk female passenger to a hotel against her will.
Indeed, Uber’s largest problem has been regulating and controlling its swiftly growing fleet of an estimated 30,000-40,000 drivers. They’ve kidnapped CEOs, assaulted passengers with hammers, and refused rides to the blind.
And drivers haven’t been happy with Uber, either. To much public criticism, Uber quintupled the rate it takes from drivers’ fares as well as cut the rate it charges riders (meaning a huge decrease in what drivers earn). Just this week, drivers complained about a new Uber partnership with Spotify that will let riders control what music is played in the car.
What this all amounts to is a growing theme from massive tech companies that still rely on service-level jobs: Humans are a big, big problem. While that might seem obvious, companies like Uber–as well as Amazon and Foxconn–might stand to actually do something about it.
While much has been made of self-driving cars’ consumer applications, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has said in the past that he cannot wait to replace his drivers with such autonomous vehicles:
The reason Uber could be expensive is you’re paying for the other dude in the car. When there is no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere is cheaper. Even on a road trip.
When pushed on what happens to the workers those cars replace, Kalanick spat out something that looked almost, but not quite, entirely unlike empathy:
It’s quite a ways off, but if I were talking to one of the drivers we partner with, I’d say look: this is the way the world is going to go and if Uber didn’t go that way it won’t exist.
That’s a pretty astounding thing to have your boss say directly to you, that you are a placeholder until something that can’t complain comes along.
And while the wave of automation creeping over our economy like a Sandburg fog is nothing ingeniously new for me to point out, a particularly odd trend is forming whereby companies respond to worker complaints or controversies in the long term by planning to phase out the workers altogether.
Perhaps one of the most high-profile working condition controversies of the last few years has been the publicizing of conditions at Foxconn manufacturing plants, the centers behind the construction of many Apple, Android, and Microsoft device. Workers were forced into long, strenuous hours with little pay, and we’ll all remember the image of safety nets below factory windows to catch would-be suicides.
While Foxconn did take real steps towards improving conditions in the factories and the attached dorms–offering mental health facilities and limiting overtime hours–far more has been done in the direction of completely automating the factories altogether. Foxconn CEO Terry Gou promised 10,000 “Foxbots” would be employed to feed the demand for the iPhone 6.
While these bots ended up just assisting, not replacing, human workers, Gou has been working very closely with researchers at Google–the same company behind the self-driving cars that has Travis Kalanick so excited.
Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, also appears ever-so-eager to replace its troublesome human workers with automated systems. The conditions for workers at Amazon’s massive fulfillment centers are well-documented: Demands and standards are compared to prisons and any inefficiency–even a lunch break–can result in instant termination.
Back in 2012, Amazon purchased Kiva Systems, the developer of robots specifically meant for shipping centers. In fact, Kiva’s bots were already at work at two independent companies later bought by Amazon–Zappos and Diapers.com.
A more high-profile move by Amazon has been its (rather silly) quest to deliver packages by drone. While, if actually implemented, that would only strip Amazon of its reliance on shipping companies like UPS and FedEx, Amazon is actually trying to tortoise Google’s hare.
Late last year, Google announced pilot programs for Google Express, a direct shipping effort tied to Google Shopping. While that may seem innocuous enough, they also began seriously talking about automating the entire shipping process–from warehouse to vehicle to your front door. As Business Insider wrote at the time:
…while the programming and intelligence necessary for a robot to make the walk from its autonomous car to your door while carrying your packages doesn’t yet exist, it’s far more likely that the engineers and roboticists at work on these types of problems will be able to solve them before Amazon’s drones ever take to the skies with the government’s blessing.
That’s a lot of humans that can no longer complain about working conditions because they’re out of a job. You’ll note that most of the business Google is delving into with this effort they haven’t before; Google has no real nationwide shipping effort and only conducts sales through third parties. They’re actually planning to start with the robots and skip the work Amazon (and Foxconn and Uber) now has to do to keep human employees happy.
As I said, replacing humans with robots isn’t anything novel enough to necessitate comment here on its own. But the eagerness to be rid of humans from Uber, Foxconn, and Amazon speaks to a problem for these companies in the present. As technology and research stands, we’re still a good while away from a self-driving car pulling up to your door and either delivering your package or giving you a ride. Likewise, Foxconn’s troubles in replacing its 1 million human employees speaks to the lengthy problems of engineering presented by automation.
So you’re stuck with humans for now, and that means you’ll have to deal with human problems. You’ll have to let your warehouse workers use the bathroom more than once a day. You’ll have to respond to an outbreak of suicides with more than safety nets. And you’ll have to change your corporate culture when your drivers and your executives prove to be creepy, violating imbeciles.
Which is honestly the larger point within the Uber controversy. While bragging about how he’ll squash reporting on the poor behavior of Uber drivers, Emil Michael also revealed executives at Uber have their own abhorrent behaviors to watch. Executives evidently conduct surveillance on any customer they please, watching Uber cars manuever around a map (in “God View”) like a first-generation Grand Theft Auto.
So while Travis Kalanick and other tie-less Silicon Valley high-rollers might see the lowly Uber driver to blame for attracting controversy in the first place, they might want to realize that humans at the bottom and the top are faulty enough to bring down a company that might just stand only as a ghastly symbol of the tech boom’s most recent decadence, greed, and disregard for the very humans they swore could bring it value.