There is perhaps no company in tech more loved and loathed than Uber. Some people point to its tens of thousands of drivers as an example of job creation, while others decry their treatment as unprotected contractors subject to the fare-reducing whims of the company as another step toward an economy where workers are treated as disposable.
The service is almost universally adored until surge pricing kicks in and the accusations of price gouging and profiting from disaster fly fast and furious.
The management team is lauded by many for scaling at an unprecedented rate and eviscerated by others for being callous and tone deaf. In fact, the only thing everyone can agree on is that Uber is a money-making machine.
As I thought about all the different perspectives and portrayals of the company, it occurred to me that Uber is the perfect archetype for Silicon Valley as a whole.
Consider the first point of contention about Uber’s workforce. Uber isn’t the only tech company to build itself on the backs of low-wage contractors. Almost every Internet startup that has a physical service component, from TaskRabbit to Homejoy and everything in between, relies on contractors who don’t enjoy any of the worker protections of actual employees. The use of low-wage contractors isn’t even a new thing for the Valley. Who built that iPhone in your pocket? Low-wage contractors working under terrible conditions. They just happen to be in China so we don’t have to interact with them.
Let’s look at the love/hate relationship so many people have with the service. While nobody accuses Facebook of price gouging since users don’t pay (because users are the product for sale), think about all the times people have whipped themselves into an uproar over Facebook’s changing privacy terms — and yet everybody keeps using it.
Think about when Google launched Gmail and the ensuing outcry over the fact that they were scanning our email content — and yet everybody still created a Gmail account. Uber is just another in a long line of tech companies that have spoiled us rotten while infuriating us with their business practices, and as much as we get angry, we can’t stop using it. Like an insolent child who still needs his mother, this reliance on them only makes us resent them more.
Since the speed and skill with which Uber management has scaled the company cannot be questioned, let’s look at the accusations of them being callous and tone deaf. For starters, the culture of Silicon Valley has been moving toward libertarian conservatism for years. If Travis Kalanick is going to be called out for his Randian beliefs, shouldn’t we also be calling out Peter Thiel and his disciples? I’m not a libertarian and my point is not to defend the belief system, but to show that accusing Uber of being ruthlessly market driven is unfair when so much of the rest of the Valley has bought into the same ideals.
As far as being tone deaf, stories about the entitlement and arrogance of well-off tech workers come out almost weekly. Do you really think Uber is the only company that’s tone deaf? There are a whole lot of pots calling the kettle black here.
Finally, let’s talk about the one thing that everyone agrees on: that Uber is a money-making machine. Silicon Valley, like any business ecosystem, is about creating wealth. The book A History of Silicon Valley is even subtitled The Greatest Creation of Wealth in the History of the Planet.
If you don’t realize that money drives the Valley and Uber is the ultimate Valley dream, then you are fooling yourself. Every person in the Valley wishes their company could be the next Uber or that they’ve invested in the next Uber.
When I look at the behavior and business practices of Uber, what I see is the embodiment of all of Silicon Valley brought forth in one perfect and slightly frightening example. My intention here is not to say that Uber is without flaws but to show that almost everyone who works in tech shares these same flaws. Uber just happens to have grown so fast, and its interactions with us are so personal, that its flaws are more visible and make for good stories.
If the Valley takes an honest look in the mirror, what we would see is that we are all complicit. What we would see is that we are all Uber.
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