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If your boss is an app, what, exactly, are you?

The answer has big implications for the future of work, including possibly yours.

If your boss is an app, what, exactly, are you?
[Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images]

For nearly four years, my job has mainly been to ride around in cars with strange men. Sometimes women. More specifically, as a technology ethnographer I’ve taken hundreds of ride-hail trips in more than 25 cities, observing and speaking with drivers at work. Online, I spent countless hours in driver forums where drivers post screenshots and comments about wage incentives, behavioral expectations, passenger ploys, deactivation threats, and communications from their algorithmic managers.

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What I learned is that Uber brings the culture of Silicon Valley to the world of work, from experimenting with driver pay through up-front pricing to algorithmic herding tools, like surge pricing. Across technology platforms we use as consumers, algorithms are often described as neutral, objective, and benevolent, but anyone who’s had a boss knows that a manager isn’t exactly “neutral,” and neither is technology. How drivers are affected by the practices and rhetoric of Silicon Valley reveals more about how consumers of technology services are treated, too.

Uberland, I discovered, is an array of contrasts. Some drivers sign up because they need extra cash on the side; others do it as their full-time job. Many resort to it as a stopgap solution when businesses fail or unemployment strikes; others take up ride-hail work for the fun of it. Some are trying it out to pad their savings; others have little choice, putting in 14-hour days just to feed their families.

Some told me that they do it simply to get out of the house and experience a sense of human connection; others are desperate to find a way out of Uber. Former taxi drivers, chauffeurs, and truck drivers are part of the Uber workforce, but others have no primary occupational identity as drivers, even as they drive for both Uber and Lyft. Their stories are all too often tales of folks on the margins, of workers in transition, of people who are part of a new wave of social progress that we are still trying to comprehend. Uber drivers frequently make the headlines as part of larger societal discussions about the future of work, and as part of a growing nervousness that technological advancement threatens to automate all of us out of jobs.

But beyond this simplistic narrative, after all those rides, I’ve found that drivers are barely treated as workers at all. Given that Uber treats its workers as “consumers” of “algorithmic technology,” and promotes them as self-employed entrepreneurs, a thorny, uncharted, and uncomfortable question must be answered: If you use an app to go to work, should society consider you a consumer, an entrepreneur, or a worker?

Because Uber drivers are classified as independent contractors, not as employees, they do not benefit from most workplace discrimination protections. In this way, the rating system provides one of the clearest signals that Uber has taken on the role of managing drivers as workers. The combination of worker and consumer practices in Uber’s model creates a blurred distinction between these two categories that we think of as separate.

The company’s ambiguity on this question challenges regulatory bodies in the countries where Uber operates to manage not only Uber’s claims that it is a technology company, rather than a taxi company, but also its relationship to its drivers. In practice, drivers are hardly “entrepreneurs” or true partners with Uber, even though the company calls them “Uber Driver-Partners”; drivers are not suspended or fired, they are “deactivated.”

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But when drivers challenged their classification as independent contractors, rather than as employees, Uber’s lawyers argued that drivers are customers of Uber’s technology, just like passengers. If we follow this logic to its natural conclusion, the company doesn’t have any worker problems, despite mounting lawsuits, protests, and conflicts with drivers across the country.

And yet, this miscategorization has deep roots within Uber’s claims about the employment relationship it has with its drivers. Regulators may support that blurring by using language consistent with Uber’s own: In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission brought legal action against Uber on the basis that it had misled drivers about their earnings, but the FTC also referred to Uber drivers as “entrepreneurial consumers.” There is a real argument to be made that Uber provides employment to its drivers, but Uber’s “consumer” spin provides a simple way out for the company. (Law professor Ryan Calo and I explored how consumer protection law could be used to protect people who work for an app, such as by reframing issues like wage theft under labor law as an unfair and deceptive consumer practice.)

I interviewed Kofi in the fall of 2017. He drives for Uber and Lyft in Washington, D.C., and he was formerly an assistant attorney for the government in his country of origin, Ethiopia. He responded to the provocation that drivers are actually consumers by accusing ride-hail companies of operating in bad faith. “The motive is to exclude the drivers from being in a worker or an employer relationship, or something like that,” he told me. “I will take it as more than a technology.”

By claiming to operate in a world of technology consumption rather than in a world of labor, Uber excuses itself from a series of obligations that it finds inconvenient. Kofi also objected to the idea that drivers have full autonomy to make entrepreneurial decisions; he cited the disciplinary actions that ride-hail platforms take against drivers as evidence of the invisible authority they lord over their drivers (even while the company claims not to be an employer).

Kofi’s criticisms highlight the fact that Uber confuses categories such as innovation and lawlessness, work and consumption, algorithms and managers, neutrality and control, and sharing and employment. It does so with practical insistence on questionable facts, spinning tales about its business that directly contradict its actual operations. And the story doesn’t stop when the ride ends: Uber’s dealings with its drivers also reveal a much larger narrative about how technology is destabilizing and redefining relationships across society. By muddying the bright red lines that define traditionally distinct roles, like those of worker, entrepreneur, and consumer, Uber rewrites the rules of work surrounding algorithmic technology.

As a technology company in the ride-hail business, Uber has an employment model that is changing the nature of work. The company promised to leverage its technology to provide mass entrepreneurship to independent workers. But at Uber, algorithms manage how much drivers are paid, where and when they work, and the eligibility requirements for their employment.

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The power of this algorithmic management is obscured from view, hidden within the black box of the app’s design. While speaking with hundreds of drivers, culling thousands of forum posts online, and working together with scholars across disciplines to suss out the implications of what I’ve observed, I’ve found that despite the rhetoric, the technology practices Uber implements (such as algorithms) significantly shape and control how drivers behave at work.


Related: Uber’s new mantra is “do the right thing.” Employment lawyers are still waiting


Uber is more than just a ride-hail company. Like other Silicon Valley companies with global aspirations, such as Google or Facebook, Uber crafts public policy initiatives to brand its business operations with positive social contributions to society. Uber has actively enhanced its brand on the public stage by, for example, supporting criminal justice reform or allying with Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

But in the alliances Uber makes between competing stakeholders to accomplish its goals, what emerges is often a form of doublespeak. On the one hand, Uber tells cities that it creates the equivalent of full-time jobs, and on the other hand it argues that drivers are ineligible for many of the employment rights associated with full-time work, such as minimum wage. In the vast gap between those ideas, drivers, many of whom are just trying to pay the bills, have become implicated in a larger battle over the future of work.


This article has been excerpted and adapted from Uberland: How Algorithms are Rewriting the Rules of Work by Alex Rosenblat, and published by the University of California Press. All rights reserved.

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