This essay was adapted from Data & Society researcher Alex Rosenblat’s keynote speech at re:publica in Berlin, May 7, 2019, which was originally published at Points.
On May 10, Uber will debut on the stock exchange as a publicly traded company valued at upwards of $82.4 billion. The company is asking the public and lay investors to set aside the fact that it is an unprofitable ride-hail company that lost $1.8 billion last year and, instead, believe that it is the future of transportation. Technology isn’t just disrupting how we work or how we get around; it’s distorting reality and reshaping narratives.
This is the same company that, along with Lyft, insists that it’s not in the transportation business because it’s a technology company. Both companies argue that they are therefore not obliged to provide accessible services under the Americans with Disabilities Act, unlike their competitors in the transportation business. Uber’s ambition to be the future of transportation excludes its potential obligations under existing law. Uber’s logic is part of a wider pattern of using technology to sow doubt in how we name what is easily observable. Facebook, for example, monitors users’ posts to detect indications of suicidal behavior and then stages interventions, such as calling the police, as Natasha Singer reported. However, by refusing to call this “healthcare” or, potentially, “practicing medicine,” Facebook is able to play by a different set of rules, like running experimental health research algorithms on unwitting users.
What I’ve seen through four years of research with Uber drivers across the U.S. and Canada is how much technology disrupts a shared set of facts and understanding. Uber looks like a taxi company, but it sidesteps regulations designed for transportation companies by self-identifying as a technology company. While Uber promotes drivers as entrepreneurs and classifies them as independent contractors, I found that drivers do have a boss–an algorithmic one. The control that emanates from a faceless boss is often hard to pin down, but the effects are evident. For Uber’s drivers, technology is being used to exclude workers from the benefits they would be entitled to as employees, like a minimum wage.
Uber leverages technology to change how we understand their work in the first place. Algorithmic management isn’t necessarily that different from management–Uber still exercises significant control over how drivers behave on the job. That issue of control is at the center of disputes over whether drivers should be classified as independent contractors, or as employees. When drivers from Massachusetts and California sued Uber in a class-action lawsuit alleging they were misclassified as independent contractors, Uber’s lawyers argued in open court that drivers are actually customers of Uber’s technology, just like passengers.
That sounds like just wordplay, but it’s also changing the paradigm. Uber drivers may have to seek redress for workplace concerns, like wage theft, not under labor law but under consumer protection laws that prohibit unfair and deceptive practices. Uber drivers only account for 0.56% of the labor force, but Uber’s cultural impact is far greater because it is introducing paradigm shifts.
Uber constantly advances the culture of technology to suggest that it isn’t what it looks like. And that cultural work is largely successful in the United States, with direct implications for its business model. For example, Uber is either misclassifying millions of drivers, or it is coordinating prices for millions of small, independent firms (“drivers”), which may violate antitrust laws, as economist Marshall Steinbaum observes. Uber can exist with multiple, conflicting truths, but that doesn’t cut both ways. For example, the city of Seattle tried to extend collective bargaining rights to drivers, but the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sided with Uber to successfully mitigate the city’s efforts: Independent contractors can’t bargain collectively over pay because it’s inconsistent with antitrust laws and labor laws.
Uber’s technology ideology comes from Silicon Valley, and how that becomes entrenched in law and practice is a microcosm of a larger political battle for power and governance. Technology has changed how people access information, as technology and social media scholar danah boyd argues. Tech platforms, from YouTube (owned by Google) to Facebook, are structured to personalize our experiences as search engines and recommendation systems. These structures are raising new questions about how we arrive at a common set of facts in a networked media environment, especially because the vulnerabilities in that information architecture can be manipulated to shape public knowledge, as researcher Rebecca Lewis demonstrates. At a time when there is more political uncertainty about governance in the U.S., platforms are increasingly recognized as proxies for political power. We appeal to Facebook, Twitter, or Google to regulate the spread of information and ideologies.
On a national scale, what we’re seeing is a cultural transference. American culture is antagonistic to even the perception of government overreach. Now Facebook is constantly in the news, dwarfing coverage of actual countries. The company stands accused of overreach–for privacy violations and, as media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan argues, for threatening democracy. It’s the same American grudge, but redirected at an entirely different governing structure–tech platforms. And it suggests that we are looking to tech companies to usher in new forms of governance.
Elected politicians sense a new form of power is starting to eclipse their own, even if they don’t know exactly what to name the source or the effect. Some are striking back. Republican Senator Ted Cruz, Democratic Speaker of the House Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, and presidential candidate and Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren are acknowledging that tech companies have amassed too much concentrated power.
Some, like Sen. Warren, frame it as a monopoly issue and propose to break up Big Tech. Others, like Sen. Cruz, frame it as an issue of free speech, alleging that tech companies have an anti-conservative bias in how they curate our media and information spheres. Political leaders, as well as scholars and advocates, propose to reduce their power by regulating them. Indeed, leading presidential candidates showed their support for drivers during organized strikes that took place on May 8, in advance of Uber’s IPO, in major ride-hailing markets, including Los Angeles and New York. They drew attention to pay cuts and unfair working conditions, making clear the connections between the rise of technology and worker disenfranchisement.
The growing political will to regulate Silicon Valley is evident, and that may be a direct risk to the business models of companies like Uber, Facebook, and others. But technology also changes how we understand what we know or how we arrive at a common set of facts. From my own research, I’ve seen that regulatory interventions into Uber’s model are not coordinated, or necessarily aligned. As regulators grapple with what it means to be employed by an app like Uber, their conclusions are often at cross-purposes for resolving the employment relationship between Uber and its drivers, and for gig economy workers broadly.
For example, while the New York State Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board ruled that drivers are employees for the purpose of receiving unemployment benefits (Uber recently dropped its appeal of the ruling), multiple states, like Texas and Alaska, have passed laws codifying Uber drivers’ status as independent contractors. However, as law scholar Charlotte Garden has observed, how states define Uber drivers has no legal effect on determinations under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act or the National Labor Relations Act. Of course, one consequence of a patchwork approach to regulating or challenging Uber is that the company might sail right through these variable interventions into its labor practices.
The challenges professional drivers face to earn a reliable wage are real. And even if Uber is replaced by a competitor tomorrow, the legal battles over what kind of company it is, and whether its practices are lawful, will have long-lasting effects on how people are employed. And that, in the end, is a larger metaphor for what gets underwritten by the power of a faceless boss. Technology is raising questions about who holds the power of governance, whether it’s over the rules of work or the regulation of speech. The questions suggest that the ground has already shifted beneath our feet through an epistemological fragmentation, and that we are looking toward new forms of collective governance, driven by platforms.
Alex Rosenblat is a researcher at Data & Society and author of Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work.