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When your boss is an app

When your boss is an app

The downside of the gig economy

[cover of the book Uberland by Queen's grad Alex Rosenblat]

Alex Rosenblat (MA’13) has heard just about every story and perspective you can think of about Uber.

Her research has taken her to the passenger seats of dozens of Uber vehicles across Canada and the U.S., to driver web forums and blogs, and to coffee meetings with company representatives, all so she can understand what the transportation behemoth is doing, and why.

There’s one place it hasn’t taken her however – behind the steering wheel. “I’m terrified of driving, so I would not drive for Uber,” Ms. Rosenblat laughs.

What is Uber?

Uber technologies is a San Francisco-based technology company. The company’s main product is an app called Uber that allows users to hail rides from people whom Uber hires as drivers.

Ms. Rosenblat is a technology ethnographer who works as a researcher at the Data & Society Research Institute in New York. She has been writing about and researching Uber for years, leading up to the recent publication of her book, Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work. Her research is a thematic extension of her master’s work in sociology, which focused on the way personal information is handled and shared.

“While Uber doesn’t look that different from other taxi companies, they have innovated in the way they use technology and the way they leverage control over their independent contractor workforce. We all consume services algorithmically through Silicon Valley platforms, and Uber drivers are affected by similar practices through algorithmic management at work. This same concept could be exported to other industries.”

Could having your work life managed by an app be all that bad? It depends whom you ask.

Ask 100 Uber drivers – err, “independent contractors” – for their opinion on driving for the company, and you might receive 100 different answers.

For some, Uber gave them work when no one else would and the kind of freedom no other job would. Others, particularly full-time drivers, decry the company’s constantly declining pay rates for its “partners” and the somewhat insidious ways it exerts control over them. Some look at the social good of Uber – their policy of accepting any passenger (so long as they are not banned), for instance, or the fact they tend to offer lower fares than traditional cabs. Others, however, worry about the company’s dangerous precedents. The company claims that the “driver partners” are not employees. It also continues to operate in cities where the company doesn't have a legal permit to do so.

Why is Uber so controversial?

Uber argues it is a technology company to exempt itself from the regulations that constrain existing taxi companies. At the same time, it labels its driver-partners as “consumers” of its service, thereby allowing the company to avoid the liabilities associated with traditional employment.

As part of her research, Ms. Rosenblat has documented the many ways Uber drivers are managed by the very app they use to pick up customers. For example, Uber sometimes selectively withholds information that drivers could use to earn more money or make informed decisions about the fares they accept. The company can also punish drivers for cancelling fares – even if they take the driver out of their way. Uber wants its driver-partners to provide a great experience that reflects well on the company, and it achieves this mainly by nudging its “independent contractors” to go above and beyond their contractual obligations. As Ms. Rosenblat writes in the book:

The data-driven Uber platform gives the company a wide view into how drivers do their work in certain aspects, although it lacks the ability to examine the more qualitative aspects of the job… Uber has at times implemented programs that monitor whether drivers’ phones are shaky, on the presumption that shakiness indicates a work habit that negatively affects how well drivers do their jobs.

“Uber likes to say its drivers are entrepreneurs and independent, but in my research these drivers have a boss: an algorithmic one,” Ms. Rosenblat explains. “Uber is trying to have it both ways – setting the rules, while also classifying its drivers as independent.”

When a driver who wanted to go home for the evening attempted to log out, Uber displayed the message “Your next rider is going to be awesome! Stay online to meet him.” Only then was he given another option: “Go offline” or “Keep Driving.” Some drivers report that such a message can be tempting, especially when Uber alerts them to imminent surge pricing. For some, this means that even when they really are too tired to keep working, they continue.

“Surge pricing” is the practice of increasing the cost of a service during periods of peak demand




Of course, if you have an issue with your work and your boss is an app, it's difficult to take those problems to an algorithm to be resolved. And Uber drivers frequently experience challenges, ranging from pay discrepancies to unanticipated rate changes to negative reviews or feedback from customers, some of whom are merely trying to score a free ride. Still, drivers and customers continue to flock to the platform.

Studies in Canada and the U.S. have estimated Uber drivers to be earning little above minimum wage, – and sometimes less. Part-timers who only work during the highest demand periods tend to earn the highest hourly wages. Therein lies the appeal for some drivers – they can pick their own hours, based around their schedule, and only work when they feel like it. It’s a “good bad job,” explains Ms. Rosenblat. It is flexible, but also somewhat tenuous – decline enough rides or get a few bad reviews (justified or not) and you might find yourself locked out of Uber’s platform.

Uber has become the epitome of the the gig economy, in which part-time and short-term contracts replace full-time permanent work. But where other companies are derided for their attempts to cut costs with casual labour, Uber has loyal followers advocating for its legalization. Editorials in some markets where Uber has been banned have questioned why local government is against “innovation.”

Despite the scandals it weathers, and perhaps because of its sustained coverage in the media, Uber is objectified as the future of work in the popular imagination. At the same time, the story of Uber is just one example of how we are all being played by the technologies that have become commonplace, because, simply put, we want to use them.

[photo of Alex Rosenblat]
Alex Rosenblat, author of Uberland

With this in mind, Ms. Rosenblat has some advice for policy-makers.

“Look at the health-care industry, where we have consistent rules and standards across different jurisdictions. What standards should we be holding the tech industry to?

“When consumers lose trust in these technology institutions, it reduces trust in other institutions,” she adds. “The technology sector is still the Wild West, and they are now facing moments of accountability as large, political institutions. As this broader “tech-lash” [the backlash against the technology industry] is happening, we have an opportunity to set boundaries and demand accountability.”

Until that happens, expect to hear more from Alex Rosenblat as her research continues in the place she calls Uberland.



[cover image of Queen's Alumni Review issue 1, 2019, showing a photo of Alfred Bader]