Uber: How To Literally Navigate a New Sphere of Digital Media

I am 19 years old and I do not know how to drive. I grew up in New York where most people don’t have cars and don’t need to drive anywhere because of public transportation. Now, more and more, this is becoming the norm everywhere with the invention and proliferation of ride share applications such as Uber and Lyft. 

When I was growing up, taking a Taxi with my mom always seemed like such a “cool adult-thing.” Now, as a 19 year old who lives in the city for half the year, I can’t tell you the last time I took a Taxi. However, today alone, I have taken an Uber twice. In New York, the threat of other forms of transportation, such as Taxis, was once a real obstacle in the face of new ride share applications such as Uber. In Kemal Dervis’ article Is Uber a Threat to Democracy he addresses that in spite of this competition, Uber as an application, “will not be stopped so easily” due to its independent nature (Dervis, 46). Additionally, the small quantity of Taxis worldwide, more specifically in New York City, contributes to the success of Uber. Today, there are as many ride share cars on the street, if not more, than there are Taxis at any given time. Thus, the efficiency and convenience of Uber as an application on your phone is enough to change the way that we, as New Yorkers but also more generally as humans, think about transportation in the future. 

Due to the innovation of the Uber application, in conjunction with the proliferation of the smartphone, the Uber application’s interface is functional and easy to use for people of all ages. Joe Nocera argues that Uber is “a thing of beauty” because it “disrupts a business model that has existed for a very long time” due to its triumph in the ongoing competition between the two platforms: Uber and Taxis. Nocera states it quite simply: “You click a button, and it immediately shows you your location. You hit another button, and it tells you how quickly an Uber car will arrive to take you where you want to go.” Uber is way easier than hailing a cab, explaining directions to the driver, and paying for your ride. Nocera continues specifically mentioning that if you live in New York City, Taxis cannot even compete with Uber at rush hour. Uber’s ease of use and constant availability, even when it’s raining, reinvents the way that we think about transportation. 

Personally, I have found that Nocera’s argument about the availability of Uber over Taxis is an extremely real thing for New Yorkers, particularly in the rain. Today, I was standing in the pouring rain at 5:30 pm on Friday night: basically the worst time and situation ever to attempt to travel anywhere in Manhattan. 10 years ago, I would’ve had to wait in the rain with my mom for several minutes trying to hail a cab. However, today, I stood completely dry under an awning while I stared at the Uber application on my phone as it counted down from 5 minutes away, to 4 minutes away, to 3 minutes away, until my phone told me my Uber had arrived. 

So if Uber is such an amazing, fast, easy-to-use application then what could possibly be the problem? Well of course, Democracy. 

Uber has redefined the traditional meaning and structure of a job forever. While Uber drivers are few in number, their impact on “the role of technology in popularizing and expanding a longer-term trend in the growth of contingent work” is large-scale; Uber’s impact on the way we interact with and participate in technology has eliminated the interpersonal nature of technology forever. Uber is also a form of social media because it simultaneously allows individuals to interact with other humans, yet it gives individuals the opportunity to exchange no more than pleasantries with fellow users and drivers. 

Due to the digital nature of Uber, we must create a new set of guidelines and regulations for this new innovation. As a new form of technology, Uber has had a profound impact on the future of “work.” Alex Rosenblat’s Book titled How Technology Consumption Rewrote the Rules of Work addresses this idea that Uber is the future of practical applications of technology. The conclusion of the novel begins by exploring drivers’ perspective of Uber as a job without a boss. Most Uber drivers are left to fend for themselves when asking questions and finding information regarding the so called “labor practices” of Uber. Uber drivers frequent online forums and other forms of social media to interact with other drivers: this is the only method they have to contact their coworkers. The employer-employee relationship in the digital world is unregulated and has no prerequisite: this digital aspect changes the nature of the work environment – drivers are working for a “faceless boss” (Rosenblat, 198-199). 

Back in 2014, in the year that Uber began to gain traction worldwide, in his article New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo stated: “Uber has done more than increase the supply of cars in the taxi market. Thanks to technology, it has also improved their utility and efficiency. By monitoring ridership, Uber can smartly allocate cars in places of high demand, and by connecting with users’ phones, it has automated the paying process. When you’re done with an Uber ride, you just leave the car; there’s no fiddling with a credit card and no tipping. Even better, there’s no parking.”

5 years after Manjoo wrote his first, extremely gratifying, article about Uber, he wrote an article called Can Uber Be Tamed? While Manjoo’s first article in 2014 about Uber was almost entirely positive, this shift in tone in the second article entirely addresses the shortcomings of the application: “A lot of drivers understand that Uber has not been the best company to them, they know they’ve been treated like crap, for example by Uber’s long history of cutting drivers’ rates arbitrarily” (Manjoo). When Uber was first created, at the time that Manjoo wrote his first article, no one could foresee the issues surrounding Uber drivers rights and wages. Manjoo suggests that we should not see Uber in a completely different sphere than that of other companies solely because it is a form of digital media; he believes that we should hold Uber accountable for the mistreatment of its workforce.

While Uber is a form of work and income for hundreds of thousands of people, it is important to understand and more importantly remember that, at its core, Uber is an application. As an extension of the mistreatment of drivers, the nature of the interface of Uber has also been called into question. Most game scholars have recently noted that Uber and Lyft use gamification, “or the use of game elements in non game contexts,” in order to motivate drivers to gain more money and accept more rides (Mason). While this may seem harmless, it is in fact extremely harmful in the way that drivers think about their jobs. Due to this gamification, Uber is even more analogous to other forms of digital media, anything from a game like Crossy Road to an application like Instagram (Gabrielle). The addiction, or motivation behind each application, is driven by instant gratification. Even more so, ride share drivers are encouraged to treat their jobs like games or social media, working more hours in order to earn more money and badges or changing their personality to gain likeness in the firm of positive comments. This shift towards gamification is problematic and needs to be stopped at a higher level than that of the drivers.

I think that Noam Scheiber of the New York Times said it best: “Uber exists in a kind of legal and ethical purgatory, however. Because its drivers are independent contractors, they lack most of the protections associated with employment.” 

Uber drivers are trapped in a system where they have no legal authority in their jobs; hence, they have no job security. Yet, they are consistently drawn back into their jobs through this manipulating and victimizing process. This is how large companies such as Uber and Lyft can get away with this type of gamification: they truly have nothing to fear. This exploitation of power and resources needs to stop: “We’re talking about this kind of manipulation that literally affects people’s income…” (Scheiber).

Until I decided to tackle the subject of ride share applications as a form of digital media, I had never thoroughly considered how my life, and the lives of millions, would be changed for the better, but also more significantly the worse, due to the invention of smartphones and the subsequent democratization of ride share applications. I had never thought about how something that is seemingly so helpful could become so harmful in an instant. 

One thing that is important to note, that I think that people often forget (I know, I definitely do), is that Uber is only 6 years old. Taxis and other forms of transportation have been around for hundreds of years. Now listen, I am not mentioning this fact in order to advocate on behalf of Uber, however, we, as the participant, have to understand that Uber has entered a completely new sphere of work, technology, and transportation. There is little legislation regarding how Uber must treat its drivers. There is little legislation in the way that drivers interact with the Uber application. And there is little legislation on how we, as the “consumer” should continue to interact with Uber as a whole. Uber, in a sense, is a pioneer in its field.

While I think that legislation is needed, I don’t think that we should boycott ride share applications entirely until change is made as it is counterproductive. If I have learned anything from writing this research essay, it is that we are completely engulfed in an entirely new world full of digital media. Just as we had to learn how to navigate broadcast television in the 1950’s, we will have to learn, over a long time, how to navigate this extremely new and participatory sphere of digital media. 

Dervis, Kemal. “Is Uber a Threat to Democracy?” JSTOR, July 23, 2015. www.jstor.org/stable/10.7864/j.ctt1dgn63k.17.

Rosenblat, Alex.  “Conclusion: The New Age of Uber—How Technology Consumption Rewrote the Rules of Work.” JSTOR, 2018, pp. 197–208. 2018, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctv5cgbm3.11.

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