In the contest to be called the most evil company, Uber makes Google and Facebook look like huggable Furby toys. I have been trying to write about the ride-sharing service since the moment it stepped into India and started operations in almost all the major cities. I wanted to contact the company, ask some questions before sending off my piece for publishing. But it seemed like something always turned up and Uber’s Indian email address stayed on my eternal to-do list. Finally, when I started writing this piece, I did not use that email address. It is not because I don’t know what to ask. It is because I have so many questions and I don’t know where to start. What do you ask a company that seems to be actually striving hard to be a symbol of everything that is wrong with Silicon Valley. A company that takes pride in being a thug. Where to start?
With ethics? Misogyny? Sexism? Capitalism?
For the uninitiated, Uber is a very popular ride sharing service that currently is operating in around 200 cities around the world. It is just four years old, and is so huge that it has been valued this June at $18 billion and investors are literally pouring in billions of dollars to make it even bigger. One of the reasons for its popularity is its ease of use. It lets you get a cab at the touch of a button on your smartphone. No cash is involved as your pay through the app and there is no hassle. And its beauty is in not having a fleet of cabs. Anyone with a car can sign up to Uber and can become a driver. From single moms to senior executives who want to make a little money on the side, anyone and everyone can become an Uber driver. They are happy, users are happy, the company is happy, and the investors are happy. It starts looking like the perfect capitalistic dream until it doesn’t.
To understand Uber is to look at the world through the eyes of a teenager who has just discovered Ayn Rand. The CEO of the company Travis Kalanick is a self-confessed fan of the psychopathic ideas of Ayn Rand and tries to run his company according to those principles which basically involves doing literally anything if it makes you more money. Morals, ethics and lives be damned.
So there is ‘Surge Pricing’, where the app will charge you more when you need it the most, or there are the dirty tricks used against competitor Lyft where hundreds of rides are systematically booked and cancelled at the last minute, or the tracking of journalists and boasting about it, or the ‘God-view’ with which the company purportedly tracks all its users, the insecure ‘McJobs’ that it creates or the sexism and misogyny in the company’s culture. It was actually that sexism that has shown us the true extent to which the company is ready to go when Emil Michael, a senior executive at the company suggested at a dinner that the company consider employing researchers to dig up dirt about journalists who are being critical. Believing he was off the record, he suggested the company spend ‘a million dollars’ to look into ‘(journalist’s) lives, and families’. His particular ire was directed at Sarah Lacy, the editor of Silicon Valley website Pando Daily who said she was deleting the app because of its sexism.
While Uber, its CEO and the said executive have all issued apologies after Buzzfeed broke the story, implying that whatever comes out of their mouths need not always reflect their views, four short years of Uber’s shenanigans have taught us only one lesson. Silicon Valley is throwing billions of dollars at adolescent men who believe in psychopathic philosophies and we are giving those same men data and the enormous power that comes with it in the name of convenience.
Matham is a tech geek.
Follow him on Twitter @AdarshMatham