To be an Uber driver is to work when you want. Or so Uber likes to say in recruitment materials, advertisements, and sponsored research papers: “Be your own boss.” “Earn money on your schedule.” “With Uber, you’re in charge.” The language of freedom, flexibility, and autonomy abounds, and can seem like a win for workers.
But the reality of our research shows something very different. The price of flexibility in the gig economy is substantial. Last year we conducted 40 in-person interviews and online surveys with Uber drivers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Our project—which creates one of the first independent, qualitative datasets about the rideshare industry—found that the economic realities of precarious work are a far cry from the rosy promises of the gig economy. In exchange for flexible schedules, Uber retains near total control over what really matters for drivers, namely the compensation and costs of work.
The problem isn’t just uncertainty about what drivers can earn. Some also end out in deeper financial trouble by leasing cars from Uber’s Xchange program. One driver, Joan, got caught in this trap after she hit a pothole and damaged her car’s suspension system. She spent nearly all the money she had to get the car fixed. Then, when efforts to repair the vehicle failed, she spent more to lease a car from Uber. While Xchange offers lower credit barriers than traditional lenders, the payments which Uber automatically deducts from drivers’ paychecks, are high. Joan pays $138, more than the national lease average of $100 per week. Another driver we interviewed pays $290 per week and, at the end of her 3-year lease, she will have paid two or three times her car’s value. Think company town, or as one of our other drivers said, “indentured servitude.” The costs of these subprime leases are exorbitant, but, according to the Federal Trade Commission, Uber has actively deceived drivers about those costs. A Massachusetts Attorney General also found that Uber’s former lender charged higher-than-allowed interest rates to drivers in low-income communities.
Workers do not know how much they earn largely because of the fluctuating algorithms on which pay is based and the numerous expenses they must deduct. Of the 40 drivers we interviewed and surveyed, only a handful knew what percentage of their fares Uber takes. The majority did not know how Uber determined how much drivers take home on a single ride (whether, for instance, the booking fee is removed before or after Uber takes its commission), whether they are required to buy commercial insurance, or how tax filing works at the end of the year.
What can be done about the working conditions of Uber drivers? The biggest fix, though the least likely at the moment, would be for regulators to require Uber to treat its drivers as employees, which would mean the company would provide worker protections in line with national labor laws. An easier inroad would be for federal legislators and prosecutors to confront the subprime auto-lending practices that proliferate in the Uber world. Until these two steps are taken, cities should be wary of partnering with Uber for any kind of public transit provision, workers should be wary of driving for Uber, and rideshare users should patronize worker co-operative taxi fleets, or barring that, should tip their drivers — a lot.
Katie Wells is a Visiting Scholar and Declan Cullen is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Geography at George Washington University. Kafui Attoh is an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies in the Murphy Institute for Labor Studies at the City University of New York. This research was funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors. For more information on forthcoming pieces about driver strategies and the rise of Uber in D.C., contact Katie Wells.
Another interesting ‘long form’ essay on the Institute of Network Cultures site. This piece by Anastasia Kubrak and Sander Manse directly addresses some contemporary themes in geographyland – access, ‘digital’-ness, exclusion, ‘rights to the city’, technology & urbanism and ‘verticality’. The piece turns around an exploration of the idea of a ‘zone’ – ‘urban zoning’, ‘special economic zones’, ‘export processing zones’, ‘free economic/enterprise zones’, ‘no-go zones’. Some of this, of course, covers familiar ground for geographers but its interesting to see the argument play out. It seems to resonate, for example, with Matt Wilson’s book New Lines…
Here’s some blockquoted bits (all links are in the original).
We get into an Uber car, and the driver passes by the Kremlin walls, guided by GPS. At the end of the ride, the bill turns out to be three times as expensive than usual. What is the matter? We check the route, and the screen shows that we travelled to an airport outside of Moscow. Impossible. We look again: the moment we approached the Kremlin, our location automatically jumped to Vnukovo. As we learned later, this was caused by a GPS fence set up to confuse and disorient aerial sensors, preventing unwanted drone flyovers.
How can we benefit as citizens from the increase in sensing technologies, remote data-crunching algorithms, leaching geolocation trackers and parasite mapping interfaces? Can the imposed verticality of platform capitalism by some means enrich the surface of the city, and not just exploit it? Maybe our cities deserve a truly augmented reality – reality in which value generated within urban space actually benefits its inhabitants, and is therefore ‘augmented’ in the sense of increased or made greater. Is it possible to consider the extension of zoning not only as an issue, but also as a solution, a way to create room for fairer, more social alternatives? Can we imagine the sprawling of augmented zones today, still of accidental nature, being utilized or artificially designed for purposes other than serving capital?
Gated urban enclaves also proliferate within our ‘normal’ cities, perforating through the existing social fabric. Privatization of urban landscape affects our spatial rights, such as simply the right of passage: luxury stores and guarded residential areas already deny access to the poor and marginalized. But how do these acts of exclusion happen in cities dominated by the logic of platform capitalism? What happens when more tools become available to scan, analyze and reject citizens on the basis of their citizenship or credit score? Accurate user profiles come in handy when security is automated in urban space: surveillance induced by smart technologies, from electronic checkpoints to geofencing, can amplify more exclusion.
If platform economies take the city as a hostage, governmental bodies of the city can seek how to counter privatization on material grounds. The notorious Kremlin’s GPS spoofing fence sends false coordinates to any navigational app within the city center, thereby also disrupting the operation of Uber and Google Maps. Such gaps on the map, blank spaces are usually precoded in spatial software by platforms, and can expel certain technologies from a geographical site, leaving no room for negotiation. Following the example of Free Economic Zones, democratic bodies could gain control over the city again by artificially constructing such spaces of exception. Imagine rigorous cases of hard-line zoning such as geofenced Uber-free Zones, concealed neighborhoods on Airbnb, areas secured from data-mining or user-profile-extraction.
Vertical zoning can alter the very way in which capital manifests itself. The‘Bristol pound’ is an example of city-scale local currency, created specifically to keep added value in circulation within one city. It is accepted by an impressive number of local businesses and for paying monthly wages and taxes. Though the Bristol Pound still circulates in paper, today we can witness a global sprawl of blockchain based community currencies, landing within big cities or even limited to neighborhoods. Remarkably, Colu Local Digital Wallet can be used in Liverpool, the East London area, Tel Aviv and Haifa – areas with a booming tech landscape or strong sense of community.
At the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2017, co-originator of the Museum of Contemporary Commodities (MoCC) Paula Crutchlow and I staged a conversation with Mikayla the MoCC guide, a hacked ‘My Cayla Doll’. This was part of two sessions that capped off the presence of MoCC at the RGS-IBG and was performed alongside a range of other provocations on the theme(s) of ‘data-place-trade-value’. The doll was only mildly disobedient and it was fun to be able to show the subversion of an object of commercial surveillance in a playful way. Below is the visuals that displayed during the conversation, with additional sound…
Next week, in advance of the RGS-IBG annual conference, the Museum of Contemporary Commodities (MoCC) will join the other museums in South Kensington on Exhibition Rd. MoCC is the brainchild of artist-activist-researcherPaula Crutchlow and promises to build on the provocative and inspiring work undertaken as part of the project over the last three years. I strongly encourage anyone in London next week to pop into the Royal Geographical Society to take a look.
I’m very privileged to be on Paula’s PhD committee. This is fantastic work – even if you cannot make it to Exhibition Rd, please do look at the MoCC website.
The Museum of Contemporary Commodities (MoCC) is an art-geography research and exhibition project investigating the deep links between data, trade, place and values that shape our everyday lives. This lively set of digital activities will be hosted in the Pavilion at RGS-IBG. Staffed by our friendly MoCC Invigilators, you will be able to browse the most valued exhibits, take our quiz, add something to the museum yourself and consult with the updated Mikayla 3.0 – our networked talking doll guide to all things MoCC. Two research and conversation events will also contribute to our continuing public conversations around the deep connections between data, trade, place and values.
All the events are free to attend. All are welcome. Please join us to re-value contemporary commodity culture one thing at time!
Exhibition open: Thursday 24 August-Sunday 27 August 2017, 10.00am-4.00pm
Additional events on Friday 25 August:
Data walkshop with data activist Alison Powell, LSE: 10.00am-12.30pm
Building on MoCC walkshops in Finsbury Park and Exeter, Alison will be investigating data mediations in the direct vicinity of the RGS-IBG through a process of rapid group ethnography. No experience necessary. Please book here.
Our Future Heritage: curating contemporary commodity cultures: 2.00pm-4.00pm
A public conversation event hosted in the Museum of Contemporary Commodities shop-gallery space at the RGS-IBG. With contributions from: MoCC co-founders Paula Crutchlow and Ian Cook, Senior Curator V&A Corrinna Gardner, Cultural Geographer Merle Patchett, Music Sociologist Lee Marshall, and researcher, publisher and curator D-M Withers. Please book here.
MoCC was co-founded by artist-researcher Paula Crutchlow from Blind Ditch and Geographer Ian Cook from followthethings.com and University of Exeter. The project is being developed in partnership with Furtherfieldand a growing number of artists, academics, technologists and members of the public.
Our early prototypes and events have been kindly supported by All Change Arts, Islington Turkish, Kurdish and Cypriot Women’s Group, Islington Council, Exeter City Council, Art Week Exeter, Exeter Scrapstore, Exeter Phoenix, Exeter CVS, St Sidwells Community Centre, Exeter Library, Art Week Exeter. With many thanks to the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) for their support with this 2017 exhibition. MoCC is funded by Arts Council England, University of Exeter and the Economic and Social Science Research Council.
Two tweets, about 12 hours apart. It seems to me, in an entirely unsystematic, morning coffee kind of analysis, that the two posts demonstrate something of the ambiguity of image sharing practices and circulation of images (on Twitter)… at least in my experience of one platform, Twitter.
The “Grease” tweet, through humour, attempts to comment on contemporary geopolitics. The veracity (or not) of the image possibly doesn’t matter.
The ‘fact check’ nature of the later tweet directly addresses the (lack of) authenticity of the image itself. Showing the ‘original’.
So there’s something about ‘fakeness’ of media, the politics of circulation, something about simulacrum and the convening of publics and maybe something about the ambivalence of image making and sharing practices that falls within the “meme” discourse.
In discussing her work as part of the RGS-IBG ‘digital geographies’ working group symposium about 10 days ago, Gillian Rose discussed the ways in which we may or may not malign the ‘everydayness’ of photographic or image practices and why it remains necessary to study and engage with the everyday practices of meaning-making (there’s a course for this, co-convened by Gillian).
This perhaps prompts some questions about the above tweets. For example, what is it we can or might want to say about the images themselves, their circulation and how they fit into wider, everyday, meaning-making practices? The doctored image fits into a particular aesthetic of ‘memes’ and is contextualised in text in the post, which also goes for the ‘fact check’ tweet too, in a way. How do we interpret the (likely) different intentions behind the thousands of retweets of the above? How might we capture the ‘polymedia’ (following Miller et al.) lives of such images? (Is that even possible?) How might we interrogate what I’m suggesting is the ambivalence of ‘sharing’? I suggest this cannot be served by the mass analysis of image corpora (following Manovich), nor is it really reducible to the ‘attention economy’ – it’s not only about the labour of sharing or the advertising it enables. Instead, I guess what I’m fumbling towards is asking for the analysis of the circulation practices for (copies of) a single image within a network (which may or may not span different platforms).
The danger, I increasingly feel, is that we all-too-quickly resort to super-imposing onto these case studies our ontotheological or ideological meta-narratives – so, it may ‘really’ be about affect, neoliberalism and so on… except of course, it isn’t only about those things, and while they may be important analytical frames they may not address the questions we’re interested in, or should be, posing. I’m not saying such framings are wrong, I’m saying they’re not the only frames of analysis.
All of this leads me to confess that I am beginning to wonder if our ‘digital methods‘ (following Rogers and others) are really up to this sort of task… As yet I’ve not read anything to convince me otherwise, which actually sort of surprises me. The closest I’ve got is the media ethnography work of the outstanding Why We Post project – but, of course, that isn’t particularly a “digital” method, which maybe says something (maybe about my own bias). I’d be interested to know if anyone has any thoughts.
A further thing I wonder is whether or not these sorts of practices will remain stable enough for long enough to warrant the ‘slower’, considered, kinds of research that might enable us to begin to get at answers to my all-too-general, or misplaced, questions above. I remain haunted by undergraduate and masters research into now-defunct platforms and styles of media use… friendster and myspace anyone?
Or “information theory for beginners”, maybe… A heavily stylised interpretation of Shannon’s information theory for IBM, by the Eames’, which may be of interest to those of a cybernetic persuasion.
… it’s a testament to the work of the US mathematician and ‘father of information theory’ Claude Shannon (1916-2001) that his model of communication, laid out in his landmark book A Mathematical Theory of Communication (1949), is still so broadly applicable.
Working from Shannon’s book, in 1953 the iconic husband-and-wife design team Ray and Charles Eames created the short film A Communications Primer for IBM, intending to ‘interpret and present current ideas on communications theory to architects and planners in an understandable way, and encourage their use as tools in planning and design’. Released at the dawn of the personal computer age, the film’s exploration of symbols, signals and ‘noise’ remains thoroughly – almost stunningly – relevant when viewed some 64 years later.
It’s interesting to compare competing interpretations of the same ‘vision’ for our near-future everyday media experience. They more or less circle around a series of themes that have been a staple of science fiction for some time: media are in the everyday environment and they respond to us, to varying degrees personally.
On the one-hand some tech enthusiasts/developers present ideas such as “responsive media“, a vision put forward by a former head of ubiquitous computing at Xerox PARC, Bo Begole. On the other hand, sceptics have, for quite some time, presented us with dystopian and/or ‘critical’ reflections on the kinds of ethical and political(economic) ills such ideas might mete out upon us (more often than not from a broadly Marxian perspective), recently expressed in Adam Greenfield’s op-ed for the Graun (publicising his new book “Radical Technologies”).
It’s not like there aren’t plenty of start-ups, and bigger companies (Begole now works for Huawei), trying to more-or-less make the things that science fiction books and films (often derived in some way from Phillip K Dick’s oeuvre) present as insidious and nightmarish. Here I can unfairly pick upon two quick examples: the Channel 4 “world’s first personalised advert” (see the video above) and OfferMoments:
While it may be true that many new inventors are subconsciously inspired by the science fiction of their childhoods, this form of inspiration is hardly seen in the world of outdoor media. Not so for OfferMoments – a company offering facial recognition-powered, programmatically-sold billboard tech directly inspired by the 2002 thriller, Minority Report.
I’ve discussed this in probably too-prosaic terms as a ‘politics of anticipation’, but this, by Audrey Watters (originally about EdTech), seems pretty incisive to me:
if you repeat this fantasy, these predictions often enough, if you repeat it in front of powerful investors, university administrators, politicians, journalists, then the fantasy becomes factualized. (Not factual. Not true. But “truthy,” to borrow from Stephen Colbert’s notion of “truthiness.”) So you repeat the fantasy in order to direct and to control the future. Because this is key: the fantasy then becomes the basis for decision-making.
I have come to think this has produced a kind of orientation towards particular ideas and ideals around automation, which I’ve variously been discussing (in the brief moments in which I manage to do research) as an ‘algorithmic’ and more recently an ‘automative‘ imagination (in the manner in which we, geographers, talk about a ‘geographical imagination’).
Conference organised by the Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI)
Dave Morley (TBC)
Tony D Sampson
This interdisciplinary conference aims to examine how and why everyday popular culture is produced and consumed on digital platforms. There is increasing interest in studying and discussing the linkages between popular cultural and social media, yet there exist important gaps when comparing such cultural phenomena and modes of consumption in a global, non-west-centric context. The conference addresses a significant gap in theoretical and empirical work on social media by focusing on the politics of digital cultures from below and in the context of everyday life. To use Raymond Williams’s phrase, we seek to rethink digital viral cultures as ‘a whole way of life’; how ‘ordinary’, everyday digital acts can amount to forms of ‘politicity’ that can redefine experience and what is possible.
The conference will examine how social media users engage with cultural products in digital platforms. We will also be assessing how the relationship between social media and popular cultural phenomena generate different meanings and experiences.
The conference engages with the following key questions:
How do online users in different global contexts engage with viral/popular cultures?
How can the comparative analysis of different global contexts help us contribute to theorising emergent viral cultures in the age of social media?
How do viral digital cultures redefine our experience of self and the world?
We welcome papers from scholars that will engage critically with particular aspects of online popular cultures. Themes may include, but are not limited to, the following:
Analysing viral media texts: method and theory
Theorising virality: new/old concepts
Rethinking popular culture in the age of social media
Social media, politicity and the viral
The political economy of viral cultures
Memes, appropriation, collage, virality and trash aesthetics
Making/doing/being/consuming viral texts
Hybrid strategies of anti-politics in digital media
Viral news/Fake news
Non-mainstream music, protest, and political discussion
Capitalism and viral marketing
PROGRAMME AND REGISTRATION
This one-day conference, taking place on Wednesday, 13th of September 2017, will consist of a keynote panel and panel sessions. The fee for registration for all participants, including presenters, will be £40, with a concessionary rate of £15 for students, to cover all conference documentation, refreshments and administration costs.
DEADLINE FOR ABSTRACTS
The deadline for abstracts is Monday 10 July 2017. Successful applicants will be notified by Monday 17 July of 2017. Abstracts should be 250 words. They must include the presenter’s name, affiliation, email and postal address, together with the title of the paper and a 150-word biographical note on the presenter. Please send all these items together in a single Word file, not as pdf, and entitle the file and message with ‘CAMRI 2017’ followed by your surname. The file should be sent by email to Events Coordinator Karen Foster at firstname.lastname@example.org
We need to ask what would data capture and management look like if it is guided by a children’s framework such as this one developed here by Sonia Livingstone and endorsed by the Children’s Commissioner here. Perhaps only companies that complied with strong security and anonymisation procedures would be licenced to trade in UK? Given the financial drivers at work, an ideal solution would possibly make better regulation a commerical incentive. We will be exploring these and other similar questions that emerge over the coming months.