An Incomplete Map of Uberland

In its eagerness to make the case against Uber, a new book makes a pretty good case for Uber.


Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Workby Alex Rosenblat, University of California Press, 271 pages, $26.95

Mariana, a Dominican mother of four in New York, says being an Uber driver is the best job she's ever had. "I love it," she enthuses to Alex Rosenblat, an ethnographer at the Data & Society Research Institute. "You can have your own schedule. You met many different people."

On the other hand, the ride-sharing company has been careless with its customers' personal data and made misleading income promises—claiming, for instance, that New York drivers were earning a median $90,000 a year—a practice that got the company slammed with a $20 million fine from the Federal Trade Commission.

The rhetoric in Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work, Rosenblat's interview-rich but analysis-thin book, is designed to make readers think concerns about privacy and corporate governance are more important than the increased work opportunities that Uber brings to the lives of people like Mariana. Rosenblat got direct insights from over 500 Uber drivers, through both formal interviews and informal conversations. She also logged lots of time on online message boards where hundreds of thousands of those drivers gather to communicate and kvetch. Needless to say, not everyone earns as much, or loves the experience as much, as Mariana does.

That immersion gave Rosenblat plenty of evidence that different people and different constituencies rate Uber differently. But while drivers have their legitimate complaints, we meet many who see the flexibility and the lack of supervision as far superior to the factory or call-center work they'd previously done; who value Uber's cashless nature for leaving them less open to armed robbery than a previous gig; who find other options for their level of education just nowhere near as satisfactory; or who deeply appreciate that they end up with money to spend by the end of every shift. We meet a single mom whose kids have chronic health problems requiring attention at unpredictable times as well as recent immigrants from war-torn lands speaking of how Uber has added value to their lives they could find nowhere else.

Rosenblat honestly presents such positive details, yet her book's dominant attitude toward the company is suspicious, carping, negative. The style and content of her discontent reveal a peevish but common disdain for innovations when they are based on privately chosen market transactions rather than the disinterested pursuit of social betterment.

Drivers rightfully find many of Uber's practices annoying and in some cases potentially criminal. Among them: suspiciously large numbers of "computer glitches" preventing full pass-throughs of money they earned, tips that get lost between customer and driver, and the system's inherent need for workers to drive lots of uncompensated dead miles and wait for lingering customers, to build up the brand's overall reputation for reliability. In conflicts between drivers and passengers, drivers frequently find the company difficult to communicate with—and prone to siding with paying customers over just one of an apparently endless pool of willing drivers. (The book also points out that Uber essentially sloughs off middle management tasks on its customers, whose ratings discipline drivers.)

Rosenblat spends an inordinate amount of time worrying over whether Uber drivers are "entrepreneurs," as the company sometimes claims. She makes a convincing case that they are not. Uber drivers don't set their own prices, can be punished for being selective about the jobs they take, and are not provided with sufficient information to make such decisions ably anyway. That said, the complaint that drivers aren't real entrepreneurs because they can't refuse to take passengers to certain neighborhoods rings hollow from Rosenblat—destination discrimination isn't usually something progressives favor.

Indeed, Uber bugs Rosenblat for reasons beyond an objective, reasonable bill of indictment. Mostly, in language she repeats many times, she is peeved that Uber is "playing" us as a society with promises and rhetoric that she thinks don't hold up. She complains that the company sells a young-hip-white-millennial image, which she associates with the HBO series Girls, that doesn't reflect the actual drivers she meets. That might be something to make jokey-snide tweets about, but it seems curiously ancillary to any real driver, rider, or public concern such that she should devote so much space to it in a serious book.

Rosenblat also finds it worth noting, in regard to Uber's alleged techno-hip aura, that "drivers…don't game search-engine-optimization results to boost their presence on the internet…they aren't 'happiness engineers' or 'code ninjas.'" No, they provide low-cost rides to strangers. And that's far more important to passengers than is Rosenblat's cultural-studies style of critique.

At one point she complains that "the company's marketing emphasizes the trendy idea of driving for a tech -company, which somehow is more desirable than if the same job were branded more bluntly as a taxi job for immigrants." If in fact Uber is mostly "a taxi job for immigrants"—and many of the drivers she meets are indeed foreigners without a lot of other opportunities—why isn't that alone enough of a reason to like Uber?

When it comes to larger social threats, the only even half-concrete example that Rosenblat presents is in her subtitle: She believes Uber is "rewriting the rules of work," most damagingly by undermining the legal status of "employee."

Uber treats drivers as independent contractors. The drivers are thus compensated entirely by a portion—constantly fluctuating—of their total fares. They are responsible for their own expenses and taxes, including Social Security (which, Rosenblat finds, makes many of them unaware of their true net earnings). They get no paid sick leave or vacation days, no employer-provided health insurance. On the other side of the ledger, they have complete flexibility as to when they work, and they have access to millions of potential customers without having to make any effort beyond activating an app.

In April, the U.S. Labor Department declared that most people who drive for ride-sharing services are independent contractors under federal law. But in September California codified via state law that Uber and similar companies must treat drivers legally as employees, with all the cost and bureaucracy that implies. According to a 2018 study from the National Employment Law Project, that change could add 30 percent to the company's operating expenses in that state, where it claims to have 200,000 active drivers. Uber, for its part and against the clear intent of the law, is claiming both that even under the new standards their drivers should not be classified as employees, and that it intends to sponsor a ballot initiative down the line to upend the new law, which doesn't go into effect until January 2020.

In any case, Uberland presents no evidence Uber's algorithms are upending everything about work and society. The company isn't even upending everything about its own contractors. For most drivers, the service seems to function as a stopgap option to make quick money. Rosenblat's data show that more than half of Uber drivers are active for fewer than 15 hours a week and that 86 percent either have or are actively seeking more traditional full-time work. One in six drivers are new in any given month, and 68 percent of drivers last no more than half a year. Driving for Uber doesn't seem to be too many people's idea of a great career, but it remains a great option for some people sometimes.

Rosenblat frames this very openness as a problem: It creates tensions, she says, between "labor rights" (the right of those who have a job to keep others out in order to increase their income) and "civil rights" (the right to have access to the work). She thus ends up criticizing Uber for what, under other circumstances, might be seen as corporate social responsibility. When the company builds stakeholder coalitions with "women who code," or Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or the NAACP, Rosenblat accuses it of trying to leverage those groups' political power to the business's benefit. All that, she writes, is just "emotional ransom" and "part of its hustle." Even providing reliable service to customers comes under suspicion, as it has tended to make those customers unpaid grassroots activists in Uber's political fights.

There are legitimate reasons to criticize Uber, and Rosenblat covers them. But if you base your analysis on the idea that a company can be criticized for anything that helps it profit or survive, you will miss most of the positive things that business does for the world. On Rosenblat's own evidence, it would be difficult to argue that drivers, passengers, or the culture at large would be better off without Uber.

NEXT: Government Standards Are Making 5-Year-Olds and Kindergarten Teachers Miserable

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  1. In Chicago for a week over the summer. Uber vastly Superior to cabs in every way.

  2. Many Uber drivers are also Lyft drivers. How does Commiefornia treat them? Are they simultaneously employees of 2 companies? Which company owes them benefits? Both?

    1. It’s cute that you think there’s something unusual about workers having more than one employer.

    2. It’s absurd to call them employees. They entirely meet the definition of independent contractors. CA needs to fuck off.

  3. Wow, the author tried so hard, but still comes across advocating violence. This is the perfect article for slavers. It’s nice to see you make excuses for wage theft.

    1. What fascists like you call “wage theft” normal people call a “free market wage”.

    2. “…It’s nice to see you make excuses for wage theft.”

      If you’re posting to prove how fucking stooooooooopid lefties are, you’re going right to the top.

      1. Two people who have no idea what they’re talking about. Carry on slavers, your violence is showing.

        1. What, employment is wage slavery? Voluntary employment, as in either side could have walked away?

          The only way anyone could see that as slavery is if it violates their propensity to enslave everyone through government control.

        2. “Two people who have no idea what they’re talking about.”
          Not unless there’s more than one of you here, shitbag.

          “Carry on slavers, your violence is showing.”
          You, not surprisingly, have no idea what “slavers” means, slaver.
          Fuck off and die where we can’t smell your remains.

      2. Best place for good time with hausfrau ladies is here

    3. It is an insult to those whose ancestors were slaves or, in a few countries, who are themselves actual slaves, to refer to anyone associated with or writing favorably about Uber as “slavers”.

      You are not very woke and should return to the pre-kindergarten phase of your wokeness education.

      Hint — Uber doesn’t force anyone to work for them. Any Uber contractor can simply stop working at any time with no consequences outside of losing income because, of course, they are no longer providing a service. Does that sound like Uber is a “slaver” to you?

      In contrast, slaves do not work willingly and are unable to stop working without consequences beyond no longer being compensated for their services because they stopped providing the services.

      Are you a “slaver” because you pay a contractor to paint your house or a gardener to maintain your yard or a doctor to diagnose your medical complaints?

  4. In SF, most of the cab companies ‘lease’ the cars to drivers who thereby become independent contractors, and courtesy of CA’s new ‘union-recruiting law’, several of those companies are likely to go out of business.
    Further, the drivers who ‘leased’ those cars all had to hold taxi medallions which, at one time, were quite valuable. They are now worthless and the drivers who hold them are likely un-employed: An object lesson in using the government thugs to ‘create’ artificial scarcity.
    Anyhow, if Uber and Lyft did nothing other than that, they are due our thanks. But they do more: The cars are in good shape and clean, since the driver has already agreed to the trip, you get no back-chat when it’s a short run, and they are both more prompt and cheaper.
    But please can the ‘ride-sharing’ BS; these folks are in business, expecting to make money, and I’m just a buyer in the market.

  5. Rosenblat spends an inordinate amount of time worrying over whether Uber drivers are “entrepreneurs,” as the company sometimes claims.

    That may be the real fear – if you’re even dipping your toe in the waters of self-employment, you’re at risk of seeing things from the other side and fleeing the free-shit plantation. A 30% cost differential between hiring an employee and hiring a self-employed subcontractor is probably low-balling the cost of all the free shit. Sloughing off the taxes and the insurance, the middle-management duties and the fringe benefits of employee costs is what to a huge chunk of clock-punchers are hidden costs.

    I know in the construction business it’s a common problem that skilled tradesmen with a few years experience realize that the boss bills them out at $45 an hour or more and they’re only getting $30 an hour and figure if they buy a truck and hire a helper they can be making the full $45 an hour for themselves instead of the boss getting rich off their labor. It takes them a couple of years to go bankrupt before they figure out the truth and by then there’s a new crop of ignorants eager to learn the hard lesson of just how much expenses and overhead, taxes and insurance and operating reserves adds to the cost of doing business.

    Once you start realizing how much free shit costs and who pays for the free shit, you’re much more skeptical of government and government has no interest in that.

    1. Dinner at a bar&grill last night (SF Mission District). Guy sitting next to me was explaining to his date how the local supervisor’s plan to have developers provide low-income housing was going to lower rents.
      Most of us here laugh at the old chestnut: ‘I’m with the government; I’m here to help you!’. There’s a problem in that some people believe that and they vote.

    2. Years ago I started contracting with an agency doing software programming, and had the same idea. After the first stint I contracted directly, and as a sub-8 my taxes and insurance were no more difficult. I still had the issue of marketing myself. Clearly a bit different from construction, but every job class is different.

    3. 20 years ago when I was doing some temp work thru an agency, the skim was about 50%, or to put it another way, 100% markup on what I got.

      1. “20 years ago when I was doing some temp work thru an agency, the skim was about 50%, or to put it another way, 100% markup on what I got.”

        Having been on both sides of that issue, it is nearly impossible to sell labor at less than 100% M/U. Worker’s comp, unemployment, benes, management costs, holidays, vacation, accounting frictional losses, insurance, on and on.

  6. Voluntary transactions, how hard is that to understand? Drivers who sign up and stay signed up, and customers who continue to use the service, have already made the only decisions that matter.

    All the authors proffering unsolicited advice, and all the politicians and bureaucrats butting in with unwanted supervision, are just parasites and leeches and robbers gumming up the works as usual.

  7. Been driving for Uber and Lyft full time for almost 20 months now. Do I love the fact I don’t have a boss and can set my own hours? You bet. I do like meeting new people, though its also true I wish I could have a stable of preferred riders that could call on me if I were in the area (without having to go through the whole rigamarole of having to print up and give out business cards).

    Are there criticisms of Uber and Lyft that are legitimate? Damn right. They take half of what we make on a ride (don’t for a second buy the bullshit they only take 25%). That’s an awful lot for an App company. Oh, and the Surge they charge customers (the multiplier), we only see a flat rate out of that (at least Uber is better in that regard as Lyft has basically all but done away with us getting the Surge..but they charge passengers for it). I’m a valid CCW-permit holder but I’m not allowed to carry my firearm with me in MY OWN CAR for my own protection because the chucklefucks at Uber/Lyft are Commifornia Leftists and as such thing “Firearms are icky!” And yea, we’re also subject to being disconnected at the drop of a hat with almost no recourse and with a totally opaque “review” process.

    Of course, there are a host of other problems that have come with ride-sharing, but they are responses by the assholes in the insurance industry (funny, I could have sworn my driver’s license, by statute, includes the ability to engage in commerce but I get smacked with higher rates for doing so even though I’m subject to insurance requirements already to drive on public roads). A lot of municipalities have decided to stuff their greedy noses and paws into our business. A lot of airports are trying to get rid of us (never mind that we enable a lot more people to fly via providing relatively cheap transportation).

    So, yea. Do I hate Uber/Lyft for their shit practices towards drivers like me (who do it full time, btw)? Undoubtedly. But I fucking DESPISE all the glommers on (government, insurance industry, etc) that are doing their damnedest to remove people like me cause “reasons”. Fuck them with a rusty spork!

    1. If you’ve been doing this a while, I trust you’ve figured out how much your car really costs and how much you’re really making. (Hint: the IRS allows 58 cents per mile.) I’ve always figured this is why so many of the drivers are “making a little extra money” rather than actually trying to make a living at this and there’s a high turnover rate, Uber and Lyft are depending on drivers not actually realizing how much it costs to operate a vehicle until you start doing it full time. And not realizing the difference between billable and unbillable mileage.

      I’ve told this story before about this lady calling us and wanting to know what we’d charge to install a ceiling fan and arguing about the “outrageous” cost until I finally gave up and told her I could actually do it for half price – all she had to do is bring her house by the shop and I’d be glad to do the job cheap. Granted, this is a service truck rather than a personal vehicle so you have to add in the cost of the upgrades and the tooling and the carrying cost of the inventory, but it’s not that hard to figure out the costs of a vehicle you expect to buy new and keep for 5 years and 150,000 miles. The monthly payment, the annual insurance payment, how many gallons of gas you’ll use, the number of oil changes and tune-ups, tires, batteries, minor parts and major repairs – about 58 cents per mile. At an average speed of 35 miles an hour, that’s $20 per hour before the driver makes a cent.

      1. “I’ve always figured this is why so many of the drivers are “making a little extra money” rather than actually trying to make a living at this and there’s a high turnover rate, Uber and Lyft are depending on drivers not actually realizing how much it costs to operate a vehicle until you start doing it full time. And not realizing the difference between billable and unbillable mileage.”

        Could be a reliance on asymmetric knowledge, but could also be assumptions on the part of Lyft and Uber that the drivers *are* involved in a side gig.
        Talking with the drivers from time to time, Ama-Gi Anarchist seems to be in a minority. Admittedly anecdotal, but during the summer, quite a few seem to be teachers.

        1. Yeah, teachers clog up the driver rolls during summer breaks and holidays. Probably a few less going forward in WA. Apparently places like Spokane are now requiring a musicals license which is jut a way for them to collect money, and as a general business license is a prerequisite, also register with the WA department of revenue. Which forces them to file with the state and pay B&O tax.

          Which is the true purpose of the license.

  8. I can’t figure out the economics of Uber and lyft.

    They shift a lot of hidden costs to the drivers.

    They take essentially a 50% commission on an “automated” transaction.

    And yet they have 10s of thousands of employees and lose billions of dollars.

    It makes biotech look sane by comparison.

    There is a Ponzi scheme in there somewhere.

    1. In that case, don’t work for them.

      1. People who understand business and the incremental value of their time and talents do not, in fact, work for Uber.

        1. “People who understand business and the incremental value of their time and talents do not, in fact, work for Uber.”

          People with that sort of knowledge are probably very good managers. At Uber.

        2. Oh the arrogance. Believing that you understand the value of a market transaction better than those actually engaged in the transaction, yeah, that’s arrogance.

  9. But in September California codified via state law that Uber and similar companies must treat drivers legally as employees, with all the cost and bureaucracy that implies.

    Those useless Sacramento motherfuckers who’ve never done an honest day’s work in their lives never miss an opportunity to fuck with the productive sector of the economy.


  10. the right of those who have a job to keep others out in order to increase their income

    There is no such right, and Rosenblat can go fuck herself sideways with a full-grown saguaro for pretending that there is. Customers are not property.


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  12. Send her back in time 20 years to try get a cab ride anytime anywhere. People are saving a lot of time and money and gaining a lot of convenience, and the quality of the rides and drivers is way better than the average taxi was.

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