"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Anybody who has been watching the 2016 presidential primaries can attest to the simple fact that voting has consequences. Indeed, voters can propel a figure widely dismissed as “never going to be the nominee” into being a major political party’s presumptive candidate. Much of the attention that has been devoted of late to voting in the US has been focused, understandably, upon the primaries; however, it would be inaccurate to believe that the primaries are the only kind of significant voting that has been taking place. And while the news may be filled with stories about the amount of money candidates are pouring into various states, there was another recent vote where millions were spent trying to influence voters.
The vote in question was Proposition 1 in Austin, Texas, and the results of the vote are a clear demonstration of the fact that the companies who endlessly sing the praises of technological disruption really hate it when something happens to disrupt them back. And it appears that democracy can really disrupt a corporate agenda.
A little history: in December, an ordinance was passed by Austin’s city council that required drivers for ride-sharing companies (like Uber and Lyft) to undergo background checks linked to finger-printing. The ride-sharing companies retorted that their current background checking was sufficient and they decried the cost (in money and time) of such background checks. Ultimately, the matter was left to Austin’s voters – and on May 7, 2016 they got to decide whether the ride-sharing companies would have to abide by the ordinance or if they would be free to continue operating as they had done before the ordinance. Uber and Lyft were clear about the potential consequences of the vote – if the companies were forced to abide by the background check ordinance, the companies vowed to leave Austin. And to help ensure that Austin’s residents voted the right way (i.e. their way) Uber and Lyft spent around $9 million dollars to advocate for their position. The result? A little bit more than 55% of those who voted cast their ballots in support of Uber and Lyft having to abide by the ordinance. The further result? Uber and Lyft packed up and left the city on May 9, 2016.
It is a challenge to know exactly why Uber and Lyft concluded that they had no option but to leave. After all, the vote was not to ban the companies from operating in Austin altogether, but only to make them comply with the city’s ordinance. And similarly it is quite possible that the companies will return to the city before too long. Maybe the companies felt that they had to make good on their threat – so that they can level it against the next municipality that dares look askance at them. Or, perhaps the companies were simply furious that they had spent millions of dollars only to lose – and thus are picking up their toys and storming off like petulant children.
Granted, Uber and Lyft are not the only ride-sharing companies out there – and it seems almost certain that some other company will happily swoop into Austin and agree to abide by the city’s ordinance. Heck, it’s quite likely that many of the individuals who were driving for Uber and Lyft next week will simply become the drivers for whatever company comes in to fill the space that was left open by those companies’ leaving the city. Furthermore, the concern for the fate of the drivers may itself be only so much smoke and mirrors as these companies are already investing in self-driving cars – while Uber and Lyft hardly have a reputation for treating its employees, I mean, independent contractors particularly well. Nevertheless, the city of Austin – home to that gathering of evangels of the technophile faith SXSW – might soon find itself on the list of nominees for a, farcical, Luddite Award. All for daring to suggest that its citizens do not have to bow their heads to every whim of tech companies.
In this situation it may be tempting to simply scoff at the amount of money that Uber and Lyft wasted. Or, from the other perspective, it may be tempting to angrily glare at the voters who have forced Uber and Lyft to make good on their threats of abandoning Austin’s city limits – while grumbling about how finger-printing drivers may not actually make that much of a difference. While, of course, yet another perspective lingers in the background that points out that the solution to Austin’s transport woes (and traffic in the city is a genuine problem) is not more cars on the road (ride-sharing or not) but serious investment in improving the city’s lackluster public transportation system.
And yet, one should not lose track of the most basic element of this whole affair: it ultimately boils down to a tale of two extremely large and wealthy corporations saying that they do not give a damn about democracy. The humor is that Uber and Lyft have played this scenario in a way that made it briefly appear as if they did respect voting – though their true tyrannical inclinations came across in the end. After all, Uber and Lyft’s response to an ordinance passed by (elected) officials was the ur-democratic move of “taking it to the voters!” But when those voters backed the ordinance? That was too much democracy for these companies to take. Their attitudes were a pure distillation of the idea of “my way or the highway” – and since they didn’t get their way, the companies drove out of town. These corporations love democracy so long as it serves their interests, and when it doesn’t work out that way, they’re eager to shrug it off.
Thus, what we find lurking in the background of this seemingly small squabble over regulations in a particular city is a much larger example of the recurring situation in contemporary technological societies that makes visible the awkward intersection of power and politics. Companies like Uber and Lyft swoop into areas and eagerly go about “disrupting” things – armed with an indelible faith in the free-market and an ideology wherein new technology is the solution to every problem under the sun. And the companies that label themselves as part of the “sharing economy” even portray themselves as providing cash-strapped individuals with new ways to make money in times of economic instability. To push back against these ideas earns one disdain, and perhaps the title of Luddite (thrown as an epithet, not a compliment). Yet, as the case of Proposition 1 demonstrates, often times those who wind up getting on the wrong side of these tech companies are not just ragtag bands of disheveled activists or lone individuals – oftentimes its elected officials or entire groups of voters. Tech companies like Uber and Lyft are massive for-profit entities – and though they may put on a good show of being forward thinking their emphasis remains narrowly upon directing large sums of money into the pockets of their executives and investors. These companies emerge from an ideology in which the brave stewards of technological disruption are heroic figures – the scions of Prometheus, only they believe that they are much too clever to wind up chained to a rock. And when one is the majestic, brilliant hero who knows what is best for everybody – one need not be concerned with insufferable trifles like rules, regulations…or voters.
Indeed, for companies like Uber and Lyft the users of their services are consumers. That’s how they like them. They aren’t too keen on the moment when these consumers reveal themselves to also be voters. Uber and Lyft will let you vote on the quality of your driver…why isn’t that enough for you? These companies would prefer that voting was limited to the proverbial “voting with your wallet” – and they are not shy about digging into their own wallets when it comes to influence the other kind of voting.
The allergic reaction these companies have towards ordinances such as Austin’s is not because such rules represent a huge financial burden on these companies. And though the background checks may impair these companies ability to keep the revolving door of drivers spinning swiftly, it does not mean that the companies will be starved for potential drivers. Rather the showdown in Austin was an incident of Uber and Lyft stating “we will only allow the voters to tell us what to do, if they vote the way we tell them to vote” and the fact that the companies have up and left the city is a threat against other cities that might consider passing similar regulations. As was stated earlier, the whole affair is a clear signal that the companies that thrive on disruption have no patience for anything that disrupts them back.
The United States is in the midst of a rather grim election season where the news is routinely filled with stories about the ways in which this or that candidate represents a profound danger to democracy. But as long as we are worrying about dangers to democracy it is worth taking a moment to consider the wealthy and powerful corporations that have no compunctions about scoffing at the will of the electorate.
It is true, democracy is imperfect, and voters are often driven by strange motivations and ideologically muddled conceptions of the truth. But those are human failings, not ones exclusively linked to voters, and they apply every bit as well to the humans leading tech companies as to the voters reminding them that they do not have carte blanche. Or, to put it another way, as you ponder who you are going to vote for in the coming election, take a moment to consider the things that impact your life where you don’t get a vote.
As the case of Proposition 1 proves, if you’re looking for a way to disrupt the disruptors – democracy isn’t a bad tactic.
[Author’s note: I lived in Austin for many years, continue to have close friends in the city, and (coincidentally!) was in Austin the weekend when people were voting on Proposition 1]