The Open University (OU) is a wonderful institution. I have watched its progress for decades, and it’s a fine example of the power of education and broadcasting, combined. Last night we happened to watch a BBC Two documentary produced as part of the OU series: ‘Secrets of Silicon Valley‘ by Jonathan Bartlett.
Its premise was that Silicon Valley (referred to as the Tech world) has a dark side; dark in the sense that it is changing society at such a fast rate that our social, political and legal structures are failing to keep up. The Tech companies view this as a good thing, and there is the collective vision – incredibly well-funded in its PR – that this is productive for us all and that the inevitable result, like the industrial revolution before it, will be that we’ll all have richer and better lives. TheTech define their own role in this vision as that of ‘The Disruptor’.
Anyone remember the ‘Tomorrow’s World’ type programs of the 60s and 70s? They were great television and offered a bright and optimistic vision of how technology was a boon and would result in a world where our biggest problem would be how to spend our free time.
You’ll forgive the sound of hysterical laughter from here…
How naive that now seems, and how predictable the good and the bad we have inherited from that curve of post industrialisation. The underlying problem, of course, is a combination of politics and human nature. Whatever mankind does seems to reflect the collective psyche of our humanity. Wonderful things happen, as do very bad things.
Those of us who have ridden the wave of Tech for the past forty years, especially those like me whose living it has been, have done very well out of it. I’m typing this blog on a device that is a phone, camera, office and international information retrieval system. As a young boy, fascinated by ‘devices’, I couldn’t have predicted that in a million years. I remember a Superman comic where the baddie was allowed his own personal computer in his prison, and I wondered then if such a thing would ever happen in my life. It seemed unlikely…
Tech is now at the heart of all large-scale human processes. It has made wonderful things safer, faster and more accurate, and the incredible scale of that success is its own problem, because the huge money to be made from a globally successful Tech product or service now requires that it challenges what is normal within society.
One of the examples given by the BBC programme was that of the virtual taxi company, Uber. Uber don’t have any taxis, but they licence those drivers with the right quality of vehicle to operate as Uber drivers. The heart of the Uber system is a very neat graphical display running on your phone. When you call for a taxi using Uber, the display shows you on a real-time map where your taxi is. You can actually see it coming down the virtual street as it comes down the real street to pick you up. The taxi chosen by Uber is the one nearest to you, so the service is good. All in all, it’s a major advance on how taxis used to be.
So what’s challenging about this great concept? The BBC programme highlighted Uber’s setting up in India. In order to get ‘its’ drivers to have the right cars, it advertised how much they would be earning per month, once they signed up to be Uber drivers – on a self-employed basis, of course. Uber also offered to help with loans for the new cars. The new vehicles were ordered, and their drivers, with proud families watching, set off in their fine newly-financed cars, carefully chipped by Uber for their location services tracking. What happened next was what always happens in a market with high demand that attracts those willing to provide it: So many drivers signed up that the earnings for months two, three and four dropped dramatically, so much so that a few months on, the drivers were on a small fraction of the ‘expected earnings’ and were unable to keep up the payments on their cars, let alone feed their families. Uber’s revenue was not affected by this.
Uber does offer a great product. They aren’t doing anything illegal, or deliberately uncaring; but, in the case of the example in the programme, the secondary effects on the people in the market they are aggressively targeting are suffering. Typically, the Tech companies are not too concerned about this. They view that pushing the social and legal acceptability is a necessary part of being a Disruptor. That may well be true, but there has been no debate on the matter – just the forging ahead of a global product that they hope will sweep aside any social issues – forcing society to come to terms with a new ‘norm’ faster than it can be challenged on the grounds of ‘people factors’.
Uber was recently challenged in the UK courts, which ruled that the company could not claim that its drivers were working for themselves, and that they had to provide a full employment contract. We can imagine that this is not at all what Uber’s business model is based on… They are challenging the ruling. The second hearing is set for September.
To be concerned about this, we have to care about ‘people’. The kind of old-fashioned attitude that Tech hopes you’ll view as outdated and irrelevant to these elegant solutions; solutions that are changing our world faster than we can comprehend – or control. No-one’s saying that companies like Uber don’t care. Its just that they are pushing the ‘envelope’ of what society is for, and expecting they can change it so fast that any other considerations become irrelevant. Disruptors are clever, rich and very focussed on what works.
We can’t control them, because, for the first time in our evolutionary history, the very essence of ‘we’ is being challenged… So, within this larger Tech world, of which Uber is just one example, what value do we put on the human?
To be continued in Part Two
Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence.
His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com