Since Uber and Lyft are talking about leaving California we can take this moment to say "please do." As 2020 unravels, the roots of America's shortcomings expose the core issues that connect to the trunk of inequality. Technological progress since the industrial revolution has allowed resources to be aggregated exponentially more efficiently, but socio-economic inequality continues to fester like a virus with no hope for a vaccine. Yet there is hope for a cure, and it's right in front of us. We must power people with technology instead of allowing it to be leveraged by those at the top for greed and control. Technology can work for the people and for the greater good.
For years it has been clear the goal of the drive-for-hire business is to replace human drivers with autonomous vehicles. As many jobs are inevitably lost to technology, we must ask ourselves, who will benefit? Will it be only the few at the top? Would the greater population really want that outcome? Is that our idea of opportunity and freedom? Technological progress can provide more people with wealth, health and happiness or it can continue to fuel the legacy of the few at the expense of the masses. Now is the time to decide.
How can technology be run by the people?
Technology has proven it has the ability to operate outside the traditional motivations of capitalism. Two popular concepts; open-source software, and decentralized platforms both threaten the 1% who control the world with their monetary rule of governance, goods, and services.
Open-source is an ideology and practice that disrupts many traditional systems by making intellectual property shared and open for contribution and adaptation. What many people do not realize is that Microsoft and Apple owned software do not propel the majority of the computers in the world. Open-sourced Linux does. Linux is the foundation of the internet itself, running on servers across the globe to power the web that we use every day. Linux is also the base of Android phones and Chromebook, and the New York Stock Exchange. Even NASA uses it. Who are the open-source creators of Linux? “According to The Linux Foundation, since 2005, “some 14,000 individual developers from over 1,300 different companies have contributed to the kernel.” The core linux software is created by, maintained, and governed by no one entity for capital gain.
Decentralizing institutional systems empowers people, creating a modern democratic system of decision making. Yes it is 2020. We scan our faces with our phones every day but we seemingly do not have an efficient and trustworthy system for voting. Technology is ready, but the central governments are not. Central governments are bogged down by archaic procedures and the interests of those with money rather than the interests of the people. The same exists in the world of corporations. We have the technology for decisions to be made by and for the people, but instead they are made by central entities focussed on their monetary benefit. Hence, the history of unions providing networks for employees rights and interests. Putting the power in the hands of the people is a democratic ideal, and decentralizing our society’s systems with technology offers us the opportunity to return to the foundations of “governance by and for the people.” The third party in all transactions can be the technology itself; replacing the governments, corporations, or unions that all complicate and bloat our systems.
Decentralized open-source software and applications are the bedrock ideologies of blockchain and cryptocurrency, ala Bitcoin. Cryptocurrency is not just some speculative millennial anti-establishment idea, and major corporations and governments know this. The current value of cryptocurrencies stands at $350B and represents a range of new technologies that for the most part hope to connect people to technology without a 3rd party taking the cake. The most prominent recent example is the raging DeFi (decentralize finance) movement, with targets set on restoring faith in financial systems by putting the users in control.
For those who may not understand these concepts, or are scared by their headlines, other examples such as Wikipedia, also offer insights into ways technology can operate by community; outside the scope of traditional capitalism, and at scale. Each application has its own nuances and challenges, but that’s part of progressing into the future. Having the forethought to progress with the interest of the people is paramount at this stage of the game.
How can “rideshare” be decentralized?
Logistics of creating a real “ridesharing” platform, that cuts out the mafia-like corporation from the equation, takes significant thought and planning. A “rideshare v2.0,” has its own intricate problems to solve from payments, insurance, regulatory compliance, safety, and so-on. While there are many things to consider in “how rideshare can be decentralized” these are not reasons to neglect the concept. Many of these same hurdles Uber has and continues to face. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of being picked up by a stranger in a car by using an app was a ludicrous thought. One that seemed downright dangerous.
Uber has, over the past 7 years, optimized their business on the path to the still-undiscovered destination of profitability. Uber’s only goal now, having achieved their relatively mediocre IPO, is to make money for investors and drive their market capitalization up. Now, the bottom line is Uber’s primary focus, and automating the business is their primary method in doing so. They have already bypassed as many regulatory bodies as possible and leveraged their labor force to the brink.
The will of the people, through collaborative goals, planning, development, and optimization, can create a system that works far better for those using it. Compared to a corporation aiming to increase their profitability, a group focussed on it’s own system of benefits is inherently incentivized to optimize. It takes time, but we are talking about an enormous pool of people with talents and perspectives that share a common purpose.
What is “rideshare” without a company like Uber?
Passengers probably do not realize, and many drivers for that matter also do not get it, but Uber takes upwards of 50% of the fare that passengers pay. For what? Marketing, lawyers, shareholders (which has not worked out great so far), executives, customer service (laughable) and a relatively small general staff (which is being dwindled down). Are any of these a necessary part of the equation of sharing rides between a passenger and a driver using an app to connect? They really are not. Taking the lion's share of the transaction for a few executives, and Wall Street, is not in the interest of the millions of people using the system.
What Uber provides that society values are cheap rides at the touch of a button, and flexible “gig” work. A decentralized platform will only make the rides cheaper by cutting out the central entity (Uber). Passengers pay less and drivers make more. An open-source app can be tailored to meet drivers needs if it’s governed by those very drivers and the flexibility of the gig can continue to be the hallmark of the job. Regulations become less of an issue as the original loophole that allowed “rideshare” to flourish is re-focussed to the founding premise of an app that connects people to share rides.
Why does anyone start an open-source or decentralized platform?
There are many ways a concept like this can start. Ride Austin, a non-profit created to fill the void of Uber’s leaving Austin, has in the past year made their software open-source. Libretaxi has ventured into this realm of open-source ride hailing software but they have an obvious key fault - cash only payments. And anything named “taxi” carries the burden of a century of negative connotation.
Taking from Ride Austin, and Libretaxi, and even Uber itself, drivers can come together to realize that battling Uber or the state is a no-win game. The third party centralized systems are broken and only stand to amplify socio-economic inequality with technology. An alternative can be crowd-funded or started in someone’s basement. Multiple versions could come to fill this need and be sorted out by natural selection. If the core tenets of a platform that only benefits those actually sharing the ride can be realized it can be a socio-economic gamechanger and this is the opportunity to make it happen.
Now is the time
Uber and Lyft are showing their true colors as they threaten to abandon drivers and passengers for their bottom line. It is this very scary intersection of money and politics that corrupts our entire system and threatens the well being of all citizens. Now is the time to consider how we use technology to help people live better lives. This is our future. Ridesharing in its current form is like a plant undergoing tumultuous times and we can hope that stress will cause the production of new seeds that will germinate and flourish into an evolved “rideshare v2.0”, for the people. We must move towards systems that work for the people that use them.