The short answer is that Uber is asking to be considered as digital service, and thus not subject to regulations, instead of taxi service, which would.
That Uber is not a taxi service seems an absurd position, although it may prevail legally. Its drivers are also plausibly employees, and its business structure should be subject to the same tax®ulatory regime as any other.
But the larger question (I can’t resist calling it the uber question), is why don’t we regulate platforms in the first place? at least platforms that are companies too. And as a company, their incentives are not necessarily in the public interest, or in the interests of those of its workers or customers. It exists to make money. That’s reasonable, but Uber’s a company, and why not regulate it as such–and in all of its businesses? Does its technical product entitle it to some fuzzy emotional “feel good” hipster exemption from the norms. If it starts selling insurance, for example, should it be exempt from the rules concerning insurance markets?
Why this should come off as a heretical position perhaps has to do with the low esteem collectivism and regulation have had over the last decades. But if the digital sphere is where we live our lives, and there are signs that at least some of it has sort of been a degenerating sphere (whether Uber contributes to that or is agnostic), do we have no standing to ask governments to say wait a minute? Platforms are not outside the pale of general activity, and are not agnostic with respect to their effects on the commonweal.
I grant, it’s not going to be an easy calculus, but not doing it seems foolish not even to ask the question.
And for enjoyable foolishness of another sort, here’s stand-up about spreadsheets.
(I do play with spreadsheets for fun, and I knew what he was up to with 255! Yikes)
Much is made of our living in the age of algorithms, but I think that’s been true for centuries (at least since double entry bookkeeping, at least a methodology if not an algorithm). To me distinctive thing about our time is the advent of platforms, the Internet itself, and all its flavors, communication, collaboration, video, education, moving of merchandise, much of it happens on (or is indirectly supported by) a platform.
One industry that was former “platform champ”–they built it and exploited it for revenue–was the newspaper biz. So it’s particularly interesting to watch that model morph, and a Q&A on the Times site by reporter John Hermann and platform expert Andrei Hagiu takes stock of some of the changes. An excerpt. Worth reading the whole thing, and thinking about another world that is rocked by the advent of platforms, education.
NYTimes: How do pre-existing companies typically make the transition from being an independent participant in a particular category to being, basically, a platform constituent? That’s a broad question, but — is there an industry that might have useful parallels to the media industry with something like a major social platform?
HBS Prof and Economist Andrei Hagiu: I don’t think it’s true that transitioning from independence to life on a platform necessarily has to make things worse. One thing that I think a lot about — in conversations with venture capitalists and others — is the notion that platforms or marketplaces inherently commoditize. I think more likely what’s happening is the following: I think platforms, or marketplaces, make it a lot easier for, say, the content providers or app developers that are very, very good to rise to the top, and pretty much commoditize everyone else. So if you’re average, it’s definitely going to be very bad. Life is going to be worse on a platform, because you’re exposed to more competition. If you’re very good, life on a platform is a lot better.
Journalism (and much else for that matter) is mostly a question of platform now, you just may not have noticed it. By platform–a word, that like ‘risk’ means so many things it almost has withered to a semantic husk of itself–I’m thinking about the technological variety, generally a software system that facilitates, automates and otherwise organizes some human activity. Once upon a time it was the human bit that constituted the ends, with the platform as the means, now ends and means are mixed up, perhaps nowhere more than in journalism.
At least that’s the conclusion I draw from three bits of today’s reading, of passing interest to anybody who is watching the intersection between media and technology with fascination or dread.
First (and most interesting), New York Magazine’s Max Read asks “Can Medium Be Both a Tech Company and a Media Company?”
This is pegged to a story I didn’t know about (and am going to catch up on) in which a tech publication covering its own domain trips up on just what enterprise they are engaged in.
“Medium wants to straddle the divide between media and tech — to be both a platform (tech) and a publisher (media). This can place it in an awkward position: Institutionally, is it on the closed-ranks side of the “new class of industrialists” of the tech industry, to whom the question of Airbnb’s liability in the deaths of its guests is already settled? Or is it an editorially independent media company with a mandate to ask uncomfortable questions? So far, its defense against the differing interests of its two halves is transparency. This morning, Matter’s editor Mark Lotto weighed in on the entire set of comments: “I can’t think of another publication or platform where an editor and his boss would have this exchange in front of everybody.”
–As Read points out, it’s possible to find such transparency pretty easily (including going back to the pre-web days). Further, is ‘transparency’–another word of the moment, along with its sibling ‘disclosure’–enough? Is having a lively debate about the meta-ethics of a story the same as facing up to a potential conflict of interest? Platforms it seems to me are awfully conducive to this recursive hall of mirrors feel–they yield data about data about data (think the cascade of comments that never ends, even after it’s become very, very meta.) Not sure what it this is–and even if it’s bad per se–just doesn’t feel like journalism.
Exhibit 2 is a piece from BBC Social Media Editor Mark on the BBC Academy Blog, “#Paris: UGC expertise can no longer be a niche newsroom skill” that raises lots of interesting points. Underscores the reality that social media/user generated content sources are now not just part of the reporter’s job but often most of it, with challenges about verification, and just stomaching what you see in your feeds. (We’ve come a long way from checking the AP and UPI wires instead of writing your story.)
“But how much time and resource can we afford to spend on uncovering the truth? Are we as invested in the search and verification tools as we are in training our staff across newsrooms to appreciate and understand the risks of UGC fakery? And finally, perhaps most importantly, do we have enough safeguards in place to help those who work with UGC on a regular basis cope with the distressing and disturbing material they see?”
Finally, The NYTimes profiles its most prolific commenters.
“These frequent commenters have also become a community, one that has its own luminaries.
“But who are they? We decided to take a look at some of the most popular commenters on The Times site, which receives around 9,000 online comments a day.”
This will be old news to many, but in the light of The New Republic’s meltdown, I have been nosing around new digital approaches to what is (loosely speaking) journalism, or maybe publishing, or at least, typing. Herewith, a brief list.
Cir.ca is a news service (currently only for mobile, but coming to the browser). Nicely presented stories, gives you a simple way to follow any particular beat you are interested in, as well as sharing of course. Not sure if this will become part of my regular news diet, but in the emerging world of “journalism apps” seems like one that solves a problem.
Medium is platform rather than a publication as nearly as I can tell, and certainly handsome. It seems to be open to any kind of long form material, by professionals or duffers. Like Cir.ca, has a very striking design (although some will not be a fan of the wide horizontal one-page scroll approach–something that is all over current web design). Medium comes from the people who created Twitter, and presumably they aimed for the same kind of pick up. Upstart Biz Journal’s Alex Dalenberg was asking good questions a year ago about it–how their business model will work? and just what kind of tool it is? He also mentions something that a writer friend also pointed out, the license appears to let Medium sell your content, presumably in search of “sustainability”. (Like “platform” and “content,” another drab word.)
As far as I know, those questions are still out, and he also links to some weirdly fascinating info about Medium’s business structure, called Holacracy. It boasts “no managers” and seems to be a distributed system. (Classic Google goose chase, I just learned about Holacracy researching Medium, and now I discover that it’s already contested: fad versus brilliant management approach? Zappo’s is finding out.)
Finally, there is Ghost, which is a blogging platform from some of the same people who worked on WordPress. It’s intuitively appealing and also beautifully designed–pared down for clean presentation and ease of posting. WordPress, of course, has a lot to offer, but its development as a powerful publishing platform means that for me, at least, its sort of blown past plain old blogging. I’m tempted to move everything to Ghost, but, of course, it’s a little like moving house if you have hundreds of posts to fool with, and since part of my living is made with WordPress, is nice to stay close to the platform, even if I use 1% of its power. Ghost, like WordPress.com, has a more writer-friendly license than Medium (although, like anything online, they reserve the right to change it any time.) But you own your stuff, and their only right is to post snippets for promotional purposes.