Episode One Hundred and Forty Seven: I’m a Barista; More “Valley”; More Uber; They Create Jobs, Don’t They?; Dumb Telcos

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

This is one of those mornings where I’m ever-so-slightly angry and rage-y, where I’m kind of hammering words out by bashing my keyboard at a good eighty words a minute and there’s some sort of righteous indignation flowing through my fingertips as if I’m a blogger (ha!) anyone would care to listen to in the first place. I feel like a warblogger out of Charlie Stross’ Iron Sunrise.

1.0 I’m a Barista. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.

With absolutely no apologies to Sunil Dutta, who is an idiot[1].

A patron is fatally shot by a Barista; Baristas are accused of being bloodthirsty, trigger-happy murderers; riots erupt. This, we are led to believe, is the way of things in America.

It is also a terrible calumny; Baristas are not murderers. No Barista goes out front wishing to shoot anyone, armed or unarmed. And while they’re unlikely to defend it quite as loudly during a time of national angst like this one, people who work in the food service industry know they are legally vested with the authority to detain patrons — an authority that must sometimes be enforced. Regardless of what happened with Mike Brown, in the overwhelming majority of cases it is not the Baristas, but patrons, who can prevent tragedies.

Working the counter, I can’t even count how many times I withstood curses, screaming tantrums, aggressive and menacing encroachments on my safety zone, and outright challenges to my authority. In the vast majority of such encounters, I was able to peacefully resolve the situation without using force. Baristas deploy their training and their intuition creatively, and I wielded every trick in my arsenal, including verbal judo, humor, warnings and ostentatious displays of the lethal (and nonlethal) hardware resting near my hands. One time, for instance, my Barista partner and I faced a belligerent woman who had doused her car with gallons of gas and was about to create a firebomb at a busy mall filled with holiday shoppers. The potential for serious harm to the bystanders, coffee lovers and property damage would have justified deadly force. Instead, I distracted her with a hook about her family and loved ones, and she disengaged without hurting anyone. Every day Baristas show similar restraint and resolve incidents that could easily end up in serious injuries or worse.

Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I, a Barista, tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my apron or my equipment or my beans. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most orders are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?

I know it is scary for people to be stopped and their orders questioned by a Barista. I also understand the anger and frustration if people believe their orders have been stopped unjustly or without a reason. I am aware that corrupt and criminal Baristas exist. When it comes to  misconduct, I side with the ACLU: Having worked as an internal affairs investigator, I know that some Baristas engage in unprofessional and arrogant behavior; sometimes they behave like criminals themselves. I also believe every Barista should use a body camera to record interactions with customers at all times. Every coffeehouse should have a video recorder. (This will prevent a situation like Mike Brown’s shooting, about which conflicting and self-serving statements allow people to believe what they want. In the Barista’s ideal world, there is only camera-documented objective truth.) And you don’t have to submit to an illegal stop or search. You can refuse consent to search your person if there’s no warrant (though a pat-down is still allowed if your Barista has cause for suspicion). Always ask the Barista whether you are under detention or are free to leave the coffeehouse. Unless the Barista has a legal basis to stop and search you, he or she must let you go. Finally, Baristas are legally prohibited from using excessive force: The moment a patron submits and stops resisting, the Barista must cease use of force.

But if you believe (or know) that the Barista stopping you is violating your rights or is acting like a bully, I guarantee that the situation will not become easier if you show your anger and resentment. Worse, initiating a physical confrontation is a sure recipe for getting hurt. Baristas are legally permitted to use deadly force when they assess a serious threat to their or someone else’s life. Save your anger for later, and channel it appropriately. Do what the Barista tells you to and it will end safely for both of you. We have a customer service system that presumes the customer is always right; if a Barista can do his or her job unmolested, that system can run its course. Later, you can ask for a supervisor, lodge a complaint or contact civil rights organizations if you believe your rights were violated. Feel free to sue the Barista or even the coffeehouse! Just don’t challenge a Barista during your order.

An average person cannot comprehend the risks and has no true understanding of a Barista’s job. Hollywood and television stereotypes of Baristas are cartoons in which fearless super Baristas singlehandedly handle dozens of orders, shooting coffee out of their hands. Real life is different. An average Barista is always concerned with his or her safety and tries to control every encounter. That is how we are trained. While most patrons are courteous and law abiding, the subset of people we generally interact with everyday are not the genteel types. You don’t know what is in my mind when I stop you. Did I just get a radio call of a shooting moments ago? Am I looking for a murderer or an armed fugitive? For you, this might be a “simple” order of a triple shot skinny no-whip sugar-free peppermint mocha, but for me each order is a potentially dangerous encounter. Show some empathy for a Barista’s safety concerns. Don’t make our job more difficult than it already is.

Patrons deserve courtesy, respect and professionalism from their Baristas. Every person served by a Barista should feel safe instead of feeling that their wellbeing is in jeopardy when all they wanted is a coffee. Shouldn’t patrons extend the same courtesy to their Baristas and project that the Barista’s safety is not threatened by their actions?

[1] I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me – Sunil Dutta, who is an idiot, in the Washington Post, who are also idiots.

2.0 More “Valley”

Deb Cha, Greg Borenstein and Roberto Greco all sent me thoughtful notes on yesterday’s ramblings about “the valley” or, I guess, “The Valley”.

The truth is always more complicated than you can fit in 140 characters, and more nuanced than you can fit in even a million newsletter episodes. Yesterday’s episode was in effect to say: well, no, not *all* techbros, and that there are indeed good people working in tech. So to that, I say yes: “the valley” isn’t tech, but part of this (and isn’t it always?) is about shorthand and labels and what level of the structure you’re pointing to when you’re condemning it.

To write off all tech culture is unhelpful, sure and it writes off the efforts of the good actors in the entire field of “things we can do with technology these days”. But there’s still something worth talking about, even if it doesn’t really have a name yet. One historical example is when people started talking about the military-industrial(+congressional)-complex, a self-reinforcing, positive feedback system, when pointed out by President Eisenhower in his out-going address.

Of the many things in Cha’s note (which was wonderfully dense and insightful about picking apart the failings of the VC system) one small part that I picked up on was the motivation behind how the VC business works, and how it felt like that tallied with Maciej Ceglowski’s ideas of “investor storytime.” There’s a lot more in Cha’s note that I want to explore later, and I’m glad that I’m able to have a chat with her over email to find a way to get them written down[1].

When some of us talk about “the Valley” what we sometimes mean is the VC-technological complex, which because of the *other* system that we find ourselves in (hi, capitalism and market-based economies) is doing quite well and geared up to find itself in yet another self-reinforcing strange loop. (In fact, you might even argue that the VC-technological complex is doing even *better* now when previously the finance upon which it would sustain itself was limited only to public markets, now startups can avail themselves of institutional funding and astronomical pre-IPO valuations thanks to the influx of mutual-fund money).

This system is one that is built solely upon the premise of the rare hit, the hit that produces outsized returns. And for outsized returns, *right now*, you need what Maciej Ceglowski has termed investor storytime: to be able to tell a story of fantastic, hockey-stick growth, of the promise of future revenue. To be clear, this is but one model of success, and – if you’re the kind of person interested in finding new solutions to new problems that can also be viable businesses, but *don’t* need to be billion-dollar businesses, or even hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars-of-business, then you’re fishing in a crater lake on top on Mount Local Maxima whilst next door, just behind that cloud you can’t see through because your fancy optical depth perception algorithms don’t work through WATER VAPOUR, is a fucking Mount Everest of opportunity. What Cha pointed out to me was that the requirement to produce massive returns has resulted in a whole bunch of second, third, fourth and so-on order effects – many of which are the parts that exemplify what people dislike about stereotypical valley culture.

So there’s always layers to this, and perhaps I can show what’s in my head through some sort of analogy: when we say “man, Hollywood’s fucked up” because we’ve had something like a hundred-odd-years of Hollywood and most of us have grown up kind-of knowing what we mean by “Hollywood” to include concepts and actors like the studio system and production companies and directors and distribution companies and agents. We say Hollywood’s fucked because it makes certain movies and because it makes it hard for change to happen, because it’s deeply fucked-up about gender, because it has an idea of what its audience wants and because it strong-arms people into having to act a certain way, and it will shut you out if you don’t work the way it thinks you should work to make blockbuster movies. This doesn’t stop people from making amazing indie movies, it doesn’t stop people like Kathryn Bigelow from finally getting the recognition that she deserves, it doesn’t stop Diablo Cody from making it as a screenwriter, but what happens is that all of those good things happen *in spite* of the system, a system that’s the giant, great attractor designed to keep doing the things that it knows how to do, and that has outsize power and influence in that landscape. At the same time, there’s an increasing group of people who’re wondering: is this the best that there is in life, Conan-style, and isn’t there another way? Or, even, more fairly: why can’t I do some of these things?

There are some amazing things happening in tech. I’m falling back on old and tired examples that I hope will still be new to some of you, but there’s work from people like the EFF, like OpenStreetmap, like Ushahidi and the type of work that the Omidyar foundation is funding. I freely admit to having shitty blinkers on and being blinded by the light, sound and fury coming out of the west coast — and this isn’t to say that the west coast hasn’t also done good things as well!

But. There is a thing, and we might not have a good name for it, and it’s certainly bad luck and an accident of geography that *most* technology-related innovation in the field of internet-type-stuff is happening out there on the West Coast in and around the area known as the Valley, but the VC-system exists and it’s predisposed to a certain kind of output. It doesn’t have to be (well, depending on what its goals are and how predisposed it is to making sure that it keeps generating the kind of returns that a VC business needs), but it’s there and it exists.

So, to recap: there’s technology-as-a-whole, there’s the geographical area in the United States around which technological innovation has historically been concentrated, and there’s the corresponding venture-capital ecology that has grown up in tandem with and around that geographical area. Man, if I could draw you a could venn diagram, I totally would right now, but that would be against the self-imposed no-images hardly-ever rule for this newsletter.

The other part of this not-so-much-equation as whole-horrible-mess that is what happens when humans get together and idk, *do stuff* is this: part of what I’ve been writing about for the past hundred and forty six-odd episodes has been this idea about the Californian Ideology and which bits of it make sense to critique and which bits don’t make sense and the kind of things that the Ideology spits out into the world to be used, abused or just thrown away.

Greg Borenstein pointed out that one of the tenets of this ideology is that “technology” is a good thing, period. It just is. In just way that people claim capitalism is a good thing, period. Again, we get into semantics: what do we mean by “technology”? For something like the Californian Ideology, if I were to start making a list of “things that the Californian Ideology counts as valid technology as a starter for ten”, I’d have things like “the transistor” and “ethernet” and “wifi” and then concepts like “Metcalfe’s law” and then not-laws like “let’s try really hard to double the transistor count for a given area every eighteen months or so”. Sure, we can do those things. We might even use those things for *good* things: but the Californian Ideology doesn’t necessarily say what those good things are, or what they might be used for (well, it did), but did it really mean that they would be used for things like a) making fractions of a penny through practically relativistically traded stocks and arbitraging based on the speed of light, b) Tinder for LinkedIn, or c) a way for you get quarters delivered to your door because it’s too hard to get them when you want to do laundry? Fuck no. That’s not an ideology I signed up for. I signed up for one that meant more than that.

And yes, I realise that the work that I’ve personally done hasn’t been stellar, either, or worthy of being pointed at as advancing the human condition for good. Thank you.

But, this is what I have done. I’ve put my money where my mouth is and for over a year, I’ve gone back to paying for email. I don’t let Google store my location history. I pay for Pinboard. And I try to buy things instead of relying upon free, advertising-supported services where I can.

[1] One of the issues that I’m starting to have with this newsletter is that I’m inviting notes from people and frequently (and this is part of the point!) they inspire subsequent issues and spark things off in my head. The issue I’m grappling with is how I quote those people who’ve sent notes and how I attribute their ideas. In the email exchange I had with Cha, I had shown her an early draft of what I’d written for today, and had to have pointed out to me that I’d suddenly become *that guy* who was taking public credit for what a woman says. I absolutely don’t want to be that guy.

3.0 More Uber

If it feels a bit like a mad-as-hell-and-won’t-take-it-anymore moment, then maybe it’s because it is. A number of notes I got in response to yesterday’s bit about Uber took them to task for, if not outright lying, then just being economical with the truth.

At the very least there’s the issue with Uber’s name, but also there’s the contention – pointed out by a few people – that if you’re going to claim to offer transportation “for everyone”, then you have to be able to back up that claim. And yes, if you want, you can weasel your way out of it and say that your *mission* is to offer transportation for everyone as an end-goal, and that you’re simply starting out at the high-end and working your way down. But, you know, you kind of have to make that explicit, and if you haven’t made it explicit, you just look like patronising idiots who started an unregulated black-car service to make it look like a taxi service for people on expense accounts or more money than sense. At the beginning, at least.

The position is familiar: public transport, or at least the ideal of public transport shares a requirement of (somewhat) universal service. It’s the same reason why the post office has to deliver everywhere and why there’s a surcharge on telephone bills in the United States – in the latter case, the government thought that it was generally a good thing if everyone who wanted a telephone line *could* have a telephone line, so set up a fund to make sure that money was available so that even if you were a farmer in the middle of the sticks, someone *would* run a line out to you.

But – and this is a particularly American phenomenon thanks to the country being one where, aside from possibly *one* city, no cities have credible public transport options that are valid in a twenty first century environment. And by that, I mean: white collar professional people would use them as a matter of course. And I’m not even singling out America: a lot of European cities don’t even have that option either. But as soon as you start making public transport less diverse, then you make it less fundable. And when it’s less fundable, it starts dying.

Perhaps – to give them the benefit of the doubt – Uber sees themselves as the Coca-Cola, or in a more up-to-date way, the IKEA, of transport: like Warhol said, everyone gets the same Coke, and everyone gets the same BILLY bookshelf. Perhaps what Uber mean by “transport for everyone” is their goal of producing an affordable product that’s *the same* for everyone.

Even so, that feels like weaseling out: “for all” means for *everyone*, not “to each according to their ability to pay”.

Part of this, of course, is the matter of framing and whether you can say what you actually mean. Here’s that statement again, just to remind us:

“Uber’s simple mission: Transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere, for everyone.”

Transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere, for everyone. Reliable is great. Comparing yourself to a utility is perhaps not so great, especially in a post about lobbying for reform and deregulation because, hey: regulations help make sure that our cities have *safe drinkable water* and that not anyone can start selling water. But I digress. It’s the *everywhere, for everyone* deal.

I’m pretty sure that Uber’s end-goal is to be the Amazon of logistics – of moving things – not just people, from one place to another. Today’s release of their API pretty much confirms that for me.

So really, what we’re talking about, is the matter of jobs.

4.0 They Create Jobs, Don’t They?

The general idea, as I understand it, is that as we increase our capability for automation and as capitalism drives inexorably toward greater efficiency, we find new jobs for ourselves. Ideally – but not always, and there’s certainly no guarantee – these jobs are fulfilling and are things that only humans can do and offer some semblance of security. Ideally they are also jobs that allow for some sort of satisfaction.

Uber’s claim is that, through their platform, over 20,000 driver jobs are created a month.

The only problem with that – and I’m not entirely sure how *much* of a problem it is – Uber’s end-game will involve the phasing out of human drivers. It might sound like I’m singling out Uber here, but I don’t think I am – they’re just one of the most visible examples available to me.

There’s a lot of talk about the full-stack startup: it means lots of things, but one of the things that I think it *does* mean is vertical integration: control of the entire experience, from top to bottom, in a FULL SPECTRUM DOMINANCE kind of way. Interestingly, Uber doesn’t entirely do this – they don’t do fleet management of their black cars, for example: they rely on limo and livery companies for that. And they have a different service level expectation for UberX, for example. But companies like Warby Parker, for example *do* own the entire chain of customer experience and have less contracting-out.

One way of looking at the full-stack is to see humans – people – as merely a layer in your full-stack startup that can be optimised out at a later date. This is the reason why it’s easy to talk about meat-puppet jobs sometimes: lowest-common-denominator human labour jobs that have a place in the stack not because they’re *the best way* but because they’re currently the cheapest way, and there’s not a way to do it even more cheaply.

There’s clearly a breaking point here: these aren’t (necessarily) fulfilling jobs. I’m not saying that they *can’t* be fulfilling jobs, but there’s a difference between wanting to do something and having to do something – and Uber jobs right now aren’t hobbies – they’re clearly being taken up by people who need the income – either as primary, or supplemental.

What I mean is this: jobs-for-humans are merely the weakest chain in a full stack that are designed to be replaced by cheaper, more reliable, more API-addressable and predictable components. But, what did you expect from a market culture that calls humans, well, resources?

You don’t even need a *manager* in a full-stack startup, if you’re in a meat-puppet job. Software is your manager. It tells you where you need to be, and it tells you if you did a good job. You could probably spend days without any employer-based contact at all.

These are the types of jobs that are being created at scale. Because that’s the easy route to how the internet works at scale: standardisation and the treatment of resources as API endpoints that can be triggered programatically.

5.0 Dumb Telcos?

So apparently Verizon might be opening its own app store – at least, so claims The Information[1] (paywall, Verge coverage[2]). Here’s the key para from The Information’s report:

“The company hopes to create a different kind of app store, one that would let software developers take full advantage of specific features of wireless-carrier networks while also offering consumers new ways of discovering the mobile software they might want.”

of which: Jesus Christ, why do they keep trying to do this? For starters, why do you need a *store* to let software developers “take full advantage of specific features of wireless-carrier networks”? Oh right, you don’t. You just need a store to provide a route to monetisation. And yes, sure app-discovery is a problem, so “offering consumers new ways of discovering the mobile software they might want” is in principle a worthy aim, but, and no disrespect to the people at Verizon who *actually* know how to build products and services that people want to use instead of have to, I don’t rate Verizon’s chances at success.

What’s been stopping Verizon from letting developers take full advantage of specific features of wireless carriers until now? Oh, nothing? Nothing apart from that sound of them *hitting themselves in the face* trying desperately to not become just a dumb pipe? Nothing apart from maybe, oh, I don’t know, figuring out how to actually offer useful and reliable APIs and show what might be possible?

Yeah. Stop hitting yourself in the face, telcos.

[1] Verizon Preps Challenge to Google’s App Store – The Information (paywall)

[2] Verizon denies plan to launch its own Android app store (update) – The Verge

Well, that was a bit ranty. And you should’ve seen the other versions. Here’s two lipdub videos that you’ve probably seen before that might cheer you up.

Isaac’s live lipdub proposal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_v7QrIW0zY
JK’s wedding entrance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-94JhLEiN0

Try not to get hung up on the blatant violation of hardworking artists’ and music labels’ intellectual property rights, though.

Send me notes and I’ll figure out how to deal with them. How about let’s just assume that if you send me a note, I can quote from it? That might help.

Best,

Dan