Episode One Hundred and Three: Recurring; Better, But Not Best

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

It rained today in Portland. Really, really hard. I’m the kind of person (don’t judge) who dresses for the previous day’s weather, which must reveal some sort of bizarre insight into my foresight and planning capability. At least, it only reveals it in the sense of how I choose what to wear. So whilst I was smart enough to grab a rain jacket (this is Portland after all), that didn’t really help when the streets were rivers of water and my dinky car2go was a couple of blocks away. So I got *soaked*.

1.0 Recurring

There are so many more recurring services that I pay for now that I never would have paid for (or, indeed, would never have existed just a few years ago). I don’t count DNS or hosting among these – they seem somewhat esoteric even now – but instead things like Flickr, Amazon Prime, Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, Dropbox, Netflix, Hulu, Backblaze and so on.

A couple of things happened recently that prompted this reassessment of the things that I pay for on a monthly basis and an examination of where all the money’s going.

Amazon Prime used to be a bit of a no-brainer, but recently hit the psychologically sensitive price of $99 a year (up $20 from $79). They sent me an email about it back in mid-March, but it was only now, in June, that my subscription re-billed. And, let’s be clear: it re-billed silently, in a somewhat dark (muddy?) pattern. From their point of view they *had* told me that the price was going up, it’s just that it would’ve been nice to have been reminded, say, the day before, by Amazon, instead of being told after the fact by American Express about a card-not-present transaction. That’s sneaky, Jeff. Very sneaky.

Flickr on the other hand *also* used to be a no-brainer but recently I let my old-style Pro membership lapse because, and I hate to say this, I no longer really understood the difference between any of the accounts, despite the help page[1]. Also, it wasn’t clear exactly what I was missing and, how should I say, in a world of Instagram and Facebook and iCloud Photo Streams and now Kidpost[2] my photo-sharing needs were kind-of taken care of. (By kind-of taken care of, I mean: not really, not in the sense of canonical URLs for things and, well, photo *sharing* and community, but hey, apparently the world moves on.)

So Amazon gets a re-up through a passive-aggressive price raise and because I *didn’t* do anything it re-upped, Flickr *didn’t* get a re-up because I’ve been a member since 2004(!) and the last credit card to be used on the account expired. So Yahoo! lost out in part through sheer bloody-minded apathy and procrastination on my part.

Amazon, though. The original announcement[3] of the price increase (also: “hike”) was met with predictable comments given the Internet’s status of Customer Service Medium and Why Wasn’t I Consulted reckons. Ostensibly, the reason for the $20 price increase was fuel and transportation costs, for which, fair enough, really. But you can’t help but wonder what’s funding the media licensing acquisition for Amazon Prime TV and Movies and now Music. For someone who’s already happy with a Spotify account and iTunes radio and well, any other free streaming service, I’m not that particularly interested in a brand new 1 million song streaming offering[4].

But, I’m a bit off-topic. The original point was this: there are few network services that I’m happy to pay for, that genuinely fall over the line into must-haves. Dropbox has finally gotten there, and I’m paying for it myself instead of the old corporate account that I used to have. I pay for extra iCloud storage because I’m really annoyed at Apple that something that *should* be free for their devices (and arguably would increase lock-in) is instead an added-value extra. Quite how you’re supposed to back up your iPhone with 5GB of free storage when the average iPhone is pretty much already full of photos and video is beyond me.

Media is media, of course. Our household cut the cord a while ago: we got over-the-air HD and rely on Hulu and Netflix, both of which we pay for, and the occasional iTunes TV purchase.

So, a question is this: what would Uber charge for unlimited monthly transport?

[1] https://www.flickr.com/help/limits/

[2] http://www.kidpost.net

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/14/technology/amazon-is-raising-prime-membership-fee.html

[4] http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&docId=1002557791

2.0 Better, But Not Best

There was a debate on Twitter the other day – I have to admit, I can’t remember who and let’s just say that search on Twitter isn’t *great* – about the fact that London taxicab drivers – black cab drivers – still have to learn “the knowledge”[1]. Wikipedia reckons that the test takes about three years to pass, and if you’ve ever been to London, it’s the process by which you *should* be able to get into any black cab, say an address and the driver will know how to get you there. Learning the streets of London is even supposed to be enough of a large-scale task that it alters structures of the brain[2] which, even if only in a folklore sense, would seem to make sense as having a map of London inside your brain in a way that enabled you to grok the connections between different areas seems like a pretty fundamental piece of structural information.

The argument goes that, these days, a $99 GPS device (or, again, Uber) is the kind of disruption that’s waiting to happen to the London black cab drivers in the same way that the Spanish were waiting to happen to the Incas, ie a sort of brutal no-hands barred competition that results in a fairly complete massacre and the end of the black cab as we know it.

So, we wonder, what are the cabbies to do in the face of disruption? Should they, for example, learn to code? Arguably some cabbies have, because the London answer to Uber is Hailo[3] apparently developed or conceived in part by the same cabbies. But less facetiously, part of the differentiation is in the level of service. Sure, you’d have to allow for the element of romanticisation, but a large proportion of the number of times I’ve taken a cab where the driver’s been reliant on GPS (warning: anecdata and probably confirmation bias) the service hasn’t been that great. It *feels* like the driver literally has no knowledge of the city they’re driving in whatsoever, and the case isn’t of GPS as a sort of augmentation rather than a *replacement* of navigation ability. The navigation ability is the somewhat tenuous ability to operate a car (albeit not entirely safely, by appearances, and most times, not exactly according to the posted speed limits) and not a sort of contextual awareness. I can say “I live at this street, near this hospital” and will be met with a blank look and a request for an address to be input into Google Maps.

To be fair, this happens fairly often with any of the Uber levels of service lower than the Black Car service – essentially drivers are meat puppets who are paid because legally, you need humans to operate cars right now. As soon as we don’t need those pesky humans to operate transportation infrastructure, you can be sure they’ll be done away with.

No, best is someone who already knows how to get to my destination and uses tools to get there even better. Better than someone who doesn’t know how to get there at all is someone with GPS, but have you ever encountered the experience of feeling like saying: “Here, just give me that,” keying the address in and wondering: “wouldn’t it just be easier if I drove, at this point?”

Unless, of course, you’ve taken out your laptop in the back and you’re busy writing newsletter episodes.

I guess part of the point I’m making is this: human meat puppets, Uber-style, aren’t that great. They don’t use what’s good about humans, and they rely on what’s acceptable about software. Nowhere do they feel like they’re making the best of both ends of the spectrum. *Maybe* something like TaskRabbit or Airbnb will do that because either of those two services will let you select for individual, non-replicable traits of human beings. But Uber, man. For the talk of its valuation for its recent round because it has the promise to become the de-facto infrastucture and transport company is all well and good, but it feels like they shouldn’t simultaneously be talking about how they’re a great employment opportunity for people. Because they’re a zero-hours employer, who also prefers that you yourself structure as a business. Also, ask yourself this: in the long-term, what’s the upside of being the best Uber driver you can possibly be? Or is it just a stopgap?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxicabs_of_the_United_Kingdom#The_Knowledge

[2] http://www.wired.com/2011/12/london-taxi-driver-memory/

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hailo

Another week, another opportunity for you to send me a barrage of notes. Which I welcome. So you should send them.

Best,

Dan