Episode Seventy One: A Symptom Masquerading As Disruption; Swarm

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Short one today, written in the back of an Uber, as always. It’s hot in San Francisco and I had an It’s-it last night. It was… itty.

1.0 A Symptom Masquerading As Disruption

Disclaimer: I Am Not An Economist, These Are Literally Just Random Excitations In My Brain, Transcribed Through My Fingers.

Okay, so if you’ve been following along, everyone’s super excited because companies like Uber, Airbnb and… well, some others in the sharing economy are able to serve massive customer numbers that formerly required lots of Company Infrastructure and costs like employees: yesterday’s example from Bud Caddell’s response to my critique of the Responsive OS:

“Here are the facts. As of October 2013, Airbnb has served over 9 million guests through a platform supported by only 600 or so employees (compared to Hilton’s 300,000 employees). Uber completes something like 800,000 rides per week alone through a platform supported by about 550 employees. If those numbers don’t astonish you, check your pulse.”

I’ve been riding in a bunch of Ubers and in terms of anecdata, the UberX and Black Car drivers I’ve been getting have had a pretty high proportion of users who I’d call “supplemental income.” Uber, as part of managing its image, wants you to understand the kind of people who might be driving you, so has published profiles of drivers[1].

So here’s the reckon: Airbnb and Uber are eating the world. They are figuring out different ways of accomplishing tasks that people want to get done and they’re offering choice. They’re also doing that, bluntly, in a “cheaper” way, or in a more streamlined way, or, even, just looking at the world in a different way.

They are also, kind of, looking at humans as (uncharitably) a bit like meat puppets that can through financial incentive be asked to move bits of atoms around to satisfy the needs of other humans. If we’re being reductionist, that’s what Airbnb and Uber are, right? And we can describe employees of companies as basically fitting the same model.

So on the one hand, you have wage pressure resulting in people looking to supplement income (the symptom) and you have a way to achieve that (the disruption). Sure, you also have people looking for more options in terms of places to stay and serving user need in terms of getting from A to B (and in Airbnb’s case, I’d reckon that people are looking for more good, cheap housing options).

But the thing here is the zero-hours thing. Uber isn’t a job. It’s not employment. And, in a way, it’s not necessarily Uber’s fault that it, as software, is eating/disrupting the existing black car/taxi business. That’s fine. It’s more the “here’s a nurse who needs some extra cash” or “Bob here got laid off and needs to find a way to make sure his house doesn’t get repossessed.”

There’s obviously a societal implication here. Companies like Uber are externalising staff – instead of employing on the order of Hilton’s staff, Uber directly employs platform staff and has zero-hour, on-demand contract workers. And they’re finding it easy to attract externalised staff *because* of wage pressure and the fact that software is eating jobs elsewhere.

So in a way, what software taketh, doth ith altoth giveth backeth in a reconfigured way? Sure software’s eating jobs in one place but providing non-job opportunities in another. From an optimisation point, it is *more efficient* to not have employees and have on-demand virtual instances of “human” that you can spin up, AWS EC2-style that perform a task and then you forget about them. But hey, they’re people.

The thing about software, remember, is that it likes to scale and it likes to be general (seriously: call me on this bullshit) so hey, you human, it’s your job to be distinctive and stuff and make sure you have a super nice Airbnb rental, or hey, make sure you offer a good service on your Uber, because your ability to earn will be determined by The Algorithm that implements availability and swarming.

The Californian Ideologists here would say: hey, that’s awesome. Remember that one time that one boss was totally prejudiced against you because you were $identifier, and you didn’t get work? Uber dispatcher doesn’t know if you’re black or hispanic or speak with a lisp! Uber dispatcher only knows your five star review rating!

But hey, there were laws and regulations that were supposed to protect you from discrimination. But do you have the same visibility into discrimination from an algorithm? I mean, sure, it’s not *supposed* to discriminate against you. But maybe it does? Can you look into its eye and have a feeling that it’s just being mean to you, in a subtle, phatic kind of way that you can with another human?

Part of me literally cannot believe that I’m thinking this and having this conversation: because I want to believe in the algorithm and I do think computers are awesome and that they can help, and I don’t want to sound like “one of those reactionary people”. But I think for the *best* of us to work with the full potential and opportunity we can design with algorithmic systems, we have to be aware of the second-order effects that those systems produce.

This is why, I think, it feels like there’s starting to be a murmuring of support around a guaranteed basic income. Because the infrastructure of *employment* may well be disappearing because it’s been determined by these disruptive companies to not be efficient.

[1] https://www.uber.com/drivers

2.0 Swarm

So Foursquare is splitting in two: the checkin side of figuring out where your friends are, and telling them where you are, will be in a new app called Swarm, says The Verge[1]. And a new, relaunched Foursquare will be a discovery app.

Now, I might be being a little cynical here. But, in true “I’m not racist but” fashion, I will say that a) I like what Dennis has been trying to do for the last what feels like gazillion years, and b) I do use Foursquare (mainly as a way to remember where I’ve been), when the hell is Foursquare going to figure out what it is, and what it does?


The new app is called Swarm. Verge says it will be “will be a social heat map, helping users find friends nearby and check in to share their location.”[1]

I can make this one quick.

Things that you could say swarm:

– locusts
– bees
– wasps
– ants
– cockroaches
– gnats
– flies[2]

Things that I reckon people don’t like being called:

– locusts
– bees
– wasps
– ants
– cockroaches
– gnats
– flies[2]

By this point, you can probably follow my train of thought. Yes, swarming sounds cool to a tech/geek audience. And swarming does, in a way, describe the behaviour that people exhibit. But swarm-as-a-word comes with a bunch of connotations. And unless you’re going to do the work to make swarming cool or desirable or something that you want people to be able to describe as their behaviour without feeling douchey (cool swarm, dude, sick!) and, well, *mass*, then, er, don’t use the word swarm. So I’m not optimistic that without a large marketing campaign (sigh), Foursquare are going to do a great job with their new product. (Hunch: a cute bee logo and cursive handwriting is not enough).

Basically: Jesus Christ people, empathy. Unless you have a plan, it’s generally not a good idea to compare your users to insects.

[1] http://www.theverge.com/2014/5/1/5666062/foursquare-swarm-new-app
[2] http://bit.ly/1kxYZJk, via https://twitter.com/scarequotes/status/461927009133010944

I have a feeling I might get notes about this one. Please send them.