Uber alles

Once upon a time there was a buyer, a seller, a product and a market.

If the seller abided by the market’s rules and regulations, everyone was happy. Buyers would return, and the market would grow. Then came the day that we realised that on Facebook, you were the product. And the digital marketplace has continued to tilt the level playing field.

Can anyone come between the mega digital corporation and the citizen? Well, the Mayor of London did. It was very sudden; Sadiq Khan nodded acceptance at Transport For London’s decision to revoke Uber’s license to operate in London. It was over in a tweet.

There are many parties here; The closed monopoly of city transport, in this case exemplified by London’s Taxi cabs, who cheered this decision to the rafters. The Uber drivers, mainly overworked immigrants who nevertheless could make easy money through cabbing. London’s hapless citizens who had enjoyed cheaper cabs through a phone app. The political parties concerned with keeping their voter segments. And of course Uber.

There have already been and will be plentiful words said about this, but I’m more interested in the new battleground that has risen up of late: the digital corporation vs the citizen

Like every city state, London is both a pit of Mammon and a socialist heartland at the same time. Where there is no totalitarian regime, the invisible hand is always present. At the same time, a density of people produces market warping interest groups.

The battle that this post looks at is Uber vs London, but we have seen the Olympics (as in LOCOG) vs London, the housing market vs the low waged and even AirBnB vs Barcelona.

Each battle features two sides, who transcend simple political cultures. The corporation must survive capitalism as well as traverse the jungle of local politics. They will inevitably be global players, as the value of a corporation is in winning the same game as many times as possible before it changes.

The digital side of the modern corporation maintains a global brand through the TV and smart phone screen. But it has to communicate to everyone, a task that can only be taken on by vast marketing departments with myriad campaigns. There is no local — there is global and individual.

The citizen is a node in many markets, as well as a political force en masse. You can gain the advantage of the latest start-up, and be exploited by it almost at the same time.

The battles themselves are, of course, not directly between the besuited managers and hapless innocents. The battle is over resources. Uber needs control of that immigrant population — without which it can have no drivers. With AirBnB it is control of expensive space.

And it is not ownership — it is control. Unlike London cabbies who are loud and well represented gobshites, Uber drivers are as anonymous as a grey day. It serves Uber well that their resources are marginal members of society, The same can be said for Deliveroo cyclists. The underclass are wonderfully easy to push around. (Of course AirBnB and similar companies have to work through the more financially affluent, but time poor.)

The nature of the gig economy is not the issue here, it is the nature of market regulation. But in truth, the digital nature distorts where or what the market being regulated is. A large number of people born within the smart phone’s Schwarzschild radius no longer view local infrastructure like cab offices as relevant to decision making. Dinner isn’t limited to local restaurants. Programmes and music are not limited to current broadcasts. To suggest that you can always get public transport, is akin to asking the previous generation to turn off the television and entertain themselves.

To internet professionals, the phrase customer journey does not mean how someone got to a shop, it means the way they clicked through a website to get the service they wanted. Being able to get something via an app is not merely convenient, it is pivotal.

To stop the internet corporate elite taking over the new world of services before the old world could react required updated laws. Long ago the Economist realised that local laws and regulations would balkanise the internet — creating the splinternet. But the digital mammoths have the patience and pockets to capture one city at a time.

To come between the giants and the people, regulators have to have imagination, a sharp knowledge of technological realities, but above all, balls.

But it comes back to that resource. Simply banning Uber still leaves the immigrant hustling class unacknowledged. Until London stops hiding people away in vaguely maintained tower blocks, or suburban shed ghettos, Uber knows they can return to rule over all.

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David E

All my views are identical in all respects to my employer. I don’t have an employer.