The Week: gig workers, green bubbles and the Cow Matrix
Plus: more Covid. And links! But mostly Covid.
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Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in a ‘fireside chat’ with Swiss Bank UBS that the company “can make any model work”, in response to a question about looming EU legislation that would compel it to designate drivers as employees and give them benefits.
The core of the video centers around questions raised by the European Union’s December proposal for a widely popular set of strict rules that would reclassify millions of gig workers as employees. This would be a shot to the heart of the gig economy, which for a decade now has relied on weaponizing weaknesses in labour laws to exploit workers by minimizing their labour costs with sub-minimum wages while maximizing their workload through algorithmic overseers.
“We can make any model work, we really can, because our marketplace is incredibly flexible. There's a lot of demand for our technology, our service, our brand, our safety, our reliability,” Khosrowshahi said. “So any model can work economically for us—this is about what our drivers want and what couriers want, and they want flexibility, so we would very much prefer it because they prefer it.”
This obviously flies in the face of Uber’s previous rhetoric on the matter, which has consistently held that its business would be unviable if any jurisdiction were to force it to enter proper employment relationships with drivers and riders. When California attempted in 2020 to classify gig workers as employees with few exceptions, Uber and its allies in the sector threatened to pull out of the state entirely, and mounted an aggressive legislative and public relations campaign to stymie the effort. In Australia, Uber has fought multiple court cases against workers attempting to eke out unfair dismissal settlements.
Historically, Uber has had the power to fight reform efforts because of how thoroughly it has managed to colonise the world’s cities and their infrastructure. Across the globe, it has successfully decimated taxi infrastructure and fundamentally changed the way people move around their urban environments. It’s very easy to corral public and legislative opinion in favour of your model if your unilateral exit would result in short- and mid-term pain for consumers. (Australians will recognise this threat of corporate exit in Google and Facebook’s effort to destroy the news media bargaining code.) Californians who voted in favour of Proposition 22 were naturally thinking in these terms — not because they buy into the gig economy’s woo-woo rhetoric around ‘flexibility’.
The fact that Khosrowshahi is now asserting that Uber could thrive1 under any model, albeit behind closed doors, seems like an indicator. To me it seems like a concession that the regulatory pressure from some of the world’s biggest jurisdictions is too overwhelming to fight with lobbying and threats alone, and that Uber will have to meet them halfway on some key points of contention. That’s what they’ve done in Spain, where they have contracted with staffing agencies to manage their new hiring commitments.
That seems obvious, but you could be forgiven for looking at the past ten years of fire-and-brimstone rhetoric on labour rights and asking: “For what?”
They did The Matrix on a cow
Notes on a meltdown
I don’t love writing about Covid politics, but unfortunately all politics are Covid politics right now, so this will have to do.
The last few weeks of Australian politics as the walls of our fortress tumbled and Omicron variant surged have been, to put it lightly, profoundly weird. Some loose observations:
The Novak Djokovic saga has got to be one of the strangest manifestations of Australia’s island mentality. It seemed to be a singularly point of contention people could bundle up all their thoughts about Covid, border policy and Djokovic himself and unleash on, without much thought to whether it would have any measurable influence on how the pandemic was managed at this particular juncture. The most compelling argument for any of this appeared to be just the continuance of a certain rules-based border regime, in which people have invested an insane amount of mental and spiritual energy over the past two years (and also since Australian federation). Meanwhile, Scott Morrison seemed to change his stance on this apparently vastly important border issue minute by minute, presumably while watching a Minority Report-style Newspoll projection.
Morrison’s Covid political strategy since the very beginning has been pretty much the same: abrogate political responsibility where possible to the states and territories, and then claim federal victory for good vibes if and when they occur. It feels like he’s making a historical bet that in decade’s time people will remember that Australia did comparatively well in the pandemic and will give him points for that. He’s probably right!
It’s been said time and time again, but it turns out that people are going to behave rationally in order to minimise risk of infection even in the absence of lockdowns, creating a situation in which everyone is objectively more free but way more stressed.
Both Dominic Perrottet and Daniel Andrews seem to be maintaining a similar strategy: tinker at the edges with Covid policy without implementing anything too economically damaging, on the assumption that this will all come out in the wash once the Omicron wave subsides. Again: they’re probably right.
Rotten to the core
I firmly believe one of the greatest marketing triumphs of this century is Apple managing to code the green text bubble as an ironclad marker of low social status. Even though there are a vast array of messaging apps in market serving any purpose you can name, it remains true that if you appear as a green bubble on an iPhone screen, you are lower than the sans-culottes in 18th-century France, except with absolutely no revolutionary potential. There are plenty of users who won’t stray from the Apple ecosystem almost purely on this basis.
Part of this is down to the fact that Google has been unable to stick with a coherent native messaging architecture for Android, and the feature offering on the platform remains highly fragmented. But let’s face it: Apple thrives on being a luxury brand, and luxury is ultimately as much about who isn’t let in as who is.
Anyway, the above Android tweet is very funny to me as an effort to express a raw contest of power between two enormous tech companies through the lens of cyberbullying and mental health. A hidden war over protocols and standards waged by engineers, product managers and lawyers at two of the most valuable companies on the planet? That’s bullying. And maybe even gaslighting.
This tweet is from Neeraj K. Agrawal, who runs comms for Coin Center, a major crypto thinktank. He’s one of the more prominent voices in the space. It followed a tweet last year where he argued that he “can’t imagine the apes staying valuable”.
Take a look at the replies to the tweet above to see a veritable army of cartoon avatar guys who vociferously disagree with Agrawal’s point and seem convinced that their phenomenally expensive profile pictures are the future of culture.
I wrote about the emergent culture war over NFTs and crypto for subscribers this week. Add this to the list of weird intractable problems that some people think is going to end with everyone on Earth walking around with a cartoon ape avatar, and some think will end with a lot of bankrupt suckers.
Dan Wang’s annual letter on China is always an interesting perspective.
This bit on a new reality show about TikTok hype houses, and how abjectly miserable they seem. “Lots of art attempts to claim that being rich and famous actually sucks, but only Hype House succeeds in making it seem so cheap and so sleazy, the creative equivalent of a crypto scam. If there’s a single takeaway from this show, it’s that the Hype House — and perhaps content houses altogether — must die.”
Good read on J.D. Vance’s journey from being a red state soothsayer for the liberal elite with Hillbilly Elegy into being a firebrand national populist Senate candidate and culture warrior. I think it captures a lot about US political development through the Trump years.
I really like Troy Young’s newsletter People vs Algorithms. This piece tackles Web3 by comparing its acolytes with the sixties counterculture. I think it’s an interesting effort to try and square the circle between this stuff as a cultural movement versus it being a transient halo around technological and financial change. For my part, I think — if you accept this paradigm — it’s kind of like if the boomers skipped the interregnum between smoking dope in Golden Gate Park and voting for Ronald Reagan.
Another view from Ed Zitron: “Nobody Cares About Decentralisation - They Just Want To Get Rich”.
As crypto faces a year of regulatory effort, companies are building up lobbying armies — particularly in the US. Good story on that.
Revisited this bit by Sean Kelly on Scott Morrison. I haven’t read Sean’s book yet, but I do think he nails Morrison’s constructed political personality way better than most commentators.
On human society’s addiction to plastic. We’ve heard this from an environmental, turtle-oriented standpoint but this is really about the cultural dimension.
Wild story about the many and varied layers of crookery involved with a doomed crypto project named Organic Fresh Coin.
I mentioned the craze around Wordle in my last newsletter, and the fact the creator has no interest in monetising it. You know who does? The developers of the legions of clones already popping up on app stores.
I have been really enjoying the podcast Hell of Presidents by Chapo Trap House’s Matt Christman and Chris Wade. It’s a presidential history series, but it really focuses on the role of the executive and of the US Constitution as being really just an endless negotiation between various elite interests. (You can get a free month of Stitcher Premium by using the promo code at that link if you want to listen.)
I try not to get involved whenever K-Pop related drama is happening on the internet, while I also remain dimly aware that it might also represent a model the future of human social conflict. A good breakdown of whatever is going on there right now.
Putting aside for a moment that Uber has never actually ‘thrived’ in EBIDTA terms.