The personal loathsomeness of Kalanick obscures the broader trends that made his company possible. The cult of the CEO has constrained the imagination of the press. Is Uber’s culture too damaged to change? Will it lose out to Lyft? Stories like these place too much emphasis on how a single individual shapes an organization. Sexual harassment and discrimination pervade Silicon Valley like fog. Even well-established Google was revealed in a recent study to suffer from “extreme gender pay disparity.” A 2016 survey of Silicon Valley workers titled “Elephant in the Valley” revealed that 60 percent of women in Silicon Valley had suffered harassment, and one in three felt afraid for their personal safety. One would have to go back to the office world of the 1970s to find such an asphyxiating atmosphere of fear and gaslighting, or to Fox News.
What makes Silicon Valley novel — or perhaps a throwback to Standard Oil and the railroads — is the homology between its companies’ internal culture of predation, sexual and otherwise, and the swashbuckling illegality of their public maneuvers. For all the hoopla over their parental leave and benefits, Valley companies extract punishing hours from their workers, whose salaries they keep artificially low by ensuring they can’t shift jobs. In the world at large, they gain monopoly power by busting regulations, flouting antitrust laws, and buying politicians. Despite the microdistinctions people like to make between the two, bad Uber and good Lyft are united in these practices. From the outset, both intended to undermine the rules that regulate transportation, and both have succeeded.
As Brad Stone tells it in his breathless account, The Upstarts, Uber and Lyft exuded a toddler-like confusion over regulations, taxes, and transit bureaucracy when they started out — obstacles that, when confronted, provoked in them a violent desire to break everything.
In their antiregulatory crusade, Uber and Lyft have fostered a divided society, pitting one kind of worker against another, one kind of user against another. The largest group of Uber drivers is white (40 percent), with black non-Hispanics the second largest (19.5 percent); the largest group of taxi drivers is black (over 30 percent), with white drivers in second (26 percent). Most Uber drivers are younger and have college experience, and many have degrees; most taxi drivers are older, married, and have never been to college. Though Uber is generally cheaper, its ridership is younger and richer than taxi riders, with most identifying themselves in the “middle 50 percent” of incomes (around $45,000 a year); seniors, the disabled, and the poor make up a higher percentage of taxi clientele than their share of the general population.
The political strategy behind ride-sharing lies in pitting the figure of the consumer against the figure of the citizen.