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<nettime> Jathan Sadowski and Karen Gregory: Is Uber's ultimate goal the privatisation of city governance?


Is Uber's ultimate goal the privatisation of city governance?

   The taxi app faces many obstacles to its plans for city transport,
   making its battles with existing cab services merely the beginning

   Jathan Sadowski and Karen Gregory

   Tuesday 15 September 2015 11.19 BST 
     Last modified on Tuesday 15 September 2015 14.08 BST

   It's been a busy summer for Uber. In San Francisco, the app-based
   transportation service and world's richest startup is testing on-demand
   mass transit with its Smart Routes offering - essentially
   carpools running bus-like routes. Elsewhere, Uber is expanding into
   China, raising $1.2bn to back a push into 100 Chinese cities
   over the next year.

   To build its Eastern empire, Uber is maintaining its infamously
   aggressive tactics by hiring an "elite team of launchers". The job
   advertisement sounds like Uber is looking for CIA operatives, not brand
   ambassadors: "At base, this job entails being dropped into a city or
   country where Uber has zero brand and physical presence, quickly
   figuring out who and what make that city run, and then building a new
   business from scratch - in a matter of weeks - which sets Uber up for
   long-term success".

   With a well-financed combination of rapid roll-out and local
   infiltration, Uber hopes to overcome rival services and strict

   This continual growth - new services, new regions, new markets - has
   many wondering about Uber's ultimate goals. Uber is flush with cash,
   explicitly expansionist across the globe, and engages in strong-arm
   politics. Its goals, and its methods for achieving them, will make an

Governance by app and the end of politics

   Some commentators argue that Uber's endgame is to be the death
   knell for current modes of public mass transit. Graduating from service
   provision to infrastructure operation on public roads, the company
   would become like a utility, not just a competitor with cabs. And
   as it privatises an increasing proportion of transport infrastructure,
   public services will be abandoned to decay, with Uber providing
   marginally more optimised transit options (Smart Routes, UberX,
   UberBLACK, etc) for a profit.

   While this vision of privatisation is partly correct and rather grim,
   it misses a key point: Uber wants in on public infrastructure. But
   it is considerably less clear that the company actually wants to become
   a utility, which would mean taking on long-term responsibility for a
   huge fleet of vehicles and employees.

   A more apt understanding of Uber's ambitions is that the company wants
   to be involved in city governance - fashioning the new administrative
   capacities of urban environments. Rather than follow government rules,
   like any other utility, Uber wants a visible hand in creating urban
   policy, determining how cities develop and grow, eventually making the
   city itself a platform for the proliferation of "smart", data-based

   While Uber is currently fighting for deregulation, it is misleading
   to understand this as simply attempting to remove legal barriers to
   market forces. Rather, it is a process of disrupting political power.
   And Uber has already established itself as a power player.

Power in urban space

   To date, Uber has successfully lobbied for (or forced) changes in
   regulation, pushed back against the mayor of New York in a
   high-profile battle, and is currently fighting to avoid a major
   class-action lawsuit that threatens to reclassify some Uber
   drivers as employees. That's right: Uber really doesn't want to manage
   employees and vehicles.

   Related: Uber and the lawlessness of 'sharing economy' corporates

   Uber is more interested in urban governance than in becoming a utility.
   That's not to say Uber intends to run for public office or even that it
   intends to participate in a democratic process - its power is better
   exercised outside of those limited positions and procedural rules.
   What we are witnessing instead is Uber's participation in the early
   days of retrofitting the "smart city".

   Such retrofitting means not only implementing on-demand private
   services for an increasing number of urban dwellers, but paving the way
   for deep integration of data-driven systems in every facet of
   city life.

   Uber's ambitious power grabs are underwritten by a vast data capture
   and analysis infrastructure, making it the lead inspiration for
   "disruptive" services (just think of the plethora of Uber for X
   startups). Even if Uber the company were to disappear tomorrow, its
   model of service - the platform economy sold to us with
   promises of cheap convenience and "sharing" at the cost of ubiquitous
   data capture - would remain.

Data, driven

   What these platforms offer is an invaluable infrastructure of real-time
   data analytics for governance. The more dependent we are on them for
   services, the more entangled we get in the politics of their
   designers, purveyors, and owners.

   Philosopher of technology Langdon Winner throws this into stark relief
   in his book The Whale and the Reactor, arguing: "The things we call
   `technologies' are ways of building order in our world". They influence
   and structure how we travel, communicate, work, and so much more. He
   continues: "In that sense technological innovations are similar to
   legislative acts or political foundings that establish a framework for
   public order that will endure over many generations".

   Uber and other major "sharing economy" players are not merely gracing
   us with the innovations they tout. They are playing technological
   politics to lay the groundwork for new forms of governance.

   While Uber may enjoy positioning itself as apolitical, it is more
   illuminating to see the company as a harbinger of networked
   urbanism - where cities are driven by big data analytics and networks
   controlled in part by machines - which will force us to ask the
   question: what does it mean to govern?

   (c) 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.
   All rights reserved.

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