Welcome to our series at Techworld: Culture Crossover. Each week we will pick up examples of projects, exhibitions, events and artefacts that delightfully bridge the worlds of technology and culture.
We’ll be reviewing exhibitions, giving you a heads up on cultural events or talks coming up in the UK and highlighting techy art that tantalises both the senses and the intellect.
It’s hard to ignore Uber’s presence. Backed by billions of dollars from the Saudi government and Softbank’s Vision Fund, the company's global scope, which now includes food delivery, logistics, and taxi drivers, are all powered by the gig economy’s ready supply of precarious workers.
Despite the company’s growth it continues to lose billions of dollars, even though it exploits tax loopholes, sidesteps local taxi licensing regulations, and pays less than minimum wage to its network of over 3 million drivers -- who, classed as independent contractors instead of employees, remain ineligible for workplace insurance, overtime or sick pay. This strategy, combined with investor money, allows Uber to undercut its competition. It’s why taxis cannot compete.
Uber’s disruption is ‘creative destruction’ at its finest. The term, coined by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter in his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, describes how progress in a free market economy cannot occur without casualties: new technologies drown out older ones that cannot keep up against the tides of radical industry change.
Photographer Matthew Joseph has gone to the frontline of Uber’s creative destruction. His project, Uber Impact, documents a melange of voices from taxi drivers in major cities worldwide: from New York, Paris and Rome to Johannesburg, Cape Town and Joseph’s hometown, London.
Joseph captures frustration and anger, but these are far from homogeneous - each city is marked with its own local attitudes.
Joseph notes that drivers in London and Paris felt incensed that they were losing a way of life: “People train for years and pay loads of money for their licence – thousands and thousands of pounds,” he says. “They learned all the streets, and they had to buy their licence – their right to drive a cab. And then Uber comes along and completely disrupts that. So there’s anger there. There’s more tradition in Paris as there is in London.”
Lynn (below), one of Joseph’s photography subjects from London, shares her thoughts in the assisting caption: “Driving a black cab has been one of the few ways uneducated, working class people can earn a decent income – Uber comes along and takes that chance away, and people think we’re just complaining. It’s a 350-year-old trade.”
© 2018 MATTHEW JOSEPH
Jamal (above), another London driver Joseph photographed, says: “I came here from Somalia 15 years ago and have been a black cab driver for two years now. It took me four years to pass the Knowledge which I did whilst I working for Addison Lee.”
Introduced in 1865, the Knowledge is the gruelling test that London taxi drivers must pass to qualify for a TfL license. It requires learning 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks, and typically takes three to four years to pass its seven phases, which include written and oral components.
Like black-cab drivers, Jean from Paris (below) had to learn over 3,000 streets, all Parisian intersections and "40 trips by heart” to earn his stripes as a taxi driver.
© 2018 MATTHEW JOSEPH
Joseph also talked with drivers in New York, a city that defends its own taxi tradition in the yellow cabs, which have existed since the early 20th century. In recent years, disenfranchised New York taxi drivers have commit suicide, unable to compete with Uber and pay off the costs of the medallion (or operating permit), which cost up to $1 million in 2013. Since the arrival of Uber, medallion costs in New York have dropped to $200,000.
Yet in that same city, there are also taxi drivers who are open to change. One driver, Daniel (below), says: “Uber has had a huge impact here – the money has been decreasing since I started, but I’m not angry at them because monopoly is no good. I don’t believe in monopoly.”
Another driver, Rigoberto, says: “Uber has changed the business a lot, we have fewer and fewer customers, but I’m pleased for them – they need to make a living too. I’m thinking about going over to Uber – loads of other drivers have left my local cab garage. I need to pay the rent!”
© 2018 MATTHEW JOSEPH
This difference in attitudes surprised Joseph. “I do put it down to something in the American psyche,” he says. “They just have more appreciation of capitalism and entrepreneurial spirit. Whereas over here, and other countries, we’re a bit more set in our ways and resistant to change.”
Uber’s impact is felt more immediately in the global south, says Joseph: “Because you’re in a country where the economy is less strong, and the opportunities are less, when a disruptive force comes in like this, people are a lot closer to a very fine line, of having food and not having food. And I was meeting people who were hungry because of Uber.”
The London photographer recalls meeting struggling taxi drivers in South Africa who were forced to moonlight as Uber drivers – but in high secrecy, in fear of losing their lives. “In South Africa, the Uber drivers are hated so much that there are attacks and there are deaths,” Joseph tells Techworld. “People are scared to drive [Uber].”
Wilson, a South African taxi driver with 21 years of experience, says: “There are no other jobs for me as I don’t have other experience. I now only have two trips a day, or sometimes nothing. I have to work 24 hrs and I sleep in the back, as I need to look after my family.” Wilson admits he may need to start driving for Uber as he cannot compete but adds: “It’s very dangerous – taxi drivers are hitting the cars, attacking Uber drivers […] we fight a lot”.
In 2017, an Uber and two taxis were torched in Johannesburg’s Sandton district as a result of the rivalry – an act that is not uncommon. In 2016, four men in Nairobi, Kenya attacked a taxi driver moonlighting as an Uber driver and also torched his car. Stories of other vicious clashes emerge from Costa Rica and Australia too, where a recent class action lawsuit representing 6,000 taxi drivers was filed against Uber for “operating illegally and harming [drivers] financially”.
Joseph does, however, acknowledge the positive changes competition has brought to taxis. “In London it’s forced all black cabs to accept credit card and debit card payments," he says. "And I love that. I think that’s an excellent change in technology for the better, thanks to a disruptor coming in from the left.”
But responding to change becomes difficult in struggling economies. Joseph summarises how the South African drivers he has met feel: “We’re willing to change, we’re willing to get card machines, but we don’t have the funding, we don’t have the training – the government have just let this startup just roll in without any qualifications. They’re not giving us any support."
Uber’s bid to monopolise the hired car industry concerns Joseph.
“What I worry about is how I've always seen Uber's business model,” he says. “They go into these cities and towns and they undercut all competition. And the cost is written off from head office, hence Uber being a loss-making company for many years. But as soon as they then have the monopoly and everyone is referring to ordering an Uber rather than ordering a taxi, it's just part of the vocabulary, it's part of general life, it's on TV dramas, in films – it’s an Uber not a taxi. As soon as Uber's done that, then it’s a way of life. And they can then price hike and everyone has to go along for the ride.”
Joseph believes that it's up to governments to enforce the social responsibility of managing aggressive, disruptive startups, especially those that have repeatedly shown a willingness to operate outside of the law.
“Firstly, it has to be the local authorities because in a big city, traditionally, you apply for a licence to drive a taxi in those cities," he explains. "There's already this pre-existing industry, and for years, for decades, they've had to go through the local councils and apply for these licences – the rights to drive a taxi in this in this community – so why do they then just suddenly open the doors and let anyone in?”
At the same time, Joseph urges consumers to question the convenience of disruptive tech. Quick and cheap service, “the lowest common denominator” as he calls it, isn’t always better.
“We’re naturally drawn to the idea that quicker and cheaper must be better," he says. "And I don’t think that’s always the case. How do you measure better when you’re in an accident with Uber and there are problems with the insurance, or your Uber driver cancels on you at the last minute because they can’t be bothered?
“At the end of the day, someone has to be disrupted for progress to happen. But I think there’s a social responsibility to make sure for the government, when there’s a whole industry built around something, to look after the people, even if the disruption has to happen for progress.”
Governments are reacting, however. Countries across Europe, North America and Asia have suspended or banned the service. In 2017, Denmark introduced laws that that required taxi drivers to use fare meters, which prompted Uber to withdraw its services. Hungary’s taxi laws similarly forced Uber to suspend operations in 2016. France, Finland, Switzerland and Spain have all pushed back against UberPop, Uber’s budget ride-sharing option in Europe. Last year, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled member states could punish and prohibit services like UberPop without having to notify the Commission.
Uber went public on 10 May, 2019. The company’s IPO was one of the most anticipated since Facebook’s in 2012, with a feted valuation of $120 billion and shares priced at $45. The company closed significantly under its asking price at $37.10 a share, shrinking its market value to $75.5 billion. It’s being called one of the worst IPOs in history, and the company continues to lose value in the days following. As monopolies rise, they too must fall – and Uber currently stands on shaky grounds.