For our final readings of our year at AC4D, we discussed four texts under the theme of the “Obligations of Entrepreneurship.” As we continue to work on our respective student projects and build business models around them in other classes, the consideration of obligations becomes especially relevant. What are we promising when we put things into the world, in particular, when those things are companies?
The first reading was an article by Richard Eskow, titled “The Sharing Economy is a Lie: Uber, Ayn Rand, and the Truth About Tech and Libertarians.” Eskow takes Uber to task over their (mis)handling of a crisis situation in Australia, wherein Uber enacted surge pricing as people attempted to flee an area in which a hostage situation was taking place. During the crisis, Uber put out the following tweet:
We are all concerned with events in CBD. Fares have increased to encourage more drivers to come online & pick up passengers in the area.
Due to backlash, Uber eventually gave the rides for free. What is the obligation Uber has to the people it serves? In class, we discussed its obligation to stakeholders and to make money. As part of the “sharing economy,” because of it’s semi-social connotation, does it also have a civic obligation to “do the right thing” in times of crisis? Eskow’s writing gives off the sense of feeling betrayed by Uber, as if by being part of the “sharing economy,” with all it’s feel-good associations, Uber was making implicit promises about how it would behave and where its allegiances lie.
Another betrayal Eskow might be feeling is from the promises of “disruption.” Disruption is a fashionable concept. To the best of my knowledge, it means addressing a new market, or an existing market cheaper, faster, or more conveniently. In terms of implicit promises connoted by “disruption,” the term means less bureaucracy, less middle men, more money for customers to keep. In light of our other readings, another, more interesting definition of disruption might be a successful challenge to the binary alluded to by our other authors, Ezio Manzini, Chris Meierling, and Stephen Linder.
What is the binary? Eskow points out what he calls a “false binary” constructed by Uber. “Us or City Hall” with it’s bureaucracy and regulations. What was the binary before Uber? Perhaps the interests of taxi drivers v. City Hall. Chris Meierling, in “The Construction of Complexity in Design and Public Policy Contexts” brings up the temptation of putting issues into a binary, and how the binary is reinforced by the 2-party political system. Meierling points out that “in the context of argumentation and adversarial relationships” (in public policy), “the generation of ideas, a key aspect of the design process, complicates the approach of garnering support on an issue from opposition.” Any third way detracts from one party or another. A real “disruption” then would not be the shift from one binary into another. It might be inclusive of a third option, or infinite options. Stephen Linder, in “From Social Theory to Policy Design” points out that the ‘emerging, post-industrial world’ is one of great complexity, interdependence and indeterminacy. There will be a greater fusion of domestic and international polities and economies to the extent that national decision-makers will have less control over their own destinies,” implying that the 2-party binary may not be sustainable in the face of increased global interdependency.
What does a non-binary look like? Ezio Manzini, author of “Design, Ethics, and Sustainability. Guidelines for a Transitional Phase,” suggests that alternative viewpoints of what constitutes the collective mental model of “well-being” may be a more sustainable way of life. He claims that “the idea of well-being is a social construct” characterized by “democratization of access to products […] in order to increase individual freedom and democracy of consumption.” The opposition to this traditional view of well-being may be non-capitalist societies. Manzini suggests a third way, which is “living well (or better) while consuming less,” and recognizes it would be a “radical change in social expectations (and a systemic discontinuity in the production system).” What could be more disruptive? How would Uber be different if the definition of disruption, which they clearly want to fill, was living well while consuming less? In some ways, Uber could make the argument they are doing exactly that with their “ride sharing.” Eskow, however, sees this as hypocrisy, as Uber takes up just as much infrastructure as regulated companies and subsidizing their poor treatment of employees by forcing them to rely on government insurance and other safety nets. He says, “the invisible costs of ventures like Uber are extracted over time, far surpassing whatever short-term savings they may occasionally offer.”
So how is disruption to take place given that true disruption upends the binary status quo? Manzini gives this guidance for designers (and by extension, companies): “I will simply state that the groundwork for macro-transformations and for great systemic changes is laid by micro-transformations and by local systemic discontinuities, i.e. through the kind of changes in which design can play an important role”… should designers choose to accept. As for our projects, it is worth taking a look through this lens of “disruption” in each of it’s various definitions to determine where this the spectrum our efforts fall.