Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Technology Day! Reviews of "Uberland" and "Lab Rats"

At Book Expo, one of my favorite programs is where we get to listen to editors talk about their books. This year, in the midst of our spring season, I forgot to sign up. I knew from past experiences that a number of people drop out of the program at the last minute. I called Joy at the American Booksellers Association. "Do you want to go to Brooklyn?," she replied. I said sure, expecting to be paired up with Akashic or Melville House, two fine independents that publish books of interest to me. But the next email made it easy - a visit to the Ingram headquarters, not that far from my hotel.

Ingram had gathered together several academic publishers, from Princeton, University of California, Brookings (we've done really well with Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It), Indiana, and Fordham. There was something for everyone - even if your store did not do well with the more serious nonfiction that would be the stock and trade of most of these publishers, Indiana University Press has a very strong food line and a Pence biography.

For me,  the highlight was a presentation of the book Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work, by Alex Rosenblat from editor Maura Roessner. Uber has certainly gotten it's share of negative press. But Rosenblat stays away from the controversial missteps of former CEO Travis Kalanick to focus on one issue - what is the role of drivers at Uber? The thesis begins with a perception of the business itself - is Uber a transportation company or a technology company? We know their passengers are customers (with all the manipulation and data mining that goes along with that), but what about their drivers? Are they independent contractors, consumers, or heaven forbid, employees? Uberland argues for each alternative, depending on the situation. Technology ethnographer Rosenblat breaks those arguments down, focusing on bait and switch recruiting, misleading fares, skimmed tips, and algorithm-based processes that take the ‘independent’ out of contractor. And when something goes wrong, drivers are left to automated responses and powerless offshore call centers. That means there’s less about the specific toxic culture of Uber (though she hardly ignores that) and more about problems that are more endemic to all sharing platforms. Based on Uber’s previous run-ins with journalists, Uberland includes a chapter on metholdology, as well as copious notes. It’s what I’d call accessible academic, so expect less storytelling and more thesis support. But if you’re interested, as I am, in what technology is doing to our lives, it’s must reading.

One thing that struck me is that Uber gives the bill to the rider right away, but waits ten minutes to notify the driver. According to Rosenblat, this was so rider and driver could not compare notes. Would this lead to the rider and driver getting different information about the cost of the fare? Of course not! And of course, Rosenblat, by focusing on the contractors, gives you the assumption that folks who work in Uber Central have a more traditional career path. Great perks, reasonable hours, room for advancement, no robot bosses. I always think back to that retailer (unnamed) that consistently made the list of Great Places to Work, but their great culture was for folks who worked at the corporate headquarters, not the stores, which were filled with part-time, minimum-wage grunts. Dan Lyons's new book, Lab Rats: How Silicon Valley Made Work Miserable for the Rest of Us indicates that at many tech companies, even folks in the central office are grunts.

When Dan Lyons lost his job at Newsweek, he wound up taking a job at Hubspot, only to find that the web 2.0 tech culture was no match for him? He wondered if it was a match for anyone, save tech pro venture capitalists, toxic bosses, and software companies that sold employee monitoring software. But as he began to promote his book on the experience, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, he found his situation was not so isolated. The business, once the province of nerds and do-gooders, is now run by wealthy money lenders (many of whom are graduates of the PayPal payout) who are intent on building unicorns (privately held startups with valuation over $1 billion), with an end game of pulling out as much money as possible.

The lowest priority are workers, who are burned out by overwork and toxic cultures and out-gamed by business strategies such as Agile and Lean Startup (though I should note this obsession with management gurus dramatically predates tech). Some of you might remember the institution of the no-boss philosophy of Zappos – there’s a guru to thank for that. Regarding the horrifying treatment of employees, the thinking seems to be that since they will all be replaced by machines eventually, why invest? Lyons finds some companies that are doing the right thing - hiring employees instead of contractors, focusing on real quality-of-life issues instead of ping pong tables, and one VC (Kapor Capital) that even focuses on gap-closing investment. Just one, mind you. But mostly, Lyons exposes the deeds of unicorns and unicorns in training, including several big names that get mostly white-glove coverage in the general press. Lyons’s reporting is always enjoyable, even when I don’t exactly understand what working with a scrum master is. Let’s hope that Lab Rats inspires less unicorns and more zebras.

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