The controversy surrounding Uber has called the usefulness of customer reviews into question. Is it time to modify the system?
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
"They're running a sweatshop with an app," Raj Alazzeh told Liz Gannes of AllThingsD. Alazzeh had worked with the newly started Uber service, a cell phone app that lets users order a car without having to dial any specific service or talk to a dispatcher, and had come to its San Francisco offices to protest its policies. Uber doesn't technically employ any of its drivers, but instead funnels users to drivers it registers through a database. The app allows for user ratings of individual drivers and a few bad ratings can be enough to delist drivers or lower their pay, according to Allazeh. It also makes drivers compete with noncommercial drivers who don't carry commercial liability insurance, something the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) eventually approved but longtime cabbies aren't happy about. Alazzeh claimed 500 drivers had been cut from the service in February because of customer reviews.
Since its launch in 2012, the app has encountered fines and legal struggles with its disruptive aspirations for the heavily and variously regulated taxi services around the country. The company was fined $20,000 by CPUC for operating without a license and is contesting lawsuits in San Francisco and Chicago. In New York, the company faced several conflicts with policy, such as the prohibition on taxi drivers using electronic devices while driving as well as unjustifiably refusing to pick up fares. It faced local criticism for the practice of "surge pricing" after Hurricane Sandy, doubling fares after the natural disaster at a time when other companies were offering freebies and waving fees.
Apps like Uber use technology to normalize mistrust and create a venue where it can be used as social currency.
Uber's CEO Travis Kalanick said the claim of 500 delisted drivers was "more than an order of magnitude off" but said the company could not continue to list drivers "who don't know the city well" or "receive consistently negative feedback from riders." Because Uber functions as a connectivity tool rather than an actual transportation service, customer ratings are the most immediate way they have of evaluating drivers, and cutting pay or delisting drivers their primary method of quality assurance.
The standoff is a model for how technologies that increase systemic efficiency don't necessarily improve the system as a whole. Apps like Uber identify one narrow element of a healthy urban environment and create a hyper-efficient channel for access to it while off-loading driver screening, car maintenance, ongoing training, and employee benefits to the workers or the secondary services that employ them. It diminishes the complexities of evaluating and supporting a person's work contributions to a comment box that encourages its customers to view their experience in the most depersonalized way possible.