Wwhenever I hear about the wild antics of a Silicon Valley startup, I think of Reid Hoffman’s 2018 book Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies. Hoffman is not an armchair general. A billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn, he is an elder statesman of the tech industry. That’s why I always find it disturbing that Hoffman’s favored analogy for how to run a startup is the Nazi Wehrmacht.
Third Reich troops, he explains, “abandoned the traditional method of moving at slow speeds where they could establish secure supply lines and shrink”. Instead, they adopted an offensive approach that “accepted the possibility of running out of fuel, provisions and ammunition”. They did this to “maximize speed and surprise”, knowing that the price could be a “potentially disastrous defeat”.
Hoffman’s book is a useful guide to macho capitalism that took root in Silicon Valley in the 2010s. Under tremendous pressure from investors demanding “hockey-stick” growth, the founders saw their work in Darwinian terms. Starting a business is not only an act of creation, but also an act of destruction – or, better yet, “disruption”. Fast movement is not enough: you also need to destroy things.
The Guardian’s reporting on Uber’s files suggests that Uber sincerely endorsed the blitzkrieg mentality in the mid-2010s. The company’s top executive in Asia has urged managers to push growth even as “the fire starts to burn”. In fact, burning is the point. “Know that this is a normal part of Uber’s business,” he said. “Embrace the chaos. That means you are doing something meaningful. ”
Uber moved quickly and it broke things. And if the Guardian’s allegations are correct, some of the things it violated were laws.
Unlike many of its imitators, Uber was truly revolutionary in its time. Arriving in a city, waiting for a taxi has become a thing of the past. Booking in advance is for the losers. Here, finally, is a service that is completely in the control of its users. Cheaper and more convenient than the old ways, the brand was launched as “everyone’s private driver”. For urban millennials pushed into adulthood after the big recession, Uber is a critical element of the “lifestyle subsidy” that has made life more affordable and fun – a small cosmic compensation for unattainable housing, very high rent and indifference.
For drivers who actually worked for Uber, the story is more complicated. Many embrace flexibility; less popular salary and conditions. And for the legacy taxi industry, this is really war. In dealing with the raging Parisian taxi drivers, Uber generals apparently ordered its own drivers to stage a counter-protest with “mass civil disobedience”.
However, the cultural importance of Uber than the totality of its Priuses. This is the brand that launched a thousand pitches. The hosts of aspiring Steve Jobses say they are building “Uber, but for personal finance” o “Uber, but for athleisurewear”. Uber has become shorthand for an entire category of commercial activity – the platform economy, gig economy, sharing economy – and the use of reputation systems in place of external oversight. Uber isn’t just a business model: it’s a credo. A way of life.
Sadly, but perhaps predictable, is that Uber will soon master the dark art of courting politicians. One of its biggest challenges will always be regulatory risk: that the legal and political climate in a target market will make business impossible. Of course, Uber isn’t the first company (and certainly not the first tech company) to seek to use its influence to change the law. What’s even more intriguing is the extent of its hustle with an open door. Uber has been accepted, albeit celebrated, in the corridors of power. For a particular type of optimistic politician, Uber embodies the promise of technology-driven social development. This brilliant platform is the future; the tedious old regulations are long gone.
The political sands have changed since then. Now it’s not so easy to argue that the tech industry can be left to mark its own assignment. Lawmakers are immersing themselves in introducing new laws. Regulators crack their knuckles. And under stress, a deeper intellectual re -assessment is taking place – of the relationship between technology and capitalism itself.
The old consensus is that market competition is reliable to eliminate excess tech industries. After all, if businesses don’t give consumers what they want, they will soon break down. That’s the theory, at least. In reality, the opposite has become true. As well as enabling change, market pressures-the relentless need to “maximize speed and surprise”-have also spurred outrageous, even illegal, behavior.
The tragedy of Uber is ultimately not one of technology. Even in capitalism. This is a political tragedy. We live in an era of extraordinary technological change. Non -human systems are becoming more capable, and soon they are everywhere – in all the actions, transactions and interactions that make up a meaningful life. Digital technologies can make life richer, more entertaining and more dignified. Proper governance, they can strengthen our democracy and increase the limits of our freedom. But this kind of development will never be the result of market activity alone, much less the kind of market activity that treats commerce as a war in which strength, speed and capacity for aggression are counted. more than anything.
The great political mission in the next few decades should be to use the power of technology for the good of humanity, not just for the benefit of the lucky ones who own and control it. In this mission, democratic politics is our only hope. We need leaders who are brave enough to embrace new technologies, smart enough to see their limitations, creative enough to think of alternative ways of managing and brave enough to get off their feet.