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I am standing on a street staring at the screen that tells me I have missed my bus. I am staring at the street on the screen and trying to work out which number I am near. I am staring at the screen and it is showing me a car drive slowly towards me, a smiling face and licence-plate number just below. I am staring at the screen and rating the driver out of five.
You can always find a cab in Wellington, always get a ride from the depths of any suburb with little more than a cellphone signal.
Yet even with cellphones, even with digital meters on electronic cars paid for by mobile EFTPOS machines, this isn’t enough. You have to talk to someone. You have to fish your wallet out of your pocket. You have to leave your driver entirely unquantified, anonymous and random, with every chance that you’ll never see him again, or see him in your next cab. It’s all very old-world. Enter Uber.
Uber is an app that books cabs for you. You check if one’s available, it gives you an estimated fare, and then you watch your driver approach on a map. The fare is automatically deducted from your debit or credit card, then you get to rate the driver and the driver gets to rate you. It just launched in Wellington.
Taxis are already such a weird form of capitalism. You pay someone else money for private freedom of transport, usually to a man who clearly needs the money much more than you need the ride. The imbalance is palpable, especially when you’re jumping drunk into a cab after a night of fun and they’re just getting into the middle of their horrid 12-hour shift, a shift that could easily net them very little money.
Uber makes taxis even weirder, even more impersonal. It was my driver’s first day when I took a ride with him – he was apprehensive but intrigued, fumbling at his loan-iPhone every time we paused. He already had more jobs lined up than his regular cab service would have, but was a little worried about paying for petrol, as he wouldn’t receive his Uber pay until the next week.
Online, uber-Uber users are already begging for a tick box that says “I don’t want the driver to talk to me”. It’s probably not far off.
Uber is neoliberalism in its purest form, efficient and horrible, both utterly indifferent and slavishly subservient to the needs of the individual. Uber is probably exploiting its drivers, if international evidence is anything to go by, and is using irresponsible venture capital to knock out the competition. We were probably exploiting them under the old system too, but at least then we had some semblance of regulation.
That said, if you use the code ‘9850t’ when you sign up, we both get a free $10 credit. Embrace your contradictions bb!