Whenever 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 no armchair general. A billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn, he is an elder statesman of the tech industry. Which is why I’ve always found it troubling that Hoffman’s favoured analogy for how to run a startup is the Nazi Wehrmacht.
The armies of the Third Reich, he explains, “abandoned the traditional approach of moving at the slow pace at which they could establish secure lines of supply and retreat”. Instead, they adopted an offensive strategy that “accepted the possibility of running out of fuel, provisions and ammunition”. They did this to “maximise speed and surprise”, knowing that the price might be “potentially disastrous defeat”.
Hoffman’s book is a useful guide to the macho capitalism that took root in Silicon Valley in the 2010s. Under immense pressure from investors demanding “hockey-stick” growth, founders saw their work in Darwinian terms. Starting a business was not merely an act of creation, but an act of destruction too – or, better still, “disruption”. Moving fast was not enough: you also had to break things.
The Guardian’s reporting on the Uber files suggests that Uber heartily endorsed the blitzkrieg mentality in the mid-2010s. The company’s top executive in Asia urged managers to push for growth even when “fires start to burn”. Indeed, the burning was the point. “Know this is a normal part of Uber’s business,” he said. “Embrace the chaos. It means you’re doing something meaningful.”
Uber moved fast and it broke things. And if the Guardian’s allegations are right, some of the things it broke were laws.
Unlike many of its imitators, Uber was genuinely revolutionary in its day. When it arrived in a city, waiting for a taxi became a thing of the past. Booking in advance was for losers. Here, finally, was a service totally within the control of its users. Cheaper and more convenient than the old ways, the brand launched as “everyone’s private driver”. For urban millennials thrust into adulthood after the great recession, Uber was a critical element of the “lifestyle subsidy” that made life a little more affordable and fun – a small bit of cosmic compensation for unattainable housing, exorbitant rents and wage stagnation.
For the drivers who actually worked for Uber, the story was more complex. Many welcomed the flexibility; the pay and conditions were less popular. And for the legacy taxi industry, this really was war. Faced with rioting Parisian taxi drivers, Uber’s generals apparently ordered its own drivers to stage a counter-protest with “mass civil disobedience”.
Uber’s cultural significance is greater than the sum of its Priuses, however. It’s the brand that launched a thousand pitches. Legions of aspiring Steve Jobses claimed they were building “Uber, but for personal finance” or “Uber, but for athleisurewear”. Uber became shorthand for a whole category of commercial activity – the platform economy, the gig economy, the sharing economy – and the use of reputation systems as a substitute for external oversight. Uber was not merely a business model: it was a credo. A way of life.
It is grim, but perhaps predictable, that Uber soon mastered the dark arts of courting politicians. One of its greatest challenges was always going to be regulatory risk: that the legal and political climate in a target market would make business impossible. Of course, Uber is not the first company (and certainly not the first tech company) to seek to use its influence to change the law. More intriguing is the extent to which it was pushing an open door. Uber was welcomed, even feted, in the corridors of power. For a certain type of optimistic politician, Uber embodied the promise of tech-driven social progress. This gleaming platform was the future; boring old regulations were the past.
The political sands have shifted since then. Today it is less easy to argue that the tech industry can be left to mark its own homework. Legislators are falling over themselves to introduce new laws. Regulators are cracking their knuckles. And beneath the flummery, a deeper intellectual reassessment is taking place – of the relationship between technology and capitalism itself.
The old consensus was that market competition could be trusted to iron out the excesses of the tech industry. After all, if businesses didn’t give consumers what they wanted, they would soon go bust. That was the theory, at least. In reality, the opposite turned out to be true. As well as enabling innovation, market pressures – the unrelenting need to “maximise speed and surprise” – also incentivised terrible, even illegal, behaviour.
The tragedy of Uber is ultimately not one of technology. Nor even of capitalism. It is a tragedy of politics. We live in an era of extraordinary technological change. Non-human systems are becoming immensely more capable, and soon they will be everywhere – in all the actions, transactions and interactions that make up a meaningful life. Digital technologies could make life richer, more entertaining and more dignified. Properly governed, they could strengthen our democracy and enlarge the limits of our liberty. But this kind of progress will never be the result of market activity alone, still less the kind of market activity that treats commerce as a war in which strength, speed and the capacity for aggression count for more than anything else.
The great political mission of the next few decades should be to harness the power of technology for the good of humanity, not merely for the benefit of those lucky enough to own and control it. In this mission, democratic politics is our only hope. We need leaders bold enough to embrace new technologies, wise enough to see their limitations, creative enough to imagine alternative ways of governing and brave enough to put their foot down.
Jamie Susskind is a barrister and the author of The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century
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