3 reasons to ditch Uber (AND Lyft) and take a yellow cab instead

taxi

In 2017, progressive-minded people learned that if they wish to support transportation businesses that align with their values, they should hail a ride using Lyft instead of Uber.

Why? Well, there’s the gross stuffs, the privacy stuff, and the illegal stuffs.

Eek. Bad stuff.

But if a progressive were to choose a form of transportation that aligns with their values, they wouldn’t use Uber OR Lyft. They’d take a freaking yellow cab.

Here’s why:

1. Cost

Let’s start with the best one. If you fell in love with Uber’s low prices, I urge you to check your favorite Silicon Valley-backed ride-hailing app against the fare estimate in Curb, the app for yellow cabs in many cities. In my (admittedly limited) experience, the fares given in Curb are significantly lower than Uber/Lyft, especially when surge pricing is in effect.

2. Sustainability

When Uber/Lyft are cheaper, it’s because your ride is effectively being subsidized by venture-capital firms. Here’s an article about this {bloomberg} and some tweets:

3. Labor

If progressives truly support fair labor laws, unionization, and a living wage, they shouldn’t support Uber/Lyft, both of which are in the business of undermining those very laws and institutions.

Conclusion

I’m not saying everything is perfect about yellow cabs. There’s the medallion thing and the once-frequent refusal of many drivers to accept credit cards (which is now irrelevant thanks to Curb). But you’re kidding yourself if you think Uber/Lyft are making the world a better place or making the transportation market more efficient.

Image courtesy Flicker user Lensicle, but I added some black lines to it. Used under Creative Commons. 

Lost potential

subway

The past ten years have been an exceptionally big waste of human potential. (And I’d probably extend my assertion back even further if I knew more about world history.)

But since the financial crisis of 2008, access to capital (for governments or private companies) has been incredibly cheap and plentiful. Yet we haven’t invested significantly in public infrastructure, despite more than a decade worth of promises and proclamations. Elon Musk is one of the few people in the public sphere willing to make spectacular bets. (Or perhaps he’s just better at PR than his fellow crazy billionaires.)

If you want a hint of what this lack of investment feels like, just go for a ride on the NYC subway. Most of the cars and stations are living monuments to a time when we thought it was OK to spend money on big, crazy projects—like digging a gazillion tunnels underground and figuring out how to wire them with enough electricity to move a few thousand pounds of steel and flesh 100 miles under a river, 24/7. Part of me thinks that it’s great that these cars are old! It shows that good ol’ fashioned steel (not plastic!) can stand the test of time.

But the system isn’t keeping up with demand. The cars are packed with commuters and delays are the norm. The personal inconveniences I face every morning aren’t what I’m concerned about here; I do OK. My $2.75 subway ride is usually 20-30 minutes and everyone in my workplace faces the same delays and frustrations.

But every morning, I wonder what the subway could be like, and how that would make life more pleasant for the hundreds of thousands of NY commuters. It might encourage more investment or sway a few people from leaving the city. It could also start restoring people’s faith in public institutions, demonstrate that organizations can respond to change, create dynamic plans based on measurable objectives, and deliver some degree of improvement.

I suppose this is why it’s more fashionable to point to dictators as a desirable way of running a government. “What has democracy done for me, lately,” one might wonder.

I don’t endorse this selfish view of a sprawling and complex system like our democracy, which was designed to deliver a slow pace of change. But is it unreasonable? To hope for a different way, when the current trajectory and recent examples don’t make it likely that our institutions will rise to the challenge and deliver the things people want?

I don’t want to pass too much of the blame to social media; it’s an easy out. But Facebook and Twitter are really good at clustering people into like-minded groups, then feeding them niche stories that are likely to foster “engagement” (i.e. make them mad). It’s not even that the content is hyper-partisan or even false. The harm is in the curation. We don’t get a balanced daily media diet when so much of our news comes from social media. And that means we’re all the more likely to see the stories that push our buttons and offend our beliefs, which pushes us further away from each other, and further away from imagining a different way.

There’s a lot I’m leaving out here. I don’t have a conclusion. I’m just trying to flesh out my thoughts. Perhaps I’ll return to this topic on another day.

[photo cred]

You are what you consume: Facebook v. Twitter

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You are what you read, watch, and listen to. The content you consume changes how you think about the world, and determines what topics you’re aware of and concerned about. Over the past century, countless thinkers have explored this idea, and from a variety of perspectives.

McLuhan focused on the media type (i.e. books vs. television), and asserted that the medium through which content is delivered changes how the content is encoded by the creator, and decoded by the recipient. More recently, Nicholas Carr argued that ways digital media affects our ability to focus and follow complicated arguments. Eli Pariser coined the term filter bubble to describe the way social media is designed to show us content we already agree with—clustering us into like-minded groups infrequently exposed to ideas that challenge our existing attitudes and beliefs.

But what if social media, the same technology that helped create today’s highly polarized political environment, could be used to reverse the trend? What if you could assemble a custom feed of diverse thinkers representing an eclectic range of voices from across the political spectrum, or whichever thing you’re into. And since your thoughts are influenced by the content you consume, this could help your thinking be more inclusive of a range of views. It’s a personalized news feed more directly curated by you, rather than Facebook’s engagement algorithms.

That’s how I use Twitter. I follow an eclectic mix of artists, journalists, comedians, entrepreneurs and startup influencers, and political thinkers from both sides. When I open my Twitter homepage, I’m exposed to views I agree with and those I do not. It’s a way to take me out of my bubble every once and awhile, and remind me that “the other side” often has good points to make and  deeply held beliefs to defend.

I suppose I could use Facebook to achieve a similar result. But in my experience, this isn’t how that service is used. Facebook is more for private, personal news and achievements; people seem to be acutely self-conscious when posting there. Twitter is more free-form, public, and informal. Twitter starts with the assumption that you’ll follow people you might not know (i.e. famous people); Facebook is based on precisely the opposite premise.

And really, you could achieve this type of thought diversity by reading different books, picking up magazines from “the other side” every once and awhile, etc. But the cost of engagement is lower on Twitter; all you have to do is click the “follow” button.

The myths and scripts of Silicon Valley

The fact that the utopian mantras Silicon Valley tech companies espouse is disingenuous seems to be getting traction lately. A few examples: Franklin Foer’s new book, this article about virtual reality, and Scott Galloway’s The Four.

Now that it’s fashionable to be critical of the big tech companies, I’d like to plug an essay I wrote for grad school last year. I think my framing of the issue is novel and helpful for understanding the allure of Silicon Valley’s utopian myth.

The basic idea is this:
For generations, social revolutions have followed roughly the same script (as in, the script of a movie or play). Revolutions unfold according to:

  • Set cast of characters
  • Established scene
  • Concurrent narrative
  • Script containing a set of actions

Silicon Valley tech companies use a similar script to introduce their new products. Their script roughly follows this outline:

  • First, a new product or service is developed.
  • Next, the breakthrough invention is introduced by its creator. A typical presentation includes the identification of a malevolent oppressor, and the new product is positioned as the revolutionary antidote.
  • Then the inventor describes all the ways in which the new product will change the world, often using egalitarian countercultural ideals such as individual autonomy, harmonious co-existence, transparency, decentralized systems, and personal freedom and liberty.
  • Finally, the product is purchased by the consumer, and the individual’s journey toward freedom and enlightenment begins.

I think there’s a lot to be learned by looking at Silicon Valley tech companies through the lens of social movements. Read the full essay for more, including a bunch of examples from Uber, Facebook, and Nicholas Negroponte’s 1 Laptop per Child.

View story at Medium.com

I miss grad school.

I’ve been in school for two-thirds of my life. And for half of that first third, I was under 4′ tall. I’ve been in school (K-12, undergrad, and grad) for 3/4 of my twenty adult years.

Why so long? Well, there’s this. A brief stint where I fooled myself into believing I could be a competent graphic designer. Plus the four-ish years of grad school, which I attended while working full-time. And those are just the reasons I feel proud admitting. The truth: I attended six colleges, and have two degrees (one bachelor’s and one master’s) to show for it. While at least three of the six schools can be attributed to that, the truth is, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, couldn’t see what I was good at, and wasn’t able to narrow my interests down to just one topic.

Besides, being in school is fun, relatively easy, and predictable, from a time management point-of-view; your life is essentially scheduled out for you in tidy 3-month intervals.

I finished my graduate degree at Penn last May. I’m glad I’m done with school. I get to relax a bit, see my wife more, and focus on ways I can accelerate my career rather than use those few “free” hours in a day to go to class, or do research for a media history term paper at the library. But I do miss certain aspects of grad school.

What I miss about grad school:

  • Grad school forces you to read (at least 200 pages/week). This means you’re processing different theories and thinking about stuff critically every single day.
  • I like having something else going on. While I was in school and working full-time, I was stimulated professionally and academically. I was writing and editing ebooks and white papers by day, while learning things that had nothing to do with my job at night. The two informed each other and gave me a unique perspective on both.
  • Grad school forces you to take in new ides. I probably never would’ve read Hannah Arendt, Edward Bernays, or Ortega y Gasset if it weren’t for that media class.

While you can take classes online or engage friends and co-workers in challenging conversations, it’s not the same. The internet is great at helping you find what you’re already looking for. But if you’re new to a topic, it’s tough to know where to begin. Sure, you can browse Goodreads, Twitter, and a million blogs.

But grad school sets you up with an expert in the field who will guide you through a subject with high-quality and diverse readings that help you develop your attitudes and beliefs towards said topic. The internet tends to set you up with what’s popular and loud. When researching a topic like media, one of the first people you’ll come across online is Marshall McLuhan. But are his theories still relevant? How have his ideas been adopted and adapted over time? Is he full of shit, as my media professor asserted?

Without a guide, you’re likely to think projects like Nicholas Negroponte’s 1 Laptop Per Child, which I’ve written about favorably (and unfavorably) before, is a universal good thing. It’s bringing technology to people who don’t have it, what’s not to like? But if you don’t have access to potable water, what use is a computer?

School also forces you to read the source materials in their respective books and journals, so you don’t have to rely on cherry-picking pop academics like Malcolm Gladwell (more here, here, here, and here.)

Conclusion

While I miss school, I don’t think I’ll be going back any time soon. But I am looking for ways to stay engaged with challenging ideas without the help of a tenured professor. Let me know if you have any suggestions.