In an interview with CityLab, Alext Rosenblat, technology ethnographer and author of Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work, shares her research on how Uber’s “algorithm as a boss” attitude affects Uber drivers’ livelihoods.
Tanvi Misra: What does it mean to have an algorithm as a boss? Uber’s platform claims to be a neutral middleman that connects open drivers to passengers who need a ride. It has presented itself as sort of a credit-card processor—just making a transaction more efficient. But you’ve found that there’s a lot more under the surface.
Alex Rosenblat: What Uber was doing was saying, “Hey, we have a pretty hands-off role here: All we’re doing is connecting people.” So you get Uber classifying drivers as “independent contractors” and billing them as entrepreneurs which, in the years following the Great Recession, was a really promising rallying cry. But when I started to do more research I found that drivers were actually managed by algorithmic bosses. They were just harder to see.
You have this app that is recording such granular detail on your behavior and can also engage with you in precise ways. Uber will notify drivers when they brake too quickly or accelerate too fast. That seems to contradict the idea that Uber is just a transaction processor.
Another thing is that Uber communicates where there is high demand in real time or predictively. Here’s an algorithm that can help us create better efficiencies between supply and demand, right? But drivers get frustrated if they, for example, are told by their manager to relocate to a particular place at a particular time and they know they have to drive for 20 minutes. Then they get there and they get no fares for 20 or 30 minutes. That doesn’t have the same weight as a neutral recommendation, or even one that’s where the stakes are low—like when Netflix recommends you try a rom-com and you don’t enjoy it. When your manager recommends that you will earn more if you do the following thing and then that doesn’t happen, it has a different implication. A person’s livelihood is at stake.
Read more from the CityLab interview.
And learn about what others are saying about Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work.