Maybe Unicorns Aren't So Great After All

Published in Online Spin, December 22nd, 2017.

Once again, Uber has been knocked back.
Earlier this week, the Court of Justice of the European Union issued a ruling that the rideshare giant was in fact a “transport service” (as is readily apparent to anyone who has eyes and a brain) and not a mere “technology platform.”

The distinction is significant: a transport service is required to maintain minimum standards and comply with a level of regulation that a technology platform is not. It’s yet another blow to the house of cards on which Uber has built its business.

As Alison Griswold writes in Quartz: “[Uber has] made not one but many bluffs. They include: calling itself a technology platform; assuring riders that it’s safe to get into a car with a stranger; branding dynamic ‘upfront’ fares as better for consumers; classifying drivers as independent contractors rather than employees; and, perhaps most importantly, convincing many of those people that driving for Uber is a good job.”

Seen in isolation, it’s cause for a bit of schadenfreude. Seen in context, it’s indicative of a wider movement toward finally, finally setting some boundaries on the actions and impact of technology supercorporations.

It’s great to get access to cheap and fast transport -- but it’s not great for drivers to not make enough to cover the maintenance on their vehicles, or for a corporation to ignore the laws of multiple countries.

It’s great to get continual updates on what your friends and family are up to -- but it’s not great to be experimented on, or subject to political meddling by foreign actors.

It’s great to be able to rent a room in someone’s house for way less than you’d pay at a hotel -- but it’s not great for locals who can’t afford the increasing rents.

For years we’ve been acting as if companies like Google, Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, Apple, Uber, and others were an unmitigated good: You can search for anything! You can connect to anyone! You can watch whatever you want! You can buy stuff! Shiny! Cheap!

But we are starting to realize that these services are subject to a kind of digital version of Newton’s Third Law: For every large-scale platform, there is a significant unintended impact on the society that uses it.

And we are starting to question whether that impact is worth it.

A few months ago, Facebook, Twitter and Google testified before Congress about Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. Apple is being sued for deliberately slowing down older iPhones.

We’ve seen blatant acts of deception: from Zenefits, Theranos, Hampton Creek.

It’s no wonder WIRED’s Erin Griffith writes, “startup culture no longer feels like fodder for gentle parodies about ping pong and hoodies. It feels ugly and rotten.”

The temptation now is to go in the other direction: to denounce big tech, to reject its benefits and offerings, to call for its regulation or even potentially its dismantling.

A certain amount of this thinking is necessary. Governments must intervene where free markets have consistently failed: to ensure that large companies are not able to extort individual citizens, to ensure that workers are treated fairly and elections are free from outside influence.

But we also need to rethink the underlying paradigm: one which values growth uber alles, in which the best possible outcome is to become a unicorn: a billion-dollar beast.

We should really be aspiring to become zebras: profitable businesses that solve real, meaningful problems — and, in the process, repair existing social systems.

Tech companies aren’t inherently bad, any more than business is inherently bad. It is the outcome we aspire to -- our definition of success -- that drives our behavior. Let’s make sure our definition is a good one.

Kaila Colbin