Uber Über Alles

Oh, Uber. Such a great service…run by such short-sighted, thin-skinned executives. Clue: when people criticize you and/or your company, suck it up, take the criticism on board and apologize/adjust if warranted, then shut up and move on. Do not muse aloud, even at a quasi-off-the-record party, about forming million-dollar funds to attack and silence your critics.

Quite aside from the ethics of it all, how did the notion of repairing Uber’s tarnished public image by declaring war on journalists ever seem remotely like a good idea to anyone? That’s like pouring napalm onto a firestorm, or the Streisand Effect squared. And then to casually mention this bright idea to a Buzzfeed editor at a party? The mind boggles.

And so a classic Valley soap-opera scandal erupted. Won’t someone think of the children journalists? Pass the popcorn, please! Ashton Kutcher waded in, and was schooled. Pando’s Sarah Lacy and Paul Carr, who seem to live for this kind of slugfest1, did their thing. Dave Winer, of long-ago RSS fame, unleashed a strange rant in which he attacked the tech press for “name-calling,” and…complained at length about Chrome. Claims and counterclaims flew about what actually happened at the infamous dinner. And Uber CEO Travis Kalanick apologized, but–

But let’s not dwell overmuch on Uber and journalists. They can take care of themselves, and besides, there’s so much else to talk about: Uber’s shady competitive practices, disregard for customers’ expectations of privacy, alleged exploitation of its drivers, sponsorship of police militarization (!), and its creepy and/or sexist corporate culture, to name a few. (They recently deleted their infamous “Rides of Glory” blog post, but fear not, the Wayback Machine still has it.)

Today, though, let’s talk a little about Uber and wheelchairs. Because this really seems to epitomize Uber’s whole corporate culture:


Beyond that link you’ll find: “Uber is lobbying to change proposed legislation designed to increase the paltry number of wheelchair-accessible taxicabs in Washington … Uber wants to avoid any requirement to report the numbers of wheelchair-accessible trips requested and provided to passengers.”

I mean, wow. We’re not talking about wasteful bureaucratic pork here; we are literally just talking about providing data to help disabled people. That’s something you’d think a company that will soon have raised billions of dollars would be willing, if not eager, to provide.

But not Uber. Uber is a deeply libertarian company that guards its precious data jealously…even to the point of refusing to provide the government with information that could help the disabled. They really seem to be trying hard to prove Peter Thiel correct–something which I grudgingly admit happens with irritating frequency–when he called it “the most ethically challenged company in Silicon Valley” onstage at Disrupt this year.

update: Uber responds–

Uber has been, and will continue to be, an ardent supporter of expanding accessible options within the District […] We have agreed to share data to further accessible transportation options in multiple cities – including Seattle, Chicago and Houston, among others […] We have had productive and active discussions with the DC Council and community advocates and are committed to being a part of the solution on this very important issue.

I hate the taxi cartels too. But the choice between them and Uber-at-its-worst is very much a false dichotomy. Don’t get me wrong, Uber is not always at its worst; but when it is, it really seems like all the worst aspects of today’s tech industry, amplified beyond the point of parody–

Valley culture probably needs to take some of the blame here. On one hand, we stress “growth at all costs,” and then we’re shocked, shocked! when founders actually take that to heart, even when those costs include things like “values” and “ethics.” And Uber’s astonishing hypergrowth is apparently blinding them to the fact that they are developing a fantastically unpleasant corporate reputation — in an industry where trust actually matters quite a lot.

On the other, we’ve become such a cheerleading echo chamber that successful tech people now expect not just respect but actual adulation, no matter the source of their success, and any hint of criticism seems completely unacceptable. Winer actually seems to be suggesting that because the tech industry is So Very Important its titans should be immune to any kind of critical scrutiny. In fact that’s exactly why such scrutiny is so necessary.

I don’t really care what Emil Michael may have carelessly said at a dinner party, except inasmuch as it reinforces the spreading notion that Uber is a company run by narcissistic sociopaths. But I don’t believe it actually is, and I don’t believe in Internet pile-ons, and I do believe in second chances, so I’m not uninstalling them–yet.

But I do hope Uber realize that they don’t just have an image problem. They seem to have a fundamental problem with their corporate culture, one that will require real and significant changes, not just empty PR fig leaves. I hope those are in the pipeline. In the interim, I reckon I’ll be riding with Lyft.

1Non-disclaimer: while their tenure writing for TechCrunch overlapped mine by a year or so, I’ve never met or corresponded with either.