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Uber Convenience

Arts & Culture | November 3, 2014

You know something has achieved phenom-status when it inadvertently becomes its own verb. “We Uber-ed here” has slipped into today’s dialect, eclipsing the now-cumbersome antiquity of “we took a cab.” In fact, the dawn of the age of “convenience apps” has completely renovated the modern linguistic palate; with technology’s daily introduction of the next ultra-efficient middle-man, any conventional verbs associated with actually doing things ourselves are no longer relevant. We’re a generation that requests food, transport, and even romantic prospects without leaving our couches. We’ve created an unprecedented cultural demand for accessibility and immediacy that digs deeper with each new cutting-edge mediator.

The process began as a natural extension of a tried-and-true concept: matching a skilled worker directly with a specific client in need à la Craigslist or eBay. But it took the coming of Uber, with its unrivaled convenience, sleek interface, and innate, ultra-hip sex appeal (cue the chic black car) to usher in a convenience revolution. For anyone who’s ever spent twenty minutes on the phone on hold with a cab company, hearing an endless repetition of piano chords, or waited on the corner in the rain at some ungodly hour for a taxi, Uber is a no-brainer. By connecting riders with drivers at the touch of a screen, Uber has effectively streamlined transportation. Like Lyft, Halo, and the dozens of other real-time ridesharing apps it spawned, Uber just makes our lives easier.

Or, at least, that’s what it strives for. Recently these transportation applications have garnered some unsavory media attention, with Uber bearing the brunt. Their controversial “surge pricing” policy, in which fare prices increase when demand for drivers is high (sometimes requiring 10x as much fare for a single ride), has created scores of angry customers, scathing Yelp reviews, and an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau. Despite all the fuss, this contentious policy has had a negligible effect on demand for Uber cars. However, in the eye of the consumer, Uber’s exceptional convenience is worth the extra buck.

Taxi drivers, local governments and avid users alike continue to play tug of war over the idea of “ethics” in pricing. Taxi transport, is, after all, a government regulated industry in most cities—oversight that Uber has managed to eschew in its rise to prominence. The company’s ascent has been subject to constant speculation as regulators in cities throughout the U.S. continue to vie for its demise, saddling Uber with an ever-increasing slew of lawsuits and legal complaints.

But whether or not Uber is the profiteering swindler that people make it out to be, there’s no denying its role in opening the floodgates to a completely new labor market. Lyft, Uber’s even-less regulated younger cousin, drove onto the scene in 2012 to snatch up the students, teenagers, and otherwise thrifty travelers who weren’t willing to shell out the price of a full-size luxury car. Lyft was the first to allow drivers to simply sign up and arrive in whatever car they already owned with a fuzzy pink mustache on their grill. Uber didn’t miss a beat in introducing UberX, allowing regular licensed drivers, often Uber users themselves, to connect with consumers in their own vehicles for a slightly lower price.

Naturally, the contention between the two services exploded in mass media, cementing the transition of “smartphone convenience” to a full-blown, competitive industry. And it hasn’t exactly been friendly competition, either: Uber is sharpening its claws to get ahead of Lyft. As The New York Times reported two months ago, hundreds of Uber employees schemed against their contender by calling and immediately cancelling over 5,000 Lyft rides, noticeably bogging down their business.

“I personally think Lyft operates more ethically than Uber,” said Laura Ruggles, a recent college grad from Colorado who drives for Lyft to pad her career as a singer-songwriter. “I couldn’t see Lyft doing what Uber did by calling Lyft drivers and then cancelling rides just to keep them off the road. Lyft does a lot more positive marketing, and aims to be fun and friendly and form personal connections between people. They’re really good at that tactic of giving something away for free to get people in the door.”

The result of this intensifying competition? Mass proliferation of ride-sharing. Much to the chagrin of career taxi drivers, ridesharing apps like Uber have democratized the entire labor market.

And this is no exaggeration: as employees and investors alike keep scrambling for a piece of the one-click carpool profit, Uber’s business model has exploded into a full-scale turnover of the U.S. mobile workforce. Tapping into our economy’s thirst for flexibility, innovation, and unparalleled convenience— not to mention a continuing trend towards reliance on low-wage positions—are dozens of apps geared towards simplicity and speed in everyday life. These alternative entrepreneurial feats seem to swell out of the woodworks with each new iPhone incarnation, from Airbnb, a person-to-person home rental service for travelers, to Postmates, a delivery app that enlists local bikers to pick up items or food in an hour or less. For every popular start-up, there are five faster, friendlier knock-offs brewing beneath the surface, ready to earn their place in the newly dubbed “gig economy.”

While pricing regulations and safety standards are still catching up with this new runaway phenomenon, these apps nonetheless bring to life a distinct idealism about American life and our beloved national narrative of capitalism. Not only do apps like Uber, TaskRabbit, and Postmates illustrate the triumph of entrepreneurialism (our generation’s new “small business”), but they also allow for more people to enjoy the collective profit pie. The mega-corporate landscape may still hold, but at least this “sharing revolution” allows the consumer a shot at being a part-time producer, enabling the singer-songwriter to keep singing. So the notion of a day job still exists, but the definition is changing; the new American dream of convenience is in motion.

Convenience, however, comes at a cost. In a recent New York Times article entitled “Part Oracle, Part Machine,” George Johnson comments on the prevalence of convenience algorithms in everyday life. He writes, “As you sit with your eHarmony spouse watching the movies Netflix prescribes, you might as well be an avatar in Second Life.” Johnson has a point. As the distance between our quotidian chores and ourselves continues to shrink by artificial means, are we becoming a more apathetic and entitled population? When you’re riding in an Uber to meet a person you matched with on Tinder at a restaurant you booked on OpenTable, are we mindlessly suspended in some online virtual world, where the fate of our desires is dictated by algorithms? But if apps like Uber bring us closer to our desires—romance, food, or pleasure—is immediacy a bad thing? While the rapidly expanding cult of accessibility undoubtedly saves us time and resources, the spoiled entitlement to convenience may leave us mindless consumers. Yet, immediate convenience will tempt anyone who is still waiting on that rainy street corner trying to hail a cab in vain.