ON THE STEPS of the District Council Hall and to a go-go beat drifting across Pennsylvania Avenue, two of three coauthors of Disrupting DC: The Rise of Uber and the Fall of the City decried the anti-democratic measures ride-share app Uber used to win over the wallets of DC residents. Katie Wells and Declan Cullen led the Metro DC chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America on a tour from Farragut Square to some of the key downtown locations where Uber has marked the city: the hotel where DC transit commissioner Ron Linton executed a self-made sting operation; Lafayette Square, the home of a smart city initiative, and the John A. Wilson Building where the DC council repeatedly capitulated regulatory control over ride-sharing transit.
The tour’s message was a worrying one at a time of democratic backsliding in the Global North. To secure their strangle-hold over the production, distribution, and sale of our data, tech companies have turned to democratically elected governments not as partners, but as prey. City governments naïvely thought they could resolve enormous social issues while still accepting the subordinate role created for them by Big Tech: “[T]echnology’s most seductive promise is that it allows us to escape from politics. Tech companies like Uber promise to deliver that future, the same way they deliver everything else, and city governments have doubled down on this promise” (pp. 108).
Disrupting DC is not a full history of Uber’s invasion of DC. Instead, in five chapters that draw on years of interviews and policy research, Wells, Attoh, and Cullen argue that Uber’s “playbook” for the conquest of US municipal governance was designed for DC and expanded outwards: “Uber’s operations in the city lay bare a relinquishment of power from the city to this private entity. Low expectations of democratic governance […] go hand in hand with this power shift and the constrained forms of urban governance it benefits from and contributes to” (pp. 43). Drawing from radical traditions in social geography, urban studies, and public policy, Disrupting DC tries to walk the line between academic analysis and strategic insight. It does not provide a clear model for organizing against tech start-ups, but I enjoyed its condensed and clear criticism of techno-utopian moon shot projects.
The Uber playbook relies on arbitrage to ask towns and cities to grovel for a chance at economic investment—much like the Amazon HQ2 contest did—and a consensus among the public that government simply can’t manage social problems. This playbook works because so many local governments have been constrained to a few bad options for improving their cities: “In abandoning demand-side strategies to economic development, mayors and elected officials of widely different political orientations and cultural backgrounds have been forced to adopt the same suite of policies aimed at responding to interurban competition: aggressively courting real estate development through the use of tax abatements, enterprise zones, privatization schemes, and the selling-off of public property” (pp. 11–12).
The authors painstakingly demonstrate how “just let Uber do it” has played on an American ideology of pragmatism and neoliberalism to make the ride-share app seem like not just a good, but the only, option for addressing a city’s entrenched transit problems. For that to work, Uber and other tech companies have had to undermine faith in public projects conducted for the public good.
One of the first actions taken by Uber in DC explains this dynamic. Faced with regulation by the DC Council, Uber executed a social media operation (unfortunately titled “Operation Rolling Thunder”) to drum up user opposition to a proposed price minimum on rides. That price minimum would have allowed taxi drivers to compete with Uber. Through app notifications and direct emails, Uber users were told to protect their (then) low-cost ride-shares by contacting their local representatives. DC residents obliged and Uber won: “Brand loyalty had transformed into a new version of active political citizenship” (pp. 28).
In DC, as well, Uber promised to address racial discrimination in the traditional taxi system. Taxi drivers often skip Black hailers and focus their driving and routes on whiter DC neighborhoods, and so Uber presented itself as a cheap fix to both problems of transit convenience and racial justice: “For residents of DC’s wealthy and white majority Northwest neighborhoods looking to catch an early flight, Uber was a marked improvement in terms of convenience. For DC’s Black residents, Uber’s appeal was even clearer: it showed up” (pp. 53). The collective assumption was that it’s OK to define these systemic problems so narrowly that a tech start-up could conceivably claim to solve them in a few years. As the authors point out, Uber has not had to demonstrate that it is more equitable than the old taxi system. It simply claimed that it wasn’t the same.
This whole dilemma is not new in itself. A hundred years ago, the beginning of the US public relations profession created a new style of capital intervention into democratic society. In his spin-master manual Propaganda, Edward Bernays used his “Torches for Freedom” campaign to demonstrate how progressive values can profitably produce demand (in that case, Bernays linked women’s suffrage to cigarette consumption).1 He and, now, generations of grifters created the “consumer republic” we used to live in, where consumer identity was considered more politically important than any other.2
While boycotts and mutual aid are powerful means of concerted economic action, an isolated, unorganized consumer is a plastic one—one easily molded by the demands of companies. Now, we are asked to participate in society through the identity of the “user.” While hackers and online activists have shown users’ political power, the technical basis of that power excludes most people.
That’s in the best case. Through “smart” public–private partnerships, city governments are cutting themselves and their constituents out of what is perceived as the most valuable contemporary commodity: data.
Ride-hail users become managers who can track and discipline drivers all within the app interface.3 Drivers are exploited as precarious workers, who often don’t spend enough time together to build collective solidarity. Many felt that, with the threat of self-driving cars, they were “driving [themself] out of a job” by contributing to Uber’s data collection. (Disrupting DC contains one hopeful moment for app organizers: immigrant drivers used a waiting area at Dulles airport to turn their apps off at the same time and encourage Uber’s algorithms to offer driver bonuses.) All, however, are alienated from the data produced by their bodies and behaviors. That data is then repackaged, sold on the data exchanges for ambiguous commercial purposes, and passed on to police and security agencies when convenient.4
Disrupting DC tells us an episode in the history of the corporate governance of our shared social life. The result is not smarter, or even better, cities. There are hints of potential liberatory change buried within this book. But, to unearth them, the reader must both question the utopian promises of technocrats and understand how they still “speak to people’s real and genuine needs.”
1 Gunderman, Richard. 2015. “The Manipulation of the American Mind: Edward Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations.” The Conversation, July 9, 2015. http://theconversation.com/the-manipulation-of-the-american-mind-edward-bernays-and-the-birth-of-public-relations-44393.
2 Cohen, Lizabeth. 2004. A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
3 Stark, Luke, and Karen Levy. 2018. “The Surveillant Consumer.” Media, Culture & Society 40 (8): 1202–20. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443718781985.
4 For a run-down of the current data ecosystem, see Lamdan, Sarah. 2022. Data Cartels: The Companies That Control and Monopolize Our Information. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. For its creation from 20th-century commercial profiling and market research, Gandy, Oscar H. 2021. The Panoptic Sort: A Political Economy of Personal Information. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.