Human Switches

I don’t use rideshare apps that often these days. Over the break I used the Uber app for the first time in a while. Little things had changed here and there in the UI–as they usually do with web tech–but I was surprised to see that they now offer a setting for “conversational level.” That is, you can set in advance how much your driver is supposed to talk to you. But conversation is not actually a function of the app that can be dialed up and down. It’s a thing your driver does, a service (or disservice) that for the moment, can still only be performed by the driver. You are not actually setting anything, just registering a preference that will be communicated to the driver along with your other ride information.

I don’t know why this bothered me, or even made me think. Maybe I don’t use enough person-to-person apps. Let’s be honest, for any app in the gig economy, the entirety of the software platform is really a way of turning a person (“gig worker”) into a set of menus and toggle switches (“grab [X] food at [X] and bring it to [X] by [X]“).

The NYTimes columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote something a few years ago about that US college admissions bribery scandal that stuck with me and seems apt here: people with enough money to be the buyers in the gig economy have become “socialized to easing every hurdle through an app.” He was talking about money (Manjoo: “who should I Venmo to fix this thing?”) but another consequence of an endless landscape of software-mediated transactions is that both parties are now obligated to relate to one another like software. As I reflect on it, I think what actually bothered me about the Uber app was just how small and incremental this “setting” is. How many more of these options will there be to tap, pulse, interrupt, and shake every imaginable extension of a person’s agency? And because the setting is basically a fake lever- there’s a real person on the other side of this software lever who still gets to choose whether to comply or not–you can program up an infinite number of them. They probably won’t have the effect you want, but it will have an effect, if only in aggregate.

Tags transaction manipulation