The luxury of disruption
What we maybe should’ve realized sooner was that we are running a political campaign and the candidate is Uber.
—Travis Kalanick, to Vanity Fair
Earlier this week, Susan J. Fowler, a software engineer, published a long post on her personal blog with the pointedly neutral title “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber.” It’s a gripping read that exposes a corporate culture that is dysfunctional both toward women—with its sexism, rampant sexual harassment, the dismissal of such concerns by human resources, and a steadily diminishing percentage of female employees—and toward just about everyone else: “It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor’s job.” The piece, or at least its reception, has prompted Uber founder Travis Kalanick to hire former Attorney General Eric Holder to look into these allegations, a measure which is presumably intended to impress us with its seriousness, but which comes off as an unintentionally hilarious way of investigating one’s own company. (As Thornton McEnery of Dealbreaker puts it: “Travis seems to only have one move: Hire a former Obama administration official and hope that’s what caring looks like.”) The news doesn’t really affect me personally: as I’ve explained elsewhere, I deleted Uber a long time ago for other reasons. But what strikes me the most about Fowler’s essay is its tone, which is calm, controlled, and understated, even when she relates incidents of profound humiliation. For instance, when she reported her manager’s inappropriate sexual advances, she was told that her only options were either to find a different team or to continue to report to the man who harassed her, at the risk of a poor performance review. In response, Fowler writes: “I remarked that this didn’t seem like much of a choice.”
That “remarked” is what sticks with me. It casts Fowler as an objective observer to her own story, and it isn’t just a rhetorical device, although she maintains it masterfully throughout the essay. (The only place where she falters is at the end, where she writes, not altogether convincingly: “I can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous everything was. Such a strange experience. Such a strange year.”) Even at work, from the very beginning, Fowler did exactly what she had to do: she took screenshots of her interactions with her manager, kept records, went through proper channels, and was good at her job. In the end, it didn’t matter, at least not at Uber itself. When she requested a transfer to another project, she was told that she had “undocumented performance problems,” and after asking for more information, she was told, bewilderingly: “Performance problems aren’t always something that has to do with work, but sometimes can be about things outside of work or your personal life.” But even if the discipline that she displays here didn’t lead to the professional results that she deserved, it’s indispensable when it comes to sharing her experiences. As my wife pointed out, when a woman comes forward with this kind of story, she has to do everything right. Any perceived shortcoming or compromise will be seized upon as an excuse to undermine her credibility. Fowler, to her credit, appears to have conducted herself with unwavering intelligence and integrity—but if she hadn’t, we probably wouldn’t have heard her account at all. Silicon Valley loves to talk about “failing faster,” but a woman in her situation doesn’t get to fail and try again. She gets exactly one chance. And the fact that she pulled it off isn’t an accident, but a reflection of the inhuman standards that we impose on all those who dare to speak out.
When we look at Uber itself, the contrast couldn’t be more stark. I won’t even get into the instances of illegal or unethical activity by individual drivers, or the legal actions and protests the company has weathered from taxi companies, both of which were probably unavoidable. But even when we set these aside, Uber’s corporate track record is exceptionally toxic. It misled prospective drivers by exaggerating potential earnings and minimizing the cost of leasing or buying a car. Its employees ordered thousands of rides from its competitors and canceled them, both to waste the drivers’ time and to lure them into joining Uber instead. One project focused on inserting moles into Lyft to learn about its launch plans and recruit its drivers. As I’ve discussed at great length in my previous post on the subject, an executive at Uber threatened to dig into the background of a journalist who was critical of its policies, and another shrugged off the ensuing outrage with the hashtag #HatersGonnaHate. They’ve even used their internal tracking system to follow the movements of reporters and politicians. You’d expect to see an intense level of scrutiny directed toward any startup that grew as quickly and had as much of an impact as Uber has, but even if you account for this, the company has demonstrated in half a dozen different ways that it’s an ethical mess. Unlike Fowler, who had to retain a laserlike focus to tell her story in a credible way, Uber gets to fail and flail endlessly on the assumption that it will eventually be forgiven. And maybe it will be. I’d be the first to admit that Uber is built on a transformative idea, a useful service, and a beautiful app, which means that it had to screw up to a truly remarkable degree to convince its users to delete it. Well, as Angelica Schuyler once said to Kalanick’s favorite founding father, congratulations. It has invented a new kind of stupid.
And its culture is inseparable from the idea of “disruption,” which has saturated Silicon Valley to the point where it stands as an article of faith. You’re supposed to break down entire industries and rebuild them in your own image, an approach that favors grand, risky bets rather than systematic growth. But it also tends to attract people, at least on the executive level, who can afford to fail repeatedly because they’ve been granted unlimited second chances, like Fowler’s manager, whose every act of harassment was treated as his first offense. It’s a luxury that isn’t granted to women, or to employees who don’t look more or less like the guys who hired them. Disruption itself is a creed that could only be embraced by those who have their existing cultural and social safety nets firmly in place, and who know that they can’t fall far. Not surprisingly, rather than enforcing the difficult sort of discipline which depends on an endless series of invisible ethical choices, Uber’s usual response to controversy is to radically overcompensate in the other direction, usually by throwing money at it. After Kalanick, who until recently was a member of President Trump’s economic advisory council, expressed only mild criticism of the executive order on refugees, the founders of Lyft announced that they would donate a million dollars to the American Civil Liberties Union—to which Uber retorted that it would establish a fund of three million dollars to defend its affected drivers. Hiring Eric Holder is a similarly flashy gesture meant to correct the slow drift toward the bottom that the company seems fated to repeat, as if it were settling to its natural level. Like a politician granted a free pass by his base, Uber seems convinced that we’ll overlook everything else if it delivers the services we expect. And just as in politics, that’s probably true, up until the moment that it isn’t.