Are We Supposed to Live at Work?

Google Sleep Pods and Yelp Beer Pumps:

Corporations aim to blur the boundaries between leisure and work.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Have you ever got to the end of a working day and thought: “You know what? I think I’ll hang around here for a bit longer … ”?

No, nor me.

But you might, if you worked for a tech giant like Google. There’s even an informal competition to see how long a Google employee can “live” at one of the search behemoth’s delightfully appointed HQs; eating in the canteen, showering in the gym, and sleeping in a car parked in the corporate lot. The record is supposedly held by an employee at Google’s Crittenden site and stands somewhere in the two year range.

To make that job even easier Google has installed some delicious-looking retro-futuristic “sleep pods” that are technically designed for mid-shift cat naps but could well be pressed into service as improvised beds.

It’s an approach that could catch on in the UK, especially in the home counties. After all, salaries in the UK are flatlining (unless you’re an MP). Property prices are still steadily inflating (particularly good news if you’re an MP). And of course tech companies tend to recruit the type of employee who missed out on their opportunity to step on to the property price escalator by dint of carelessly being born too late.

Plenty of tech and advertising firms have created kidult working environments with table football and mini-fridges to make their office feel more like a youth club than a workplace.

For that matter, so many of us are now so attached to our employers through smartphones and 3G tablets that we may as well be in the office all day anyway.

It’s only natural I suppose. As the industrial age, at least for us in the west, puffs its last climate-punishing puff, we can throw off the yoke of the commuter and choose to work where live, or live where we work. Just as we did in those fondly remembered days when we were all serfs.

If we are moving to a work environment where we graze at our duties for protracted periods, rather than gulp them down in rigid shift patterns, more of our workplaces need to enable the new culture of low-level presenteeism. Here are some steps in the right direction:

One admirable innovation has already been implemented at City giants Deloitte. There workers can observe their offspring’s nursery activities via webcam. In due course, those same children can no doubt aspire to a bit of work experience at Deloitte and ultimately join the megacorporation themselves. If that notion doesn’t make your heart skip a beat, you’re not damaging your cardiovascular system with enough sedentary desk work.

The business review site Yelp offers a whole suite of workplace blandishments to keep workers on site; pool tables, table-tennis, a videogame room, and perhaps most enticingly the KegMate. An in-house invention, this state-of-the-art beer pump offers free on-tap craft beers for staff and guests. Again, taking the long view: our agrarian ancestors drank home-brewed ale all day long and it didn’t do their work-rates any harm. Try having the Wars of the Roses today. Without a few cold drinks to keep people’s minds focused on the slaughter, the wars wouldn’t last a week.

Some workplaces have also offered staff a Treadmill Desk. First implemented in our prisons by Sir William Cubitt in the early 19th century, treadmills not only keep staff fit so that they can live longer, more productive lives – they can also supplement the company’s electricity supply. After all, keeping the lights on for all these late-night workers doesn’t come cheap.

Now, the last thing I’d like to imply to any potential employers, especially in the current perma-recession, is that I’m in some way hostile to this constant erosion of our work-life balance. Au contraire, I’m happy to dispense with the distinction between work and leisure entirely. I’m never happier than when I’m deliberately losing at table football to my slightly tipsy line manager.

In fact, you know what? I think I’ll hang around here for a bit longer.

http://www.alternet.org/economy/google-sleep-pods-and-yelp-beer-pumps-are-we-supposed-live-work?akid=12269.265072.yDYVbH&rd=1&src=newsletter1020024&t=23&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

 

Google report documents surge in electronic surveillance requests by governments worldwide

http://kielarowski.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/54202-chinesehackerswhobreachedgooglein2010gainedaccesstothousandsofsurveillanceorders.jpg?w=512&h=232

By Thomas Gaist
20 September 2014

Google received some 32,000 data requests from governments worldwide during the first six months of 2014. The total number of data requests submitted by governments have surged 150 percent in the past five years, according to a “transparency report” published this week by the company.

Google complied with 65 percent of the requests, including 84 percent of the requests submitted by the US government, according to the report.

Data requests by the US government increased 250 percent over the same period, including almost 20 percent in the first half of 2014 alone. The US government accounted for 40 percent of total data requests, demanding data from some 21,500 specific user accounts in the first half of this year.

Internationally, Google reported receiving at least 1,000 user data requests from France, Germany, India, Italy, Singapore and UK; more than 500 requests from Australia, Brazil, Poland, Spain and Taiwan; and more than 100 requests from Argentina, Belgium, Chile, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, South Korea, Switzerland and Turkey. Data requests submitted by the Australian government have tripled since 2010, Google reported.

A number of governments began demanding data from Google for the first time in 2014, including Albania, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Kosovo, Luxembourg, Maldives, Namibia and Nepal.

Google’s document makes clear that its transparency reporting is subject to various loopholes and delays. Statistics covered in the report do not include data requests that carry “gag orders,” nor does Google report on “emergency data requests” relating to national security or some criminal investigations. Requests submitted to the company through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) are subject to a six-month reporting delay. “New Capability Orders,” or data requests relating to a new form of electronic surveillance, are only reported by Google after a two-year delay, the report said.

US government agencies can also access data without a specific warrant through several avenues. Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), top FBI officials can issue National Security Letters (NSL) demanding names, addresses, calling records and other information, all without a warrant. Specific users targeted by NSLs are generally not informed that they are being surveilled, Google reported.

Google releases a range of different forms of data to the government:

* Subscriber registration information, including names, account creation information, associated email addresses, and phone numbers

* Sign-in IP addresses and associated times

* Email header information and email content

* From YouTube, subscriber registration information, video upload IP addresses and time stamps

* Copies of private videos, private messages, private blog posts and other content

Google claims that it only transfers actual content of electronic communications to the government in response to specific warrants.

However, the National Security Agency’s PRISM program enables the NSA to directly seize communications data in bulk by tapping into the fiber optic cables that carry the majority of the world’s internet traffic.

After PRISM’s existence was revealed by Edward Snowden in the summer of 2013, Google and the other tech companies denied any knowledge of the program. Subsequent leaks revealed that Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, and other tech giants accepted millions of dollars from the NSA’s Special Source Operations (SSO) division, the NSA branch responsible for managing the agency’s “corporate partnerships,” as part of their collaboration with PRISM.

Seeking to rehabilitate its public image in the wake of the Snowden disclosures, Google has been collaborating with Digital Due Process (DDP), a coalition of NGOs and corporations that includes the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amazon, Apple, the Constitution Project, the Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights, Facebook, Microsoft, Reddit and other organizations. The DDP aims “to balance the law enforcement interests of the government, the privacy interests of users, and the interests of communications service providers,” according to its statement of principles.

In reality, the privacy interests of internet users are in direct conflict with the interests of the communications companies, which have played a central role in the erection of the global surveillance machinery.

Far from having an adversarial relationship with the surveillance agencies of the state, Google functions as an indispensable co-partner and facilitator of the mass spying. As Wikileaks head Julian Assange commented late this week, “Google’s business model is the spy. It makes more than 80 percent of its money by collecting information about people, pooling it together, storing it, indexing it, building profiles of people to predict their interests and behavior, and then selling those profiles principally to advertisers, but also others,” Assange said.

“So the result is that Google, in terms of how it works, its actual practice, is almost identical to the National Security Agency or GCHQ,” Assange said.

Google has been working with the NSA “at least since 2002,” Assange noted.

“They are formally listed as part of the defense industrial base since 2009. They have been engaged with the Prism system, where nearly all information collected by Google is available to the NSA. At the institutional level, Google is deeply involved in US foreign policy,” Assange said.

DIGITAL MUSIC NEWS

Pandora Finalizes Publishing Deal With BMG

 

Handshake      Not content to wait for the greater music industry to enact significant changes, Pandora last week announced it has signed a direct deal for music rights with BMG, the world’s fourth-largest music publisher. The arrangement includes the portions of its catalog represented by ASCAP and BMI, the two major licensing groups that have long handled the rights for millions of songs in the U.S. As reported by The New York Times, BMG’s large roster includes songwriters who have written major hits for such performers as Adele, One Direction, Beyoncé, and Frank Sinatra; the company is part of German media conglomerate Bertelsmann.

Even though BMG remains a member of ASCAP and BMI, Pandora bypassed them by making the direct deal for what analysts believe is a higher royalty rate than those two organizations – which are governed by decades-old federal regulation – are able to obtain on their own. In exchange, the deal gives BMG and its songwriters unspecified “marketing and business benefits,” according to a statement issued by Pandora.

Last month Pandora struck a similar deal with Merlin, which represents thousands of independent record companies in digital licensing negotiations. That agreement is expoected to pay the record labels slightly better royalty rates than would be available through the compulsory licensing terms available to Pandora under United States copyright law, and also give the labels access to valuable marketing insights from Pandora’s vast collection of user data. “We believe direct deals with labels offer better content cost visibility in the longer term, and we think they improve relations between Pandora and the artists,” Nomura analyst Anthony DiClemente wrote in a research note following the BMG announcement. 

Liberty CEO: Sirius XM Is Eyeing Streaming

Expansion To Drive Competitive Growth

 

Sirius XM      It appears Sirius XM finally may be realizing digital streaming technology is leap-frogging right past satellite radio distribution. While the Liberty Media-backed company entered the streaming audio space several years ago, recent comments made by President/CEO Greg Maffei indicate the satcaster is studying the growth curves of other streaming music services and determining how to compete on a major scale.

“We are watching what happens in streaming,” Maffei said at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference in New York last week. “Taking Sirius XM’s unique content beyond the car in the home and in the office, it’s an opportunity we’ve not yet attacked.”

His comments make it clear that Sirius XM, which depends heavily on subscribers getting satellite-radio receivers in their cars, is interested in becoming a bigger player in the internet-based streaming space. According to the New York Post, subscribers who prefer to listen to the service on their mobile devices can get a stand-alone online radio package for $14.99 a month, less than the current “all-access” package, which costs $18.99. 

No Big Surprise, Really: Clear Channel

Changes Its Name To iHeartMedia

 

     Yesterday’s announcement that Clear Channel Media & Entertainment was changing its name to iHeartMedia seemed to cause a heart attack throughout the broadcasting industry, but a few analysts actually saw the change coming months ago. The company increasingly was using the “iHeartRadio” line to brand its stations on the local level, and the Clear Channel name – associated with billions of dollars of debt – was considered clunky by many folks inside the radio business and on Wall Street. While the “heart” part of iHeartMedia itself may seem a decade out of date, the name change re-brands the company among younger listeners (and ostensibly, media buyers) who associate it with the iHeartMusic Festival which, not coincidentally, begins Friday (Sept. 19) in Las Vegas.

The name-change is “a reflection of  the fact that the company has changed radically over last several years,” Clear Channel Chief Executive Robert Pittman said in a statement. “We have massive consumer reach and influence across our platforms because we know how to program the live content people want to hear. Right now we are the largest mobile media company in existence, and we deliver more live programming than any other media company today.”

Indeed, the aforementioned iHeartRadio Festival attracts tens of thousands of fans each year, and the TV broadcasts last year drew millions of viewers. Also televised are the iHeartRadio Jingle Ball, iHeartRadio Pool Party, and several iHeartRadio concerts a year. Additionally, Clear Channel’s inaugural iHeartRadio Music Awards on NBC in May attracted 5.5 million viewers.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, much of the public has come to equate the Clear Channel name with corporate consolidation of the radio and concert industries. However, according to a recent study released by Edison Research, iHeartRadio’s brand is second in recognition in audio streaming, behind Pandora’s 31% share with 9%, and ahead of iTunes Radio’s 8% share. While the name change affects all former Clear Channel radio stations and its digital audio platform, the company’s outdoor business will retain the name Clear Channel Outdoor. 

Apple’s U2 Music Giveaway Breaks Bad

 

     It all began with U2’s appearance with Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook last week. As the company made its predicted announcement of the new iPhone 6 and a new wearable wrist device, the company blundered into what Upstart Business Journal called an “unforced error” with its decision to automatically add the band’s new album “Songs of Innocence” to 500 million iTunes accounts. This meant that, if a user’s device was set to automatically download newly-purchased music, the brand-new U2 album would be sitting on the iPhone, iPad, etc.

One week later, in the midst of a massive backlash from angry iTunes customers, Apple has been forced to put up a special page for users who want to erase “Songs of Innocence” from their libraries with a removal tool that indicates how wrong a seemingly good idea can go. “Nothing pisses off the audience more than pushing something they don’t want and didn’t ask for,” media analyst Bob Lefsetz said in a newsletter. “They’d have been better off releasing it on YouTube; that’s where the digital generation goes for music. iTunes is a backwater. It may be the number one sales outlet, but it’s not the number one music platform… not even close.”

The stunt did little to help U2’s chart prospects, either. Billboard last week announced its refusal to count the album release on its charts, even though Apple paid $100 million to get it there. “While U2 surprised the music world by releasing its new album, ‘Songs of Innocence,’ as a free download to iTunes Store account holders and for streaming on Beats Music, you won’t see it on the Billboard 200 albums chart for another month and a half,” the industry magazine said in a statement.

“Free or giveaway albums are not eligible for inclusion on Billboard’s album charts and do not count toward sales tracked by Nielsen SoundScan. “Once ‘Songs of Innocence’ goes on sale beginning Oct. 14, it will then set its sights on Billboard’s sales charts. On that date, the album will be available in both standard and deluxe editions to physical and digital retailers, as well as on streaming services other than Beats. Until then, only current or new iTunes or Beats account holders will have access to the album.”

 

Deezer Launches High-End Audio Service

To Compete With Spotify And Beats

 

     French music streaming company Deezer has launched an elite service with what it calls higher sound quality for audiophiles as it tries to differentiate itself from rivals Spotify, Pandora, and Beats Music. According to the Financial Times, the company said it plans to launch the service in the U.S. through a partnership with Sonos, the speaker manufacturer that specializes in wireless audio.

Deezer ostensibly is betting that high-fidelity audio will enhance its appeal in an increasingly crowded and competitive market. The new service, to be called Deezer Elite, will stream “lossless” audio files at a standard of 1,411 kilobits per second. The higher the bitrate of a file, the more detailed the sounds, and Deezer’s high rate is more than four times the top bitrate of Spotify. The service will cost up to $19.99 a month, twice the $9.99 a month Spotify charges.

In a statement, Deezer North America chief executive Tyler Goldman said the company was “focused on super-serving the needs of underserved market segments” such as audio enthusiasts. Many audiophiles have shunned streaming services because their sound quality is usually inferior to that of high-quality downloads, vinyl albums, or CDs, he said.

Still, the market for high-end audio streaming may be limited, because of higher subscription and bandwidth charges costs, and the fact that most people stream music through smartphones and computers, which do not have the capability for high-end audio.

 

Warner Music Consolidates Biz-Dev Unit

 

     Warner Music Group this week consolidated its global business development functions under a single leadership team, with COO Rob Wiesenthal overseeing the company’s digital business development efforts while continuing to report to CEO Steve Cooper. At the same time, the label promoted Jonathan Dworkin to EVP of digital strategy and business development. Dworkin will report to Wiesenthal and continue working on “building global-minded partnerships that expand WMG’s success with artist development.”

As reported by Billboard, Cooper said the new unified structure will give artists a portfolio of “unmatched” innovative services and opportunities. “This move recognizes that digital technology is a driving force across all aspects of our business, and that the pace of change – both globally and locally – requires nimble experimentation,” he said in a statement.

Wiesenthal joined WMG in early 2013 to oversee the company’s partnership with Shazam, and also spearheaded the deal with Clear Channel to become the first U.S. major label to receive artist performance royalty payments when their master recordings are played on the radio. This new role at the label creates an opportunity to “establish new business approaches for artists, and build on WMG’s reputation as the most ambitious and progressive music company in the world,” he said in a statement.

 

A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2014

 

 

Leading tech investors warn of bubble risk ‘unprecedented since 1999′

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel
Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, whose company was valued at $10bn despite having never turned a profit. Photograph: Jae C. Hong/AP

Two of the world’s leading tech investors have warned the new wave of tech companies and their backers are taking on risk and burning through cash at rates unseen since 1999 when the “dotcom bubble” burst.

Bill Gurley, partner at Silicon Valley-based investor Benchmark, sounded the horn of doom on Monday warning that “Silicon Valley as a whole or that the venture-capital community or startup community is taking on an excessive amount of risk right now.”

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal Gurley, whose investments include OpenTable, Uber and Zillow, said startups were taking on risks in a way “unprecedented since ‘99”.

Gurley said that “more humans in Silicon Valley are working for money-losing companies than have been in 15 years”, and they’re burning through huge piles of cash.

“In 01 or 09, you just wouldn’t go take a job at a company that’s burning $4m a month. Today everyone does it without thinking,” he said.

His comments were backed up Tuesday by Fred Wilson, the New York-based co-founder of Union Square Ventures who has backed companies including Twitter, Tumblr and Zynga.

Burn rates – the amount of money a startup is spending – are “sky high all over the US startup sector right now”, he wrote in a blog post.

“We have multiple portfolio companies burning multiple millions of dollars a month. Thankfully its not our entire portfolio. But it is more than I’d like and more than I’m personally comfortable with,” he wrote.

“I’ve been grumpy for months, possibly for longer than that, about this. I’ve pushed back on long term leases that I thought were outrageous, I’ve pushed back on spending plans that I thought were too aggressive and too risky, I’ve made myself a pain in the ass to more than a few CEOs.”’

The comments come after a new generation of tech companies have attracted record levels of investments at levels that give the profitless businesses eye-watering valuations.

In August Snapchat, the social messaging service, was valued at $10bn after a new round of funding. The free service’s fans send 500m self-deleting messages a day, but Snapchat has yet to declare how it intends to make money. Among the other big tech valuations in recent months are Uber, the taxi app service, which was valued at $18bn after its last round of funding in June, and Airbnb, the short term rentals service, which was valued at $10bn in April.

But the valuations are not the immediate issue, according to the sceptical tech investors. “Valuations can be fixed. You can do a down round (investing at a lower valuation), or three or four flat ones, until you get the price right,” writes Wilson. “But burn rates are exactly that. Burning cash. Losing money. Emphasis on the losing.”

Asked if investors, and the people working for the companies, were distracted by the potential for reward, Gurley said: “Yeah, it’s a whole bunch of things. But you just slowly forget, and half of the entrepreneurs today, or maybe more – 60% or 70% – weren’t around in ‘99, so they have no muscle memory whatsoever.”

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/sep/16/tech-bubble-warning-investors-dotcom-losing-money

Uber may be a bum deal for drivers and cabbies alike, threatening the future of full-time work

How Uber’s Efforts to Squeeze Drivers Have Compelled Them to Fight Back

Last week in Long Island City, a waterfront neighborhood in western Queens, over 1,000 Uber drivers went on strike, protesting against several recent policy changes that directly cut into their wages. LIC is cab country, home to countless car service companies, and it can sometimes feel like every passing vehicle is a taxi of some sort: a classic yellow cab, a town car, a green taxi or, more likely than not, a ridesharing car. So it came as no surprise that drivers who work for Uber—a smartphone app that connects drivers with people looking for a ride—chose the company’s Long Island City headquarters to protest their labor practices.

One driver grievance was the decision to extend a summer discount, where the base price for standard rides was slashed from $12 to $8, into the fall, requiring drivers to work more hours to make the same money. The other is slightly more complex, but just as damaging to workers’ earning potential. There are several distinct tiers of Uber service (UberX and Uber XL, the cheapest services offered in New York City, and UberBlack and UberSUV, the higher-end black car services), and drivers for the higher-end versions earn more, in part to compensate for the higher costs of their vehicles, which they must supply themselves. Without any advance warning, the company told drivers for “Black” and “SUV” that they would now be sent cheaper fares as well, and that declining those fares could lead to their deactivation from the service.

The coordinated outcry from their workers got Uber’s attention, and, in an abrupt turnaround late on Friday morning, the company sent a mass email to their New York drivers giving them permission to decide if and when to receive UberX requests. Though this conflict may seem like a minor technical issue, it speaks to the increasingly fraught dynamic between the San Francisco-based company and its international network of independently contracted drivers.

Uber has built its reputation on providing reliable, safe rides at any time and at any location in the urban centers where it operates. In 205 cities in 45 countries across the world, it is now possible to take out your phone, select a car from a map showing nearby Uber vehicles, and have a cab waiting at your doorstep in under five minutes. Because customers’ accounts are linked to their debit or credit cards, payment is seamless. The convenience and usability of the app have inspired devoted fans, and few would argue against the practicality of Uber and its ever-expanding list of peers, including Sidecar, Lyft, SheTaxis and Halo. But in their focus on customer service, ridesharing companies have pushed the concerns of their workers aside.

* * * * *

Since it’s founding in 2009, Uber has become the poster child for the sharing economy, a nebulous concept that basically boils down to companies taking on the role of middlemen. Companies like Uber, Airbnb and Snapgoods use technology to connect people to various goods and services (apartments, cars, ball gowns, bikes) that they can rent temporarily. The sharing economy has been heralded as a resource-saving, efficient, collaborative system that allows people to make a profit from items they wouldn’t otherwise be using. In another light, it can be seen as a sign of our economically insecure times. People who don’t make enough at their day jobs can try to cover expenses by renting out an extra room of their apartments, or driving strangers around a few afternoons per week. It is evidence of the fragile finances of people who are underpaid for minimum wage work or cobbling together full-time schedules from an assortment of temporary and seasonal gigs.

Investors love this economic model, for obvious reasons. Because these service providers are tech companies first and foremost and do not own the products being rented, much of the business risk, from upkeep to scheduling, is shifted to the workers. Companies like Uber—which received a valuation of $18.2 billion back in June—can make enormous profits while washing their hands of any responsibility to their employees.

Uber has exploited their position as middleman in two principal ways, both of which have a serious impact on people who drive cabs for a living. One, they claim that they are “disrupting” the overly regulated, outmoded taxi industry in the name of competition and the free market. What goes unmentioned are the thousands of full-time taxi drivers, many of whom belong to associations that help them fight for decent wages and other benefits, being put out of work by the rise of ridesharing companies. Furthermore, for a company that so values competition, Uber has systematically worked to quash their rivals in cities across the country, engaging in underhanded tactics to poach drivers from other car services.

The other way Uber takes advantage of their middleman status is in their treatment of workers. Uber drivers are not technically considered employees. Instead, they are “independent contractors,” meaning that they don’t receive any of the benefits or protections employers are typically expected to provide. The company tries to play this both ways. On the one hand, they claim that Uber drivers—or “partners,” as they’re known—typically work part-time, and drive as a way to make some extra cash. Yet the company also markets itself as a job creator and promises drivers the opportunity to make up to $90,000 a year in places like New York—no one’s idea of pocket change, if it is in fact true.

The contractor model has been tested by a number of corporations that want to do away with the inconvenience of having to be accountable to their labor force. In one recent example, FedEx Ground lost a landmark court case for misclassifying their drivers as “contractors,” saddling them with the burden of providing their own healthcare, FedEx-brand equipment, gas, insurance and much more. FedEx may now have to pay hundreds of millions in backpay. By shifting much of the risk and cost of operations onto the workers, companies like FedEx and Uber are relieved of the responsibility of dealing with the day-to-day hazards of running a business. In a blog post about the downsides of the sharing economy, Maureen Conway of the Aspen Institute, a centrist think tank, writes:

“If someone gets sick in the car and that driver has to spend the rest of the day cleaning the car, that’s not Uber’s problem….The risks associated with illness, injury or just the ups and downs of customer demand are largely borne by workers.”

Uber drivers use their own vehicles, pay for their own gas, parking and repairs, receive no benefits or worker’s compensation, and, once they are hired, have hardly any interaction with the company for which they work. Taken together, these additional costs make a significant dent in what workers bring home at the end of the day. Yet the company and its acolytes promote Uber as a source of well-compensated, stable employment. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced last week that they are adding 50,000 new “driver jobs” each month, and they have hundreds of thousands of drivers in their network. In promotional materials, Uber brags that their drivers can make salaries in the upper five figures in particularly busy markets like New York and San Francisco, and that they earn far more on average than taxi drivers. This would all seem to imply that the company acknowledges that drivers operate vehicles for Uber as their primary source of income. As the recent protests in New York City (and Los Angeles, and Santa Monica) suggest, many of the people who work for Uber consider driving their full-time job and are struggling to make ends meet.

Yet the company also markets itself as a form of part-time employment, a stopgap measure between full-time jobs or a way for grad students or stay-at-home moms to make a few extra bucks. This is certainly the case for some drivers, who enjoy the ability to create their own schedules and serve as their own employers. Nina Beck, a sunny 26-year-old from the Bay Area, told me in a phone interview that she started working for Uber because she was getting married and needed a job with flexible hours. Maria Vargas, an Uber driver who lives in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, began working for the company when her kids moved out and she no longer needed to work at her full time job sewing for a garment factory.

“I love it,” she said. “You can go on vacations. They don’t care if you’re working or not. The money is never enough, but for me, it is.”

For many others, it is not. Haroon, a Pakistani immigrant who has been working for Uber for two years, told me that he works 12-hour shifts six days per week in order to support his wife and two young sons. Most of the drivers who he knows from Uber, and from a previous stint working for Lyft, work full-time, often clocking far more than 40 hours per week. Anyone hoping to earn a decent income as a ridesharing driver should expect to treat it as a full-time job, whether or not the company admits it. Though Uber is surely aware that casual part-time workers aren’t the reason the company has been able to move into scores of new markets at a blistering pace. No corporation would function with a labor force of individuals who only worked for an hour or two a day. Uber’s popularity is based on its reliability and availability, and the company needs knowledgeable, friendly drivers working on a steady basis to ensure that they maintain it.

Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, NYC’s union for yellow taxicab drivers, put it to me this way: “Ridesharing companies like Uber are informalizing driver labor. Throughout the world, whenever workers’ labor is deprofessionalized, they lose protections and rights…As much as Uber supporters talk about their model being something modern, I really think it seems quite backwards as far as workers’ rights are concerned.”

* * * * *

The ability to make “enough” as a ridesharing driver depends largely on where Uber drivers are located geographically. They can earn much more in cities with high customer demand, like San Francisco and DC, but the issue has become more complicated by Uber’s recent fare cuts. As a means of boosting ridership and offering customers the cheapest possible rates, Uber has drastically cut fares in many states, including New York and New Jersey. Customers are understandably thrilled by the cheaper prices, but a lower fare translates to a pay cut for drivers, who earn 80% of the cost of each Uber ride. The company says that drivers will benefit from this system since they will get many more trips as a result of the spike in rider interest. Drivers don’t seem so sure.

“You can’t keep cutting people’s rates in half and telling them, ‘Oh, you’re going to get twice as many customers!’” Jonathan Cousar, a part-time Uber driver who runs the website Uber Driver Diaries, told me in a phone interview. “There are only so many people that you can physically drive around in one hour. It basically translates to drivers doing more work for more time while making a smaller profit.”

Another barrier to earning a decent wage is the surplus of drivers. Because Uber is desperate to prevent other ridesharing services from hiring new drivers, and because their business model relies on providing people with cab rides anywhere and at any time, the company has far more drivers than Uber workers say they actually need. This cuts into business both for traditional cab drivers and for ridesharing drivers. The Uber driver thread on Reddit is flooded with posts by drivers upset about their lack of trips. “I haven’t had a single fare this weekend (sixteen hours online),” user ImagineFreedom, who is based in San Antonio, fumed in a posting. “All of a sudden it seems like driver numbers have quadrupled and ads are still being posted for drivers.” On a recent afternoon, my Uber app showed six available cars in a two-block vicinity on a quiet corner in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights.

Cousar, who operates in northern New Jersey, told me that when he first joined the company, he easily made his goal of $500 per week to supplement the income he made from his web hosting business. But now it’s impossible to make that much thanks to the combination of fare cuts and the surplus of drivers on the road.

“It makes me wonder how reliable this is as a future full-time or even part-time income. They’ve already brought in far more drivers than the market can support, and they’re still recruiting so aggressively.”

This is where the lack of accountability comes in. Uber doesn’t care if drivers are only getting one fare an hour, as long as all of their customers are getting picked up on time. It’s not their problem if drivers have to work longer hours to make the same money, or to waste hours waiting around for a trip that never comes. Uber’s concerns are customer satisfaction and profit, and in those regards, they’re doing as well as any company could hope to.

* * * * *

If Uber drivers are fed up with this lack of consideration, traditional taxi drivers are in despair. The highly regulated industry has strict requirements that determine standards for licensing, rates and training. Uber isn’t subject to these regulations, meaning its drivers have a significant advantage over taxi drivers who have to comply with county and state regulations that specify when and how a for-hire car can be booked. Kalanick, the CEO, has scoffed at the taxi industry as a “protectionist scheme,” and blames excessive regulation for strangling competition in the field.

There is certainly some merit to his claims, and customers have plenty of legitimate complaints about the traditional cab industry (the difficulty of finding a ride at odd hours, high prices, a lack of options). Ask why people use Uber and they’ll respond with complaints about cabbies talking on the phone while driving, taking unnecessarily long routes to jack up the fare, or subjecting them to unwanted flirtations.

Beck, the San Francisco-based Uber driver, told me, “Personally I’m not really concerned about taxi drivers losing their jobs. I can’t tell you how many creepy cab drivers I’ve had in my life; it’s just like ‘good riddance.’ They never innovate. I guess that’s not the fault of individual cab drivers but the industry itself.”

This last line is key. Why are we blaming individual taxi drivers for the effects of strict regulations they had no part in creating? And isn’t it a bit unfair for people to write off an entire industry based on a few negative experiences? Imagine passing judgment on the food service industry based on the one time a waiter happened to be rude to you. Moreover, most of the regulations that “encumber” the taxi industry are designed to protect consumers. Taxi commissions exist to control fares, enforce training, licensing and safety standards for drivers, and to provide a platform for customers to file complaints or report lost property. Most of the negative press about Uber has involved customer complaints: female riders being sexually harassed by drivers or passengers being charged exorbitant rates under the surge pricing system, where fares go up, sometimes dramatically, during times of increased demand. In August, Uber riders in San Francisco took to social media to rail against the $400-plus fees they were being charged to get to and from a popular local music festival. Clearly, consumers expect some degree of liability and oversight from the companies with which they do business.

So who are the people who are so vigorously applauding Uber’s fight against industry requirements? A March Daily Beast article, which recounts a visit from Republican Senator Marco Rubio to Uber’s DC office, gives us some indication.

“Regulation,” Rubio told the gathered group of Uber employees, “should never be a weapon used by connected and established industry to crowd out innovation and competition, and this is a real world example.”

* * * * *

Uber’s cutthroat tactics are not restricted to the taxi industry. In a remarkable scoop at The Verge, Casey Newton details the underhanded methods the company uses to hurt the business of other ridesharing services. The anecdotes read like the pages of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, except instead of sending spies to steal recipes from rival candy manufacturers, Uber sends undercover “brand ambassadors” to convince drivers from Lyft and Sidecar to switch companies. Their campaign against Lyft, their main competitor, is particularly underhanded and systematic. CNN reported in August that the company had employees around the country order and then cancel 5,560 Lyft rides, disrupting the company’s operations and causing Lyft drivers to lose business.

Cousar, the Jersey-based driver and blogger, expressed his discomfort with these aggressive tactics. “I think they’ve done some terrible things. From a moral standpoint they make me cringe, and they make me less proud and more leery about working with them.”

For now, at least, the legality of Uber’s tactics hasn’t been seriously questioned. As any defender of the company will tell you, all competing companies try to hire each other’s workers and undercut each other’s business. But Uber is already the colossus of the ridesharing industry, with a budget and international presence that far surpass any of its rivals. Though Kalanick and other Uber reps constantly preach the gospel of competition to reporters, their methods are as anti-competitive as they come. As Andrew Leonard at Salon puts it, “There’s little doubt that Uber is the closest thing we’ve got today to the living, breathing essence of unrestrained capitalism….This is how robber barons play.”

After all, wasn’t the whole reason that Uber came into being to shake up the taxi industry monopoly and open it up to new ideas and innovations? Basic economics tells us that competition is essential to provide companies with an incentive to keep prices reasonable, ensure quality and moderate supply. So do we really want Uber to be our only option?

People lover Uber because it’s reasonably priced, it’s reliable and it’s easy to use. But we love plenty of products and services that depend upon the exploitation of workers: disposable fashion from H&M and Forever 21, fast food from Wendy’s, discount furniture ordered on Amazon. The traditional taxi industry may suffer from an excess of regulation, but regulations exist for a reason. If we want workers to be protected from exploitation, have stable, full-time jobs, and benefit from decent working conditions, we need to treat them like the employees that they are. If Uber turns out to be the industry-transforming technology it claims to be and becomes the new universal model for hiring taxis, we need to seriously consider some of these questions. Because if the sharing economy is the way of the future, the future of full-time, permanent work is at stake.

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet’s associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Inc., Daily Serving and the Nation.

http://www.alternet.org/corporate-accountability-and-workplace/how-ubers-efforts-squeeze-drivers-have-compelled-them-fight?akid=12245.265072.efeL2-&rd=1&src=newsletter1019485&t=5&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

Is it possible to go untracked in this new digital dystopia? It’s gotten harder — but here’s how I’ve done it

John Twelve Hawks: “New surveillance states have placed us in an invisible prison”

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John Twelve Hawks: "New surveillance states have placed us in an invisible prison"
(Credit: Richard Susanto via Shutterstock/phbaer via iStock/Salon)

 

Surveillance

The continuing revelations by Edward Snowden have convinced many of us that we are living in a modern surveillance state. And the problem isn’t just the activities of the National Security Agency and Great Britain’s GCHQ. “Trickle Down Surveillance” has provided spy technology to small town police officers and developing world dictators. In addition, our activities are monitored for commercial reasons by a wide variety of international corporations (Amazon isn’t the “Everything Store,” it’s the “Find Out Everything About You” store).

Anyone who steps back for a minute and observes our modern digital world might conclude that we have destroyed our privacy in exchange for convenience and false security. That private world within our thoughts has been monitored, tabulated and quantified. Our tastes, our opinions, our needs and our desires have been packaged and sold as commodities. Those in power have pushed their need for control one step too far. They turned unique individuals into data files, and our most intimate actions have become algorithmic probabilities.

The destruction of personal privacy is not an ideological issue. Thoughtful women and men on every point of the political spectrum are beginning to realize that surveillance technology has shifted the balance of power between institutions and individuals. Without private thoughts and actions we can never truly be free.

Ten years ago, I believed that individuals could live off the grid, but because of “trickle-down surveillance,” it’s becoming impossible to escape surveillance in a rural area or in a developing country. Most of the people reading this essay have jobs that involve computers. We have cellphones, and we use the Internet. Like it or not, we’re living in a digital infrastructure.

Although I write dystopian fiction, I don’t believe in dystopian fantasies. Unless some future hacker genius creates a virus that wipes every database clean, it’s clear that destroying one small part of this Virtual Panopticon is not going to bring the walls down.

So what are we supposed to do? How can we avoid becoming just another bar-coded object tracked within a World of Things?

A place of refuge

A good first step is to find or create an occasional place of refuge where you can escape the electronic grid that surrounds us. It’s a place without phones or computers — without monitoring of any kind. Stepping back from the grid is especially important if you have small children. They need to discover the possibilities created by their own imaginations.



I realize that switching off one’s Twitter feed is highly difficult for some people. But walking alone down a forest path, smelling the wet earth, and watching branches sway in the wind is actually the first step in your act of resistance.

You can’t truly hear your own voice until the shouting around you disappears. New ideas and possibilities — our own ideas, our own possibilities — will occur only when we step away from the Virtual Panopticon.             

At various times of my life I have turned away from our high-tech society. When I was younger I simply camped or explored the wilderness on my own. During the last few years, I’ve experienced more extreme periods of isolation in Nepal and Tibet (in both of these countries, people are more accepting of these kinds of actions).

The last time I stepped off the grid, I took photographs of myself before and after the experience. On the first day, my face showed the conventional “mask” we all create to protect our private Self. Thirty-one days later, I had grown a beard, but that was an insignificant change. I was smiling. My eyes were wide open and ready to see the beauty of our world.

One consequence of living — even for a short time — in a place of refuge is that when you return to your daily routine, you’ll be more aware of the ways that the Panopticon is watching you and predicting your behavior. This awareness gives you the motivation to gradually create a parallel life.

Parallel Lives

My Public Self uses a credit card to buy an airline ticket, walks through an airport and boards a plane. This Self pays income taxes, uses a smartphone, and doesn’t hide his face from the CCTV cameras that have appeared throughout New York and London.

Then there is my Private Self that gives a fake phone number to an inquisitive clerk, doesn’t post a photograph on Facebook, and uses a search engine that won’t remember searches. I’ve used a gift card (paid for with cash) to purchase Apple apps and my identity is not on the Apple Corp.’s database.

Finally there is a Secret Self that owns a throwaway cellphone purchased with cash and uses Internet software like Tor that enables online anonymity.

In the beginning, these actions to defend your privacy feel like a game. But deliberately concealing yourself from the Panopticon makes you feel less passive and more aware. There’s nothing flashy going on here, just small daily actions that continually undercut the constant attempt by governments and corporations to know who you are and what you’re doing.

The Shark Cage

The Internet is not a cyber-utopia offering freedom to anyone with a blog. It’s part of the world economy (other than Wikipedia, the vast majority of the top 100 websites are owned by large corporations).

We exist in a marketplace where our personal information is collected and sold. But the marketplace can protect our privacy if we make conscious choices. Companies selling computers and phones design their product first, then add firewalls and security software later. The growing awareness of the attack on privacy has prompted a small group of cryptographers to design communications devices that assume that both the Internet and the cellular network have been compromised.

Recently, a company has introduced the Blackphone — an Android-based smartphone that provides easy-to-use encryption for phone calls and text messaging (the same company is developing “a private and secure” email system called Dark Mail). By the time you read this, there may be better-designed phones and more secure email systems. The real news is that the market is beginning to respond to the public’s growing realization of how the surveillance state destroys freedom. More pro-privacy computers and communications devices will be created, and they will gradually become less expensive and easier to use.

Wealthy people and celebrities routinely hire specialists to create an electronic “shark cage” that protects their phone and online privacy. But privacy is no longer a rich man’s luxury. In the last few years, small companies like the Boston-based Abine Corp. are selling software that can control the personal information that companies and other people can see about consumers online.

In democratic countries with a digital infrastructure, the market will eventually offer us cheap and easy-to-use ways to step away from certain aspects of the Panopticon. All you need is enough cash to buy a prepaid debit card — and the desire to live an unmonitored life.

Parallel Systems

I own two smartphones (one purchased with cash), an iPad, two regular computers, and a “clean” notebook computer that’s unattached to any identity. There’s nothing wrong with technology itself. A license plate scanner attached to a computer has no ideology. The real issue is control. Who gives instructions to these new machines, and what are they used for? Who makes the rules for our society and our lives?

One positive aspect of the new technology is that it gives us the means to create parallel systems that exist alongside the dominant social and economic system. Examples can be found everywhere: organic farming, home solar power, and the do-it-yourself movement (DIY), which encourages people to “life hack” common problems and use open-source designs to make machines.

Using a parallel system allows us to makes a distinction between the surveillance state and those transactions that are not instantly part of a database. When we buy a locally grown tomato at the farmer’s market, use a peer-to-peer payment system that involves cryptocurrency, or rent a room in someone’s apartment while traveling, we’re engaged in a transaction that will not be tracked or quantified.

Participating in these parallel systems and creating a parallel life are both choices. And most people living in democratic countries still have these choices. But what should we do if the new surveillance states extend their power into every aspect of our lives?

When do you decide that you have had enough?

Resistance

For several years I worked for an organization that sent its employees out to work in war zones all over the world. On a number of occasions, I walked through villages where everyone had been killed and the bodies were left to swell up and rot in the sun. Time disappeared during these moments, and I was conscious only of the stench and the buzzing sound that came from swarms of flies. Eventually, my Sikh driver would honk the horn of the truck filled with relief supplies. I would get back into the truck cab and continue up the road. But these experiences stayed in my memory. I wanted to know why humans acted with such deliberate cruelty. When should we turn away from evil? And when should we resist?

When I returned to America, I began to read books about the Holocaust that described how ordinary people were transformed into executioners while a smaller group risked their lives trying to save others. There’s a long shelf of books about individual rescuers like Oskar Schindler, but it was difficult to come up with a general theory as to why they stepped forward.

A friend recommended that I read about Stanley Milgram’s famous “obedience studies” in the early 1960s. The Yale University psychologist was trying to understand how authority could push individuals into performing cruel or unethical actions, so he conducted a series of experiments on the Yale campus.

Imagine that you were one of the people who answered a newspaper ad looking for paid participants in a “scientific experiment.” When you arrive at the basement laboratory, a man wearing a white lab coat tells you that you’re going to participate in a study of how memory is influenced by punishment. You fill out a questionnaire, then pick a piece of paper that gives you the role of  “teacher” while the other participant is “the learner” (actually an actor hired by Milgram). The learner is taken to another room and an electrode is strapped to his wrist. Then the experimenter asks you to give the learner a set of word pairings to memorize.

If the learner in the next room answers correctly over an intercom, you’re supposed to praise him. But if the learner gives the wrong answer, you’re told to press a switch that gives a shock to the other person. At first, the learner answers correctly, and then he begins to make mistakes. Each time that happens, you’re told to press a switch with a higher voltage indicated on the control panel. You’re ordered to keep going even when the learner begins to scream.

After 19 different experiments with more than a thousand participants, Milgram described the obedience study to a group of 40 psychiatrists and asked them to estimate what percentage of teachers would reach the 450-volt level marked with an ominous XXX on the control panel. The psychiatrists decided that only 1 percent of the test group would go all the way. They were astonished to learn that two out of three “ordinary” men and women gave the maximum shock even when the learner in the other room had stopped responding.

Humans can be manipulated to obey. As information and communications technology creates a surveillance state, I’m worried that fear of terrorism will create a system where police officers and soldiers will obey the computer-generated decisions that appear on their optical head-mounted displays.

So what can stop this from happening? In 2006, a professor at Santa Clara University named Jerry Burger duplicated Milgram’s experiment using an experimental procedure where the “teachers” were pushed only toward a maximum 150-volt level. When he interviewed the participants afterward, Burger discovered that those who had stopped participating felt that they were responsible for giving the shocks, while those participants who obeyed had decided that the experimenter was responsible.

Milgram’s research shows us that anyone who identifies with authority can be manipulated to defend institutional goals. This sort of mindless obedience can be defeated only by one’s sense of identity.

Identity is not taste or fashion; it has nothing to do with what we’ve purchased in the past or want to buy in the future. Identity comes from making real choices that force you to decide what is true, fair and just.

One Man Standing in the Middle of a Street

The key image of our era is not an astronaut on the moon or a smirking billionaire holding a new smartphone. I’m continually inspired by the 1989 video of a man standing in front of a column of tanks one day after the Chinese military massacred the pro-democracy protesters who had gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

When the lead tank tries to drive around this protester, he repeatedly steps into its path. The driver of the lead tank shouts at him. The column starts to move, but the lone protester stops them once again. I don’t know this hero’s name and I don’t know what happened to him, but I’m still inspired by his bravery. The Tank Man was acting like a free human being — making a conscious choice to resist authority.

Even if you spent most of your day using some kind of electronic device, you’re not a light-emitting diode or a computer chip. We should never consider ourselves a functional component of any new technological system. We are physical beings that have been given the privilege and the power to say no.

When your own moment arrives, it probably won’t involve a column of tanks, but you’ll know that there is no other alternative. You must confront authority or your true Self would no longer exist.

The new surveillance states have placed us in an invisible prison. If we wish to break free, we need only to step forward and open the door.