TIME

How Your Uber Rating Can Make You a Better Person

The Hamptons Lure Uber Top Drivers Amid NYC Slow Summer Weekends
Uber's ride request is displayed on an iPhone in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. Victor J. Blue—Bloomberg / Getty Images

If we all thought we were subject to being reviewed by the people around us, we might work harder to be on our best behavior

One of the many cool things about Uber is that it allows passengers to rate the driver. Not surprisingly, the drivers are very friendly. A recent hack of Uber’s site highlighted that the sauce-for-the-gander reverse is also true: the drivers rate us passengers. Even better, for a while it was possible to crack Uber’s database and see the driver’s ratings for you. With enough cleverness, you could even pry loose how others were rated.

At first this might seem a creepy invasion of privacy, especially if you’re less than a five-star passenger. But there’s a virtue to losing your anonymity. Once you know you’re being rated, just like the driver, you’re likely to be a bit nicer, sit in the front, and make conversation. The world becomes slightly more civil.

Plato in The Republic writes about the Ring of Gyges, a mythical piece of jewelry that allows its wearer to become invisible. His question is whether such a person would always be moral when assured that no one could see him. Plato’s brother Glaucon says it’s obvious that we’re more likely to behave like a jerk, or worse, when we know that we’ll never be caught or called out.

Civil liberties junkies sometimes confuse the worthy ideal of privacy with anonymity, a less exalted concept. The idea that we should be able to interact with other people anonymously is rather new in human history. It arose when people started moving from tight-knit communities to urban areas where they were generally unknown. When I was a kid in New Orleans, if I went to the local store and bought a pack of Marlboros, it would get back to my parents in about five minutes. Now we can buy anything anonymously and, worse yet, say anything.

This has not elevated the civic discourse. If I could conjure up a magic Plato ring, it would allow me to know and publicly reveal the names and addresses of all people who anonymously post vulgar rants and racist tweets. I would use it only sparingly, but I suspect that just a few such revelations would make the Twittersphere and Blogosphere suddenly a bit more civil, or at least subdued.

In the early days of the online world, people who posted in virtual communities such as The WELL knew that, even if they were using a pseudonym, they were creating an online identity and reputation that was worth tending. A year ago, the Huffington Post began requiring people to register in order to comment, and it has elevated the discourse on the site.

When the Internet Protocol was created in the early 1970s, it did not grant total anonymity to users. To this day, unless you take special precautions, a good hacker – or the NSA – can track down your I.P. address, location, and even your true identity. If a few white-hat hackers or NSA leakers published the names and addresses of, say, the trolls who hounded Robin Williams’s daughter, there would understandably be an outcry among privacy (read: anonymity) advocates, but it would have the silver lining of muting some of the haters.

Likewise, if we all thought we were subject to being rated, we might work harder to be on our best behavior. In the world of Yelp and TripAdvisor and HealthGrades, we get to rate our restaurants and hotels and doctors. I hope that expands. College students rate their professors in many places; it would be nice to allow kids and parents to rate their high school teachers. In the sauce-for-the-gander category, if teachers and waiters and hotels were all rating us, it might feel a bit Orwellian. Nevertheless, it’s a cool Ring of Gyges thought experiment to imagine how much better we would behave.

 

aspen journal logo

Walter Isaacson, a former managing editor of TIME, is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, DC. A former chairman and CEO of CNN, he is the author of Steve Jobs (2011),Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007), Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003), Kissinger: A Biography (1992), and the forthcoming The Innovators (October 2014), as well as the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986). This article also appears in the Aspen Journal of ideas

TIME Companies

Uber Just Hired Obama’s Political Guru to Battle ‘Big Taxi Cartel’

Key Speakers At The Year Ahead: 2014 Conference
David Plouffe, former senior adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama and Bloomberg News analyst, speaks at the Bloomberg Year Ahead: 2014 conference in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Nov. 20, 2013. Bloomberg—Bloomberg /Getty Images

David Plouffe, Obama's 2008 campaign manager, calls opposition to Uber "unwinnable"

Uber has hired one of President Barack Obama’s top political advisers to help wage an increasingly fierce turf war with taxi cab associations.

David Plouffe, the Democratic strategist who successfully steered Obama’s 2008 bid for the White House, will join Uber as Senior Vice President of Policy and Strategy and manage the company’s global campaign to extend its ride-sharing service to new cities, the company announced Tuesday.

“Our opponent – the Big Taxi cartel – has used decades of political contributions and influence to restrict competition, reduce choice for consumers, and put a stranglehold on economic opportunity for its drivers,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said in a statement on the company’s blog. “We needed someone who understood politics but who also had the strategic horsepower to reinvent how a campaign should be run.”

Plouffe said in a statement that he is “thrilled to be joining Travis Kalanick and the great team at Uber.”

“I’ve watched as the taxi industry cartel has tried to stand in the way of technology and big change,” Plouffe added. “Ultimately, that approach is unwinnable.”

Taxi-hailing and ride-sharing services, including Uber, Lyft and others, have frequently been threatened with cease and desist orders from city officials who accuse the companies of working outside of the regulatory framework set up for licensed taxi drivers.

Uber hiring Plouffe should also put to bed rumors that the political strategist might head back to the White House to serve as Obama’s Chief of Staff.

TIME Companies

Uber Wants To Bring You Your Diapers and Shampoo

The Hamptons Lure Uber Top Drivers Amid NYC Slow Summer Weekends
The Uber app Bloomberg/Getty Images

Uber, but for deliveries

Uber wants to be your delivery boy now, too. The car-hailing service is testing a new delivery feature called Uber Corner Store that will allow customers to get more than 100 items sent right to their doorstep in a matter of minutes.

Via the Uber app, users can select the “Corner Store” option, and will then receive a text from the company with a list of items available in their area. Next, an Uber driver calls the customer and takes his or her order. Then the goods get delivered to the customer’s home. There’s no additional delivery fee and customers are not expected to tip their driver, according to an Uber blog post.

For now the service is only available as a test trial to a limited number of users in the Washington, D.C. area. The item list is mostly limited to pricey name brand products—you’ll be buying Pampers or Huggies, for instance, not store-brand diapers. But Uber says it plans to expand the number of products offered and extend the service, currently only available on weekdays, to weekends and late nights.

Uber Corner Store will compete directly with Google Shopping Express, which lets users receive buy products and receive deliveries from local stores, and Amazon’s same-day delivery service. The new service illustrates Uber’s ambition to extend far beyond being simply a taxi app. The company is also experimenting with a courier service in New York and a moving service called UberMovers in Atlanta and Nashville.

MONEY Tech

6 Horrible Things the Sharing Economy Is Being Accused Of

A Lyft car drives along Powell Street on June 12, 2014 in San Francisco, California.
Lyft, the ride-sharing company known for its iconic pink mustaches, is involved in what's called "Tech's Fiercest Rivalry" with competing service Uber. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

You'd think that businesses that are part of something dubbed the "sharing economy" would play nice. Well, think again.

While sharing economy businesses such as Airbnb, Lyft, Uber, and TaskRabbit were created with the idea of connecting people and empowering individuals as entrepreneurs, they were also designed to disrupt existing business models. That process can be ugly, as it occasionally wreaks havoc not only on big industries like hotels and taxis, but also on how people make a living and where they can afford to live.

There’s an argument to be made that the sharing economy is not really about sharing at all. Rather, it’s a semi-regulated, tech-enabled, blatantly capitalistic peer-to-peer business model. Sure, it helps people earn a few bucks or get services cheaper than usual, but we must admit that the model can be brutally cut-throat in the way seemingly everything and everyone is monetized. Given such, it’s not all that surprising that sharing economy businesses are being blamed for some pretty nasty stuff lately. For example:

Sabotaging Each Other
The Wall Street Journal described the battle of ride-sharing competitors Uber and Lyft as “Tech’s Fiercest Rivalry” due to tactics such as giving cash bonuses (up to $1,000) to recruit drivers away from each other. In a particularly ugly turn, Lyft accused Uber of booking—then cancelling—more than 5,500 rides since last October, just to mess with Lyft drivers and the company in general. (Uber denied Lyft’s claims.)

Price Gouging
This summer, Uber agreed to limit surge pricing during natural disasters and emergencies, but that doesn’t mean its hated price hikes during peak demand have gone entirely away. Fans who attended a recent music festival in San Francisco were subjected to surge pricing that was five times the normal rate, meaning a short Uber ride through town cost hundreds of dollars, Valleywag reported.

Inviting Squatters and Scammers into Your Home
Following in the footsteps of an Airbnb host being disturbed by renters holding an orgy in his apartment, there’s the story of an Airbnb host being outraged by squatters who refused to leave (or pay) for their rental.

Wrecking the Housing Market
Critics say that Airbnb rentals turn homes and apartments into quasi-hotels, and landlords in desirable, touristy destinations such as San Francisco and Marfa, Texas are being accused of evicting long-term tenants so that units can be used as more lucrative short-term rentals. The sharing economy pioneer has also been linked to soaring rent and housing prices in general, and also the idea that the comfortable atmosphere in apartment buildings and entire neighborhoods is being destroyed by the presence of too many loud, unruly tourists.

Illegal Currency Trading
A group of taxi companies in India has accused Uber of violating local laws for credit card transactions. It is against the law for Indian citizens to conduct business in India using a foreign currency, and that’s what the group is saying is happening every time someone there uses Uber.

Ruining Wages, and Not Only for Taxi Drivers
Cab drivers are the ones who have been most up in arms about the way rideshare upstarts like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar have been disrupting their livelihoods by wooing away customers. But the brutally competitive nature of these businesses and the sharing economy in general has been causing trouble for other workers as well—like Uber and Lyft drivers themselves.

Professional UberX drivers supposedly earn $90,000 per year in New York City, but that figure doesn’t factor in many business expenses, including parking, gas, insurance, or the maintenance of one’s vehicle. And as rideshare companies engaged in price wars recently, some drivers have seen their wages cut significantly.

The dark side of the sharing economy is that it commoditizes all sorts of skills, services, and workers overall, and puts downward pressure on how valuable they are. The recent changes at TaskRabbit, the peer-to-peer site where people can book (and offer to handle) outsourced chores, has resulted in something of a race to the bottom in terms of money people can earn, mostly because it has become more difficult to beat out the competition for gigs.

[UPDATE: TaskRabbit reached out to clarify that it recently adopted a minimum rate of $11.20 per hour for the tasks coordinated on its site. The company points out that the rate is much higher than any state's minimum wage.]

In a vehemently pro-sharing economy column published this summer by the New York Times’ Tom Friedman—it was was more or less an extended interview with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky—Chesky envisioned a future in which people multitasked at several jobs rather than serving as employees of a single company. “You may have many jobs and many different kinds of income, and you will accumulate different reputations, based on peer reviews, across multiple platforms of people,” Chesky said. “You may start by delivering food, but as an aspiring chef you may start cooking your own food and delivering that and eventually you do home-cooked meals and offer a dining experience in your own home.”

This vision sorta makes it sound like one day we’ll all be TaskRabbits, hopping from gig to gig and competing against other taskers at every step. This is cause for concern. To quote a notable recent headline: “If TaskRabbit Is the Future of Employment, the Employed Are F***ed.” A New York Times story published this past weekend that followed the day-to-day existence of some sharing economy “microentrepreneurs” shows that this vision of the future has already arrived for many workers–and the reality is one of grim uncertainty and tough competition.

As for drivers operating taxis or rideshare cars, well, they have more to worry about than diminishing wages. Not long ago, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick made it clear that down the road, he expects that Uber will not employ any drivers at all. Instead, rides will be provided by self-driving cars. And presumably, all the people who would otherwise be drivers will have to jump into the scrum and compete with the rest of the rabbits for whatever work is available.

MONEY Bitcoin

Uber, Airbnb, and Others May Soon Accept Bitcoin

Bitcoin
Lucy Nicholson—Reuters

Customers may soon be able to use bitcoin for a variety of web services if a new deal involving an Ebay-owned payment processor goes through.

Bitcoin fans, rejoice. A new deal between a Paypal subsidiary and digital currency companies may soon allow customers to pay for Uber, Airbnb, Opentable, and other services with digital currency.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Braintree, a payment processor Ebay acquired last year, is in negotiations with businesses like Coinbase that allow consumers to store, buy, and send bitcoin, a digital currency that can be either “mined” using computing power or purchased with dollars. Braintree is currently part of Ebay’s Paypal unit. If these negotiations are successful, Braintree’s clients would be able to accept bitcoin payments.

If Braintree does enable clients to start taking bitcoin, they would not be the first to do so. Overstock.com was the first large company to accept bitocoin payments; and Dell, technology retailer Newegg, and satellite TV provider Dish Network, have all followed suit. Most of these services have also partnered with Coinbase.

While the currency has seen increased adoption, not all developments have been positive. In July, New York’s Department of Financial Services proposed new rules for virtual currency businesses that sought to reduce illegal activity—which bitcoin has previously facilitated—and increase consumer protections for the currency’s users. While some have lauded the rules as an important first step toward making bitcoin a viable currency, other bitcoin advocates slammed the regulations for eliminating bitcoin’s anonymity and their arduous requirements on certain businesses.

Bitcoin has also not fared well in terms of price. After the value of one bitcoin (BTC) peaked at over $1,100 in late 2013, its price has come crashing back to earth. As of today, one BTC is worth $512; down from $747 at the beginning of this year.

TIME apps

Uber Now Lets You Set Your Destination Within the App

The Hamptons Lure Uber Top Drivers Amid NYC Slow Summer Weekends
Uber's ride request is displayed on an iPhone in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. Victor J. Blue—Bloomberg / Getty Images

Getting from point A to point B just got a few seconds easier

Uber added new features Wednesday meant to make the journey from point A to point B as frictionless as possible: Riders can now set their destination from right within the app, then drivers will get those turn-by-turn navigation directions on their version of the Uber app.

When you request an Uber, the updated app will now prompt you to enter a destination, which it will automatically forward the address to the driver, enabling the passenger to skip the step of telling the driver where to go. Importantly, the passenger’s destination is shown to the driver “at pickup time,” Uber says, meaning drivers can’t cherry-pick fares.

In case the driver has any doubts about how to get there, the app will offer turn-by-turn directions, sparing the driver from re-entering the address in a separate navigation app or device, or simply turning around and asking for the best route.

“For drivers, that means Uber is more lucrative: saving time on trips means more trips per hour,” the company wrote in its announcement of the new features

TIME Companies

Uber Says a ‘Number’ of Lyft’s Investors Want Uber to Buy Lyft

The Hamptons Lure Uber Top Drivers Amid NYC Slow Summer Weekends
Th Uber Technologies Inc. car service application (app) is demonstrated for a photograph on an Apple Inc. iPhone in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Uber's statement came in reaction to Lyft's claims that Uber staffers were scheduling and then canceling Lyft rides.

Ride-hailing service Uber has shot back at bitter competitor Lyft over accusations that Uber employees intentionally called in and then cancelled Lyft rides in order to slow down the service’s drivers. Lyft claims Uber engaged in this practice at least 5,000 times since October, according to Bloomberg.

In a statement Tuesday, Uber denied Lyft’s claim and asserted Lyft was actually the one engaging in the shady practice. “Lyft’s own drivers and employees, including one of Lyft’s founders, have canceled 12,900 trips on Uber,” Uber said. “But instead of providing the long list of questionable tactics that Lyft has used over the years, we are focusing on building and maintaining the best platform for both consumers and drivers.”

Uber went so far as to say Lyft’s tactics are part of a strategy to provoke a buyout from Uber, which is now valued at $17 billion. “A number of Lyft investors have recently been pushing Uber to acquire Lyft,” Uber’s statement reads. “One of their largest shareholders recently warned that Lyft would ‘go nuclear’ if we do not acquire them. We can only assume that the recent Lyft attacks are part of that strategy.”

Lyft and Uber offer similar services and have gotten into the habit of copying each other’s featuresets. Last week, for instance, both companies announced a new carpooling option within mere hours of each other. And they’re increasingly battling for the exact same customers—Lyft just launched in New York, where Uber already operates. Whereas Lyft is most well-known for being a rideshare app and Uber a taxi-hailing app, Lyft has essentially adopted the taxi-hailing model in New York under regulatory pressure to do so.

A Lyft spokesperson did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

 

TIME Companies

Lyft Accuses Uber of Booking Then Canceling More Than 5,000 Rides

Lyft Gives Up Pink Mustaches To Challenge Uber In New York City
The Lyft Inc. application (app) is displayed for an arranged photograph in Washington, D.C., U.S., on July 9, 2014. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The rivalry between the two ride-sharing outfits just got über-intense

Ride-sharing company Lyft has accused its main competitor, Uber, of having 177 drivers and recruiters book and then cancel 5,560 rides since October, reports Bloomberg.

Uber strongly denies Lyft’s claims. It is also not known if Uber knew about this on an official level.

In an emailed statement to news outlets, Erin Simpson, Lyft’s director of communications, described the alleged behavior of callers apparently linked to Uber as “unfortunate” because it “wastes a driver’s time and impacts the next passenger waiting for that driver.”

The allegation comes after Lyft opened shop in New York City — an Uber stronghold — last month, and follows on the news that both companies will offer a discounted option that allows passengers to carpool with other riders headed in the same direction.

Uber told Business Insider that Lyft’s accusations were “patently false” and said those making the calls were regular passengers.

Of the two San Francisco–based firms, Uber is the current heavyweight. Uber is valued at $17 billion vs. Lyft’s supposed $950 million. And while Lyft offers its services in nearly 70 U.S. cities, Uber operates across more than 90 U.S. cities and more than 40 countries.

MONEY

Uber and Lyft Get Cheaper With New Carpooling Services

Uber carpool
courtesy of Uber

Uber and Lyft's ride-sharing services look to get even less expensive by allowing users to split a ride.

Uber and Lyft, the two dueling care-sharing services, have taken another swing at the traditional taxi establishment.

On Tuesday, each company announced it was releasing a new carpooling service that would help reduce fares.

Uber’s version, named UberPool, will let riders who use the service pay half-fare in exchange for sharing a ride with someone who’s going to a nearby destination. Uber says its normal service, where riders can summon an uber taxi within minutes using their smartphone, is 40% cheaper than the average taxi. UberPool would cut that bill by another 50%.

Lyft’s new service, Lyft Line, works in pretty much the same way, except they’re giving an even steeper discount of 60% off the normal fare. Both companies will still give you the carpool discount even if they can’t find another person to join your ride.

All that sounds great, but as Uber admits, this savings could come at the price of a lot of awkwardness. “This is also a bold social experiment. There’s the interaction between riders in an UberPool—should they talk to each other? When is that cool and when is it, well, annoying?” reads the announcement. “We’re going to find out how this brave new world of UberPooling works.” In an effort to make interacting a little easier, Uber will let customers know the name of their ride-partner as soon as they are selected.

While neither company is the first to enter the app-powered carpool marekt—Hitch, another app with the same premise, already exists—Lyft and Uber have the potential own the industry as the two are already dominant players in normal ride sharing. Hitch even advertises how much cheaper it is to group up with its own service than to use an Uber or Lyft taxi by yourself, perhaps explaining why both services decided to enter the carpooling space.

Lyft had previously sold Zimride, a carpooling company with a focus on long-distance travel, to Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

So when you start carpooling with your phone? Lyft Line is starting right now in San Francisco, and the company is even offering your first ride for free.

UberPool is rolling out more slowly. A private beta is already in progress, with help from erstwhile ally Google; the beta will be expanded further on August 15. You can sign up here to receive a notification when UberPool comes to your area. Standard Uber service is already available in 42 countries, and more than 100 cities worldwide, and Lyft is available in about 60 different cities.

MONEY online shopping

WATCH: Startup Delivers Marijuana to San Francisco Doorsteps

A startup is trying to brand itself as the Uber of medical marijuana delivery.

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