Surge City: It's Uber's City, and the Rest of Us Are Just Paying (Exorbitant) Rent

When the world grew too strange and terrible for even Hunter S. Thompson, he found solace by thumbing through the Book of Revelation. Thompson, however, existed in a very different San Francisco than our 140-character iteration of the place; Gog and Magog could afford a large furnished flat just working odd jobs and spend the rest of their time distributing political pamphlets and weaving those chairs for Huey Newton.

Thompson, alas, is no longer with us. And Revelation, a prophecy of our chaotic future, may have resonated more in our chaotic past. A more prescient message for the teeming, ephemeral San Francisco of today can be gleaned from the Book of Mark: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

At times, it seems the city's ascendant class is attempting to actually calculate a quantifiable answer to this question.

The tech companies permeating our city enable us to talk more and say less. We are growing ever more connected in the virtual world and disconnected in the actual world. Armed with computers the size of a deck of cards, we can now simultaneously accomplish multiple tasks our generational forebears had the good sense to blow off altogether.

Somewhere, assuredly, the algorithm for the optimal profit-to-soul ratio is being tweaked.

The au courant targets of fist-shaking anti-gentrification types are those sleek corporate shuttles with the Darth Vader tinted windows. These rolling allegories are crowding Muni buses out of Muni stops as assuredly as the well-heeled riders within are crowding Muni riders out of the city.

Also, they're big and slow and easy to blockade.

But there's another entity better suited to serve as the epitome of our time and place. Of a tech-savvy operation fine-tuned to cleave dollars from people with the efficiency ­— and impersonality ­— of a slaughterhouse. Of any notion of empathy being trumped by an algorithm. Of a city where a bloated government saddled with obsolete technology struggles with ham-handed attempts at benevolence while the streamlined high-tech companies it coddles have elevated crass exploitation to a science.

The End Times that enraptured Thompson may yet come. Uber Times are already here.

Last week, Travis Kalanick, CEO of the app-based car-hire Uber, broke strange ground indeed. All but certainly, he became the first business leader to offer a seminar to prospective clients on how to minimize being gouged by his business ­— a business he fully, even gleefully, intends to gouge people with, as gouging people is a lucrative component of his business.

And, for the record, one of Kalanick's “pro tips” on eluding the lash of Uber's fluctuating supply-and-demand “surge pricing” feature on New Year's Eve was to refrain from using Uber at the exact moments you'd most want to use Uber.

Well, that's the wisdom of the free market. That's how it feels to be given the finger by the invisible hand.

A tech baron offering a tutorial on how to best avoid his taking all your money pushes us into a bizarre realm; even Marie Antoinette didn't lecture the sans-culottes on which patisserie had the most reasonably priced cake.

In today's opulent San Francisco, it appears we've entered an epoch in which parody may no longer be possible. And forget self-parody: The Big Winners have forgotten how to be embarrassed about their transparently and spectacularly self-serving behavior. They no longer even see the need to employ a backroom when banging out backroom deals.

On one level, there's an inclination to tip your cap to Uber for being unapologetic and straightforward about its rapaciousness; as Jackie Mason used to quip about Richard Nixon, “I love a crook who knows his business.” And yet, Uber ­— and all the so-called “rideshares” ­— are built atop a foundation that's anything but straightforward. They've staked their existence on a litany of fanciful notions no less farfetched than a Norse creation myth.

Billion-dollar operations have muscled into a niche intended for “rideshares” of the sort once found on Craigslist. As the city's streets grow lousy with these “rideshares,” Uber et al. insist they're merely tech platforms ­— amalgamations of ones and zeros with snappy logos ­— connecting riders and drivers. Uber claims it has no responsibility for any misfortune befalling those who ride in or operate vehicles summoned via its app; its fleet is chauffeured by hired guns contracted by third parties. And so, when things go wrong, a company so straightforward about its desire to separate you from your money begins parsing language with Talmudic proficiency.

And on Dec. 31, things went very wrong.

Police say an Uber driver named Syed Muzzafar surged through a crosswalk at Polk and Ellis, striking an entire family and killing 6-year-old Sophia Liu. While Muzzafar identified himself to the cops as an Uber driver, and the company eventually confirmed the same, Uber's ongoing response has been a semantic meditation regarding the parameters of what it is to be an Uber driver.

Uber distanced itself from culpability, stating “this tragedy did not involve a vehicle or provider doing a trip on the Uber system,” and later adding that Muzzafar “was not providing services on the Uber system” when Liu was killed.

Another tip of the cap is due, for impressively convoluted, even Nixonian language. When there's no money in it for them, Uber claims it has no stake in what transpires in Uber-equipped vehicles. And, even if it did, a motorist at the wheel of such a vehicle may or may not be an Uber driver; he or she apparently transmutes into and out of various states of being, minute to minute.

Quite the revelation.

So, until End Times ­— or an equivalent court ruling ­— don't expect surge pricing to end.

For San Franciscans, surge pricing represents yet more slings and arrows of outrageously priced fortune. We're already living in Surge City, paying surge pricing 24/7. We pay extra for the privilege of living here just as Uber passengers disgorge more for the privilege of landing a ride during New Year's Day, DisruptSF, or ­— this is not a joke ­— rainy weather.

To any San Franciscan, Kalanick's justification for profiteering is wearily familiar. By charging an arm and a leg, he ensures optimal service for those able to pay an arm and a leg: “There's a harsh reality to situations where demand outstrips supply,” he tells Wired.

You don't say. That's life here writ large.

In this city, there will always be someone willing to pay more. And, when you leave, rest assured, there will be three people to take your place. And pay more. So we work. All of us. Even the flush techies punching laptops within corporate shuttles or basking in the glow of an omnipresent smartphone in the back of an Uber are pulling Wagnerian shifts. The line between working to live in this city and living to work in this city has been obliterated.

San Franciscans seem to be endlessly struggling to climb that hill, unable to ever take the moment to glance back and appreciate the view. You could catch a ride to the top. But it'll cost you.

Especially if it's raining.

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