User Experience and Civic Engagement
By Andrew Battista
September Featured Essay
One night last summer, my friends and I visited the Bronx to see the New York Botanical Garden. After several hours of drinking cocktails and waiting in line for a glimpse of some Frida Kahlo paintings, we determined that our next move—dinner in an Italian market near Arthur Avenue—would require a mile-plus walk or a schlep of a similar distance to the subway. We waited a few minutes alongside Fordham Road before realizing that it could legitimately take half an hour until an empty cab would stop. We weren’t in Manhattan anymore. So we pulled out an iPhone, tapped a few buttons, and then watched as an icon representing an Uber SUV inched across the screen and toward our location, pinpointed on a map. After a few minutes, we looked up and saw a giant, air-conditioned Cadillac Escalade approaching the curb. Crisis averted.
I recall this trip so vividly because I felt conflicted about it. Ordering an Uber solved a problem that many people in New York and other cities around the world face every day. Gaps in public transportation make it difficult for those living in underserved areas to travel to work, school, or medical appointments with any comfort or predictability. In New York, subway deserts and other gaps in transit affect the poor disproportionately. Many people don’t have the money or technology to avail themselves of solutions like Uber on a regular basis, which is a disadvantage that perpetuates inequality.1 In the moment, ordering an Uber seemed like a concession, a capitulation to the idea that private companies and entrepreneurs should pick up the slack when public infrastructure starts to erode.
Yet to upwardly-mobile young professionals like us, Uber represents several additional things. It is an exercise of power and privilege, an expression of entitlement, and a decision to evade the contingencies of a system that, while imperfect, has been established and subsidized to serve the public.2 Uber also offers the allure of doing business entirely through its app. When you ride with Uber, you don’t have to fumble around for cash or credit cards since you’ve already connected your payment online. You don’t even have to think about talking to—or tipping—the driver once you’re in the car. Everything about Uber is designed to provide insulation from the outside world. At least for a few minutes, taking an Uber exonerates you from engaging with systemic problems related to public transportation and class privilege.
None of this literal and symbolic individualism is lost on Travis Kalanick, the Uber founder whose libertarian ideology has propelled the company’s worldwide growth over the last six years. Today, some industry cheerleaders value Uber at 62.5 billion dollars.3 But in 2007, when smartphones were first released and app-facilitated ridesharing was just a glint in the eye of venture capitalists, Kalanick linked Uber’s profitability to the concept of how users feel when they search for rides. In a grainy video of what could be either a start-up launch party or a wedding reception gone on too long, Kalanick explains the magical process: “you open up that app and get that experience of, like, ‘I am living in the future,’ like, I pushed a frickin button and a car showed up, and now I’m a pimp.”4 Uber has been so prolific because of what its users perceive when they navigate the app. In the video, Kalanick admits that the geo-geeks who create the graphical interfaces are the ones who distinguish Uber from livery services, trains, or cabs. Uber ameliorates just about every frustrating aspect of public transportation by providing a slick, seamless experience. Users love Uber’s look and feel because it removes uncertainty from the moment and shows icons moving across a map.
User experience, or “UX,” the proto-Fordist philosophy of human-device interaction, is the general domain of figuring out how technology can be effective while minimizing the cognitive load of the people who engage with it.5 UX concerns are the catalyst behind most of today’s “sharing economy” platforms, and they presage Silicon Valley’s vocabulary of agile thinking and disruptive innovation. Kalanick and other technorati-entrepreneurs use the word “disruption” to describe interventions in industries like transportation, lodging, and learning.6 This ideology privileges self-starters who resist “herd mentality” and create “apportunity” for a new class of consumers and investors. Under this aegis, UX design strategies are cast as a panacea to systems of commerce thought to be broken. The phrase, “there’s an app for that,” is a pithy construction of a larger dream Silicon Valley is selling: that mobile interfaces themselves can improve the lives of laborers and consumers alike.
While language of “disruption” belies a profound mistrust in the idea that municipalities and governments can sustain infrastructure, it also ignores the reality that some industries and services should not be “disrupted.” As University of Chicago Law Professor Eric Posner points out, taxis comprise a natural monopoly, which exists because rides can only happen on very expensive public infrastructure—i.e., streets, bridges, and roads. He suggests that “when monopolies exist, the people who set the prices should not profit from them.”7 However, by “disrupting” industries that fall into the category of natural monopolies, sharing economy companies engage in precisely this kind of profiteering. And they usually don’t acknowledge the implications of such “disruptions” either. Uber drivers congest roads that are already overcrowded, and AirBnB creates conditions that constrict the supply of affordable housing. Still, both of these companies have demonstrated they are loathe to submit to the laws in place—including paying taxes—that keep cities functioning and safe.8
Sharing economy companies expose a deep-seated tension between government regulation and free market enterprise. Their speculation and growth models are cloaked under the mantle of individual agency and “making the world a better place,” the kind of faux altruism that HBO’s Silicon Valley mocks relentlessly.9 Their acolytes, tech bros straight out of college and seed funders with plenty of cash to throw around, espouse the fantasy that a good enough technological interface can eradicate the need for government oversight, no matter the industry. Their defense against claims of substandard or dangerous conditions is that companies can regulate themselves and therefore don’t need interference from anyone, especially the government. Somehow, though, this doctrine has only led to market conditions in which governments lose their ability to protect citizens from exploitation.
When I began shaping this essay, I wanted to catalog reasons why the companies mediating so-called “sharing economies” are problematic. They hire just about anyone, including people who are literally on a journey to becoming serial killers.10 They treat their workers (if that is even the right term) as disposable cogs, investing almost nothing in labor and effectively firing anyone who dares to profane their brand on social media (the term Uber uses is “deactivate”).11 In their slavish devotion to the logic of the free market, they defend decisions to price gouge during times of civil unrest, impending natural disaster, or simply on New Year’s Eve, when people are too drunk to realize they are being extorted.12 They make it exceedingly easy for the purveyors of things being shared—rides and homes in particular—to discriminate based on race or disability, and their responses to discrimination are usually nothing more than ineffectual missives that get posted on a company blog.13 Most significantly, they keep the terms of their business practices, including vast reservoirs of data about consumer behavior, secret and share information as a contrived gesture of transparency. And they do this only when it serves their interests.14
Although the incidents I list are serious, they are ultimately the low-hanging fruit in this argument. They are harbingers of a reality in which goods and services are mediated by entities that have the ethical orientation of hungry start-ups coupled with the clout of multi-billion dollar corporations. It is clear that sharing economy apps raise crucial questions for people locked within a technology-driven consumer economy. Why should we trust the marketplace’s ideal of accountability to protect citizens and uphold the public good? Within sharing economy platforms, such accountability often manifests in little more than a five-star rating system. More importantly, what is the consequence of our long-term patronage of these platforms, particularly in spheres that are historically difficult to regulate? I want to explore the relationship between the apps we use, the companies that operate them, and the energy we all need to facilitate the life of a democracy. There is a direct connection between the interfaces of mobile technologies—apps, operating systems, and databases—and the evolving reality of a world in which the gap between the rich and the poor widens each day. In the age of apps, the roles of consumer, activist, citizen, and entrepreneur are blurred in many ways. It’s important to think about what this blurring means.
The Sharing Economy Meets Higher Education
Capitalism has followed an essential structure for centuries: people sell their labor for money, which can later be exchanged for other goods and services needed to survive. Even though app interfaces abstract the relationship between labor and capital, they are not themselves abstract things. Apps are constructions that radically expand the range of possibilities for people to sell their labor. In so doing, they produce a reality in which people are expected to parlay any form of surplus, such as bodily energy, intellectual curiosity, industrial skill, knowledge, or leisurely pursuit, into personal capital. This means that no aspect of human experience is sheltered from the imperative to generate money. Worse, it means that apps further enable conditions by which civic states and employers can shirk responsibility to support their constituents and instead transfer that burden directly onto the constituents themselves, often in ways that are imperceptible at a glance.
Such is the bleak reality Wendy Brown describes in her book, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution.15 According to Brown, neoliberalism is a “distinctive mode of reason,” a refiguring of life in which all spheres of existence are framed within and measured according to economic terms.16 The ramifications of this shift from long-established modes of capitalism to ad-hoc mini-economies are substantial. In the neoliberal world, polities become fragmented structures in which democratic participation devolves into situational “buy-in,” à la decision-making procedures in corporate board meetings. Essential public needs are fulfilled by private enterprise “solutions,” and the appreciation of human capital becomes the guiding truth by which individuals and societies operate. In sum, all aspects of life—principles of justice, processes of government, and practices of citizenship—are recast into economic terms, to the degree that entrepreneurial sovereignty becomes the raison d’être of democracy.
To outline this shift, Brown begins with homo politicus, Aristotle’s notion that humans are meant to organize for the sake of the public good. Referring to Aristotle’s The Politics, Brown writes, “man was by nature an animal intended to live in a polis,” ordered to exist “together in a deliberately governed fashion, to self-rule in a settled association that comprises yet exceeds basic needs.”17 Within a political society, Aristotle saw capital as an inherently base but ultimately necessary element of life. Some level of surplus is needed for citizens to engage in the contemplation and meditation required for effective democratic participation, but there should be clear limits. The point of accumulating capital is not to establish wealth for its own sake, but rather to preserve the leisure needed to dedicate oneself to the ongoing development of the polity. In Aristotle’s ideal, gathering capital should afford citizens the time, space, and energy to help shape the collective state.
Neoliberalism implies a shift to homo oeconomicus, or the idea that the ultimate purpose of human life within a democratic society is to accumulate individual capital. As Brown explains, “we are human capital not just for ourselves, but also for the firm, state, or postnational constellation of which we are members.”18 The uncontested acceptance of this idea is most evident in institutions that are designed to perpetuate public good and safety, especially education. And the extent to which education both suffers from and cultivates in its participants the principles of homo oeconomicus is frightening.
Consider Studor, an app that connects peer tutors “who have been checked and approved in their subject area” with other students looking for “help to get to the next step.”19 Much like the sequence on Uber’s location-based interface, Studor allows those stuck with homework to tap a few buttons and arrange for on-the-fly assistance from someone ostensibly qualified. Studor was founded in 2014 by Noah Hyams, a New York University student who tried unsuccessfully to navigate the labyrinthine structure of his institution. Hyams explains, “I was an RA at NYU and I was having trouble with the math classes I was taking. It frustrated me how I was in a building with smart students, but unable to find someone who could help me out. Here I am, stuck at a problem and frantically texting my friends or waiting for office hours. I thought to myself, ‘There has to be an easier way to do this.’”20 The Studor app, and the NYU Information Technology “Create a Better NYU Hackathon” contest that generated it, assumes that there are major lapses in the university’s ability to support students. The very name of the contest suggests the administration’s belief that these problems can be solved by enterprising, tech-savvy students who stand to make a large profit if they can monetize an interface that works.21
The origin story of Studor would suggest that in the mind of digital-age students, getting help with college coursework should follow the same logic of getting a ride. You shouldn’t have to wait for someone to come along, especially in moments when you are already focused. Furthermore, you shouldn’t have to navigate unfamiliar systems or websites to seek out the curricular support that is usually available to all students within a university community. (Most universities, including my own, offer tutoring services, libraries, and software support for anyone to access). And you certainly shouldn’t subject yourself to the agony of waiting to see if a professor will respond to e-mail or hold office hours. Instead, you should be able to arrange for expert help to arrive on your own terms, when and where you want it.
On its website, Studor boasts that it has 45 available tutors and an average satisfaction rating of 4.9, but it’s not clear how large the sample size is, or if the rating system is any meaningful representation of effectiveness. Furthermore, it should go without saying that the entire process is completely unregulated. Not having downloaded the app or set up an account, I don’t know how much a tutoring session costs or if there are surge pricing rates during midterms and final exams. Studor promises that it “personally interviews” tutors but otherwise doesn’t provide much information about who or what determines the quality of one-on-one sessions.22 From what I can decipher, the only evidence Studor requires of prospective tutors is a photograph or copy of a transcript that verifies a good grade in an NYU course.23
Apps like Studor are evidence of a larger problem in higher education. In the age of Scott Walker—i.e., a time of significant funding cuts to public education—many universities have increased enrollment but have not counterbalanced growth with adequate infrastructure to support students, who may or may not be prepared to succeed in college.24 When universities grow enrollment without hiring new faculty and staff, class sizes balloon, writing centers get booked up, and other campus services become stretched to the max. Left in the lurch, students are forced to find any kind of help they can in order to succeed. Enter Studor, which resembles Uber in that its developers have recognized a gap in infrastructure and plan to exploit it. Now, individuals can find solutions to their problems, but they will have to pay. It’s not clear what exactly they are paying for, though. The ability to learn, a good grade, or both?
The market for Studor is essentially the byproduct of higher education’s dysfunction. The app is an embodiment of what Brown calls the devolution of authority, a wholesale “responsibilization” of individuals who exist within a community that heretofore had checks and resources in place to protect everyone.25 Studor creates a precedent and a process for individuals to absorb the cost of their own weakness. When this transfer becomes social or institutional policy, it places “the moral burdening of the entity at the end of the pipeline,” in this case the NYU student who already pays upwards of $45,000 per year to attend. Such individuals are tasked “with discerning and undertaking the correct strategies of self-investment and entrepreneurship for thriving and surviving.”26
Studor is undoubtedly a bad deal for students in need of help, but I believe it also damages those who want to capitalize on their “surplus knowledge.” I first heard about Studor when I saw a flyer in the library at NYU where I work. The flyer appeals to a prospective labor force in terms that are almost identical to Uber’s recruitment pitch. With Studor, the flyer says, you can “start making money instantly” and “work around your schedule.”27 To be clear, Studor is fundamentally different from other student jobs, including those involving peer tutoring. It is an economization without limits. The experience of being a student can be epistemologically, intellectually, and literally disorienting. Indeed, that may be one of the explicit goals and best elements of college. However, in the sharing economy, it’s no longer sufficient to learn and process without capitalizing in medias res. Instead, students are encouraged to register in a sharing economy app and develop an income, however meager, from their recently-acquired capital, the education itself.
In the end, Studor seems to be the apotheosis of a new understanding: there is no longer a realistic place within most college curricula to prepare students for active engagement in public life. Instead, higher education is valued only insofar students can capitalize on their degrees by literally expressing their consummate learning as “actionable” human capital. Subtly and instantly, students learn to capitulate to the homo oeconomicus model of life and transfer that mode of thinking into their subsequent lives as citizens. Learning prefigures monetizing one’s knowledge; it no longer presages a life of engaged action. No matter which industry or application, this pattern of casting oneself as human capital requires an endless supply of energy. Continually transforming surplus into capital diminishes our ability to understand education as a precursor to engaged citizenship, in which we pursue equitable and sustainable structures for our communities.
The Energy to Change
The momentum of this essay is toward the concept of personal energy, or how we spend our time and what we are able to give to improve society. Energy provides leeway for people to enrich themselves and grow, and it is the single commodity that can lead individuals to improve community structure through protest, activism, volunteer labor, or simple engagement with others. However, in the neoliberal world, energy is scarce, a reality that sharing economy companies seem to understand all too well. This is why I believe that many of the choices we make within the sharing economy are actually about trying to preserve the finite amount of energy we do have. Uber, TaskRabbit, Seamless, and other companies have flourished because they all promise shortcuts—microcosmic, market-driven ways to create more personal energy through transferring just a little bit of capital from one account to another. It’s true that sharing economy apps actually can create energy, but only because they obscure the labor of other people.
Logic would suggest that if sharing economy apps do generate personal energy, they could allow conscientious consumers to devote more time to strengthening civic states. This scenario is often the opposite of what happens. Instead, sharing economy companies neutralize engaged citizens by creating channels and interfaces that co-opt activist impulses and redirect them toward preserving corporate business models. Uber in particular has leveraged its smartphone app to mobilize its customer base to fight for Uber’s ability to expand in cities across the U.S. In June 2015, Uber organized a rally at New York’s City Hall that attracted drivers and passersby. Uber offered rides to the event via its app and handed out free food to anyone who was willing to hold signs and protest Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to temporarily limit “the issuance of new for-hire vehicle licenses.”28 AirBnB has also recently repurposed its customer database into a platform for political influence. In a mass email to its New York customers, the “AirBnB Action Team” implored users to write or tweet New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and veto what they describe as an “extremely unfair anti-home sharing law,” Senate Bill S6340A. The bill actually reinforces New York’s multiple dwelling law, passed in 2010, and makes it illegal to advertise housing rentals for terms less than 30 days.29 The AirBnB Action Team email included a conveniently pre-constructed tweet, which users could publish with one click if they were signed on to Twitter already.
Even though they have demonstrated an antipathy toward government, companies like Uber and AirBnB realize that human energies can be transferred into activist efforts that ultimately bolster the value of their markets. Thus they have enlisted a new generation of young consumer-citizens who may not have ever become involved in public life but are drawn to the facade of agency that such engagement implies. On the surface, such activism would seem to resemble the fervent participation in the life of the polity that has been the backbone of participatory democracies. However, this brand of civic engagement is what Edward T. Walker calls the “Uber-ization of activism,” a stripped-down form of participation in which the foremost agenda is preserving personal convenience rather than affecting sustainable social change.30 Uber’s customers who protest are essentially making a cost-benefit exchange with their own time and energy. The two or three hours they sacrifice by holding signs in front of city hall could translate into the continued availability of comfortable rides, a service from which they will benefit directly. Sadly, these protesters do not take a long view, nor do they examine the many tangible ways in which sharing economy platforms splinter society into individual micro-markets and perpetuate inequality.
I am like many people in that I constantly feel short on energy, and I am ashamed by how seldom I direct what surplus energy I do have toward truly “making the world a better place.” It all seems so daunting. But I do feel that the patterns of living that have emerged through sharing economy interfaces have taken us further from the public good. Over the past few months, I have been thinking about this essay in tandem with political theorist Hannah Arendt’s conception of the public sphere. To Arendt, the public and the common world within it comprise a larger conceptual entity of shared space. This is a collective entity that is produced by people for the benefit of everyone in a society. For Arendt, the idea of the public is distinguished from private property or from “nature” itself. Instead it is the composite of physical and civic infrastructure that enables life on an ongoing basis. She writes:
[The common world] is related, rather, to the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as the affairs that go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together…. To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.31
The metaphor of a table as a shared space is apt, particularly when thinking about things like public transportation, lodging, and education. We express how we imagine ourselves within a larger civic state through our daily decisions—how we choose to solve our own problems, how we get from point A to point B, where we stay when visiting a city, or what we eat. These daily challenges are also questions about where and how we want to direct our energies. Change happens when all citizens think deliberatively and conscientiously about the process of cultivating the public sphere as thoroughly and comprehensively as possible. This sphere does not square with the logic of short-term gain, but instead is the backbone of a much longer, sustainable system available to everyone.
Editor: Jeff Gross
Copyediting by Jordan Wick
Featured Image: “Baller as Barack” by Brian Connors Manke