Among the neologisms of the year, special mention must be awarded to the verb “to uber”. “Googling” or “tweet” or even “liker” have long been part of everyday vocabulary, but “to uber” is part of a larger phenomenon and a background mutation.
The verb “uber” comes from Uber, the shipping company, or rather the company that develops and operates mobile applications by contacting private car drivers and customers. Revolutionizing the world of taxis, Uber, American society born in San Francisco, has caused so much upheaval, ink spilling, such revolts around the world and fed so many lawyers this year that it came to symbolize civilizational clash of information technology and the constraints of the world before.
The press was one of the first industries to be “ubered”
Maurice Levy, head of Publicis, said in an interview published by the Financial Times on December 15 that the terror of any CEO of a well-established company today is “to get ubered.” That is to say, wake up one day and discover that he has been surpassed by another company that will do the same thing in the same field, but with new technology giving it such advantages that the traditional economic model will find itself devastated. The press, for example, was one of the first industries to be “ubered” without knowing that this phenomenon would one day have a name.
Faced with what he calls the “digital tsunami,” Maurice Levy therefore offers this advice to avoid being “ubered”: hire geeks and other geniuses of the algorithm, then buy a company that will ensure the numerical superiority of your competitors. This is what he has done, notably with the recent acquisition of the Sapient society.
There are other lessons, however, to remember the tremendous rise of Uber. Stage right. The start-up is the latest prodigy of Silicon Valley, that has been able to raise $1.2 billion at a round table and reach, by early December, a valuation of more than $40 billion, the highest ever recorded for a startup funded by venture capital. In four years, Uber has conquered the world. The company serves 250 cities and is well established in Asia, where the service responds to real needs. In China, Uber just cooperated with the search engine Baidu, the Chinese Google, where it hopes to reach 500 million users. Its founder, Travis Kalanick, is already an icon of the “Valley”. His brilliant entrepreneur legend has it that the idea of creating Uber came to him on the day when he could not find a taxi in the rain in Paris. The legend is retold in the pages of Vanity Fair and Forbes.
Stage left, the misadventures of Uber have so much in the news that the brand is increasingly the subject of negatively connotated puns such as “Uberbad”, “Uber and against all”, “Uber alles”… The genius of leaders of the company can only match their arrogance – a phenomenon well known in San Francisco, where we saw other high-tech geniuses grow up too fast. Taxi drivers, from London to Paris via Madrid, come together in anti-Uber action blocking traffic to protest against the unfair competition that challenges an almost century-old business model: these can easily be accused of leading corporatist minds battles in the rearguard, like the judges of the courts striking Uber ban under the pressure of these corporations, Germany and Thailand.
The case has highlighted a serious flaw of Uber: its access to private data of users
But tackling journalists, specialists in high tech industry in San Francisco, almost cost too dearly to Uber. The teachers of Uber handle communication as a war machine, the machine turned against them when US media reported dubious about Uber leaders. One day, Travis Kalanick downplayed the concerns of single women with threatening drivers, another, his number two, Emil Michael, threatened in a dinner to spend a million dollars to investigate the privacy of overly critical journalists. The tone rose and more than one San Francisco geek erased the Uber app on his smartphone. Another term was coined: “Uber Shame”.
The case has highlighted a serious flaw of Uber: its access to private data of users. The company car fleet is not the only one having this growing concern; consumers given the plethora of software that became essential to their daily lives but also plunge more deeply into the intimate knowledge of their daily routine. In this sense too, Uber is the symbol of the evolution of the relationship between private life and technology that Google and Facebook are facing.
Like Google or Apple, Uber has big plans: to reinvent transportation, transform cities and the environment. But the great designs may face human reality, when a young Indian woman is raped by the driver of a Uber car returning from her office in New Delhi. Or when the software modulation rates based on demand push prices sharply up when Sydney residents are looking to escape the city center, the scene of a hostage. One day perhaps, Google, which invested $250 million in Uber, will transform model through GoogleCar without a driver. It is not impossible that Uber, too, gets ubered one day. By then, the star of Silicon Valley could go back down to earth and simply encounter humans.