On Uber and Black Mirror

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Recently my life has taken a few dramatic turns. The result of such turns is that I had a lot of free time. What does one do when they are free? Well. I watch a TV series. My colleagues have been talking about Black Mirror quite excessively for a while, so I thought I might give it a go. One thing lead to another – I binge watched all 4 seasons of it. The contents and the ideas of episodes are pretty cool, but one episode reminded me of my experience as an Uber driver and why I stopped doing it.

Because I needed some extra cash (who doesn’t?), I decided to register myself as an Uber driver. The process was surprisingly painful, since I had to get endorsements on my drivers licence, and a special licence just to drive people around, and a health check of some sorts. Anyway, I worked as an Uber driver for a few months, during which I met a lot of very interesting people, varying from high school students to AFP anti-terrorism personnels. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. What I wanted to talk about, is the rating system that Uber uses.

Essentially, for every trip, the passenger and the driver each can give the other party a rating between 1 and 5 stars. For passengers, this doesn’t mean much – as, as far as I remember, the driver didn’t have a chance to “select” passengers. However, for drivers, this is a completely different story. Uber does frequent performance reviews, and if you have a rating of 4.8 or 4.9, you are fine. If you have a rating of 4.5, be prepared to get an email from Uber asking you to improve. Does this sound familiar to you?

Nosedive is the episode’s name. Season 3 episode 1. In this episode a very similar rating system is used, but for people’s everyday lives, and massively exaggerated to a point where if you have a bad rating, you are looked down upon by strangers. And the thing is, I didn’t realise how… authoritarian the Uber system was until I saw the Black Mirror episode. What do drivers do to try to get a good rating? They have bottled waters, aux cords (perhaps bluetooth these days? Thanks Apple), free on board WiFi, etc. to try to impress the passengers. Well, I didn’t have these stuff. I just drove them places. Once in a while someone would ask me “Hey have you got some water?” and I would reply “Sorry no.” While in my head I would be saying “Why would you expect to be given water on a taxi?” But hey – that’s the Prisoner’s dilemma. These expecting-water-but-getting-air passengers would then give me a low rating, like a 3/5 or something. I would keep a keen eye on my ratings, and when they raised, I felt happy, and when they dropped, I felt upset – no, like real upset. So now when I’m an Uber passenger, unless the driver is a complete dickhead or was particularly rude, I would always give them a 5/5 – I know it would make them happier, even just a little bit. I stopped driving because I found a real job, but more importantly, it was because of one instance where I was driving this guy from the inner south to civic. We were chatting and everything and suddenly a car ran a Give-way sign and almost crashes into the front of mine. I slammed on the brakes and when the danger of crashing had been eliminated, I honked my horn to express my frustration and his inconsideration. Having been driving for 6 years, I have almost never used my horn, unless something absolutely stupid happens, which this is. My passenger, who was a bit flustered, became very quiet after this incident, and when he got off, gave me a 1-star rating and said I needed to improve on my professionalism. 1-star for saving his face from being punched by my airbags? That’s a bit harsh. I got really upset because my rating dropped from 4.9 to 4.6 or something like that, so I went home, and hung up my keys.

Watching the episode, in which everyone does their absolute best to try to impress the people around them in order to get a good rating, really reminded me of my experience as an Uber driver, and how obsessed I was at chasing ratings. I’m almost certain that this is still implemented at Uber today, so there are millions of drivers who are subjected to this level of scrutiny. Maybe the Black Mirror episode wasn’t particularly outrageously ridiculous after all.

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