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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 9 page 20


Could there ever be a more supremacist corporate name than Uber? It’s one of the internet’s ultra libertarian products.

In a spot? No car? Hit the Uber app and Uber will hook you up with some opportunistic prole-entrepreneur on wheels who’ll get you out of there. Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick is an Ayn Rand fan. Here's his modus operandi: go to any city, call yourself a mobile app and not a taxi or limo dispatcher, tell the local regulators they’re behind the times, then just go right ahead and start your own unlicensed taxi and limo dispatch operations. Travis, by the way, is personally worth over $5 billion, at least on paper.

Uber is backed to a ridiculous extent ($40 billion) by venture capitalists who presumably figure the company will rule the planet. Google is one of those backers, presumably in the expectation of synergizing its own driverless car with Uber's app and customer base, edging us ever closer to that magical day when a finger-tap on your phone brings an Uber-Google robocab to your curbside.

Semi-casual male passenger arriving in limo in Uber ad with message 'Arrive in style'
An ϋber moment

How has the internet, which belongs to everyone and to no one, spawned a cluster of gigantic corporations and a coterie of multi-billionaires? How did the internet evolve into what Keen calls a “winner-take-all economy?”

Blame the notorious “network effect”: the more people who join Network A, the more possible connections Network A can offer its members. With more connections, Network A becomes increasingly attractive to ever more joiners, until ultimately it becomes the go-to network for everybody. Bell Telephone was an early example of the network effect leading to gigantism and monopoly.

The network effect fits nicely with capitalism, where the more people whose activity you can derive a profit from — the more “eyeballs” you can deliver to advertizers, for example — the richer and more powerful you become.

That’s why size matters, that’s why the titans crave ever more members, that’s why they bombard you with messages to make you feel you’re missing out if you don’t get back on their site real quick. That’s why they use so much of their capital just to gobble up other companies. When Facebook triumphed over Twitter in its bidding war for Instagram, Facebook was certainly not in the fight merely to get its hands on Instagram's run-of-the-mill software. What Facebook really wanted was the membership, the people who provide the data and labor that sustain Instagram. Similarly, Yahoo in 2013 paid $1.1 billion for the utterly sophmoric Tumblr with 300 million users.

There’s a gaping “silicon chasm” stretching between these stratospheric corporations (with their vast virtual communities) and the real communities they physically inhabit. Their shiny self-contained office campuses tell you everything. The epitome is the Googleplex down in Mountain View, which features restaurants, gyms, laundries, daycare, even dorms. Who needs Mountain View when everything's at the office?

Still, an office campus says one thing above all: it says suburbs. But nowadays the fact of the matter is that a lot of tech workers, disinfatuated with the Valley's suburban feng shui, would rather live up in San Francisco. To keep this coveted talent pool within their grasp, some companies have established themselves in downtown San Fran, such as Twitter and Uber which are on Market Street, and Yelp is in that vicinity too. Meanwhile, the likes of Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, being nowhere near as urban cool as they would like you to believe, decided instead to provide private bus services to whisk their workers from Frisco down into the Valley — a trip of 30-50 minutes depending exactly which silvery box-on-a-lawn you’re aiming for.