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Taking Back the Wheel

much fanfare. Never one to misjudge the importance of well-timed publicity, SpaceX founder Elon Musk attached his cherry-red Tesla Roadster to the rocket and shot it into orbit. Images of the car, manned by an intrepid space-exploring mannequin dubbed Starman, were beamed around the world to delighted audiences.

There was undoubtedly something fantastic about the image of the faux-astronaut behind the wheel of a convertible car destined for the stars. In one fell swoop Musk tantalized us with two of our deepest futuristic desires: the colonization of Mars and flying cars. Soon, Starman hinted, we’ll all be able to shuttle ourselves to other planets.

It barely mattered that neither of those achievements seem practically imminent. Musk’s Tesla was still just a standard earthbound car attached to a giant rocket, and colonizing Mars remains the realm of Hollywood blockbusters. Back on earth, progress is a little slower.

Flying cars, however, are certainly on the agenda. Daily reports inform us that Toyota, Google, Airbus, and Uber are all investing in them, along with a bevy of newer companies. Uber has published a white paper, Uber Elevate, outlining a future of “on-demand urban air transportation.” The goal is to ferry customers high above the chaos of the gridlocked, pollution-saturated, earthbound commute. “What if you could save nearly four hours round-trip between São Paulo’s city center and the suburbs in Campinas?” Uber asks.

The pitch isn’t exactly original. The notoriously congested São Paulo is well known for the number of helicopters that ferry the rich from suburb to conference room. An Airbus-owned Silicon Valley incubator, Voom, already has an app for hailing helicopters in Brazil’s industrial capital. Uber’s proposed improvement on this model—replacing the noisy, polluting, expensive, and inefficient helicopter with a drone hybrid—doesn’t exactly conjure the Jetsons future that most of us associate with the words “flying car.”

But Uber’s pitch is worth paying attention to, because it tells us where the company—and, perhaps, its innumerable would-be imitators—are going. And that means it’s not just about how we might get around in the future, but how labor and the economy are organized today. Uber’s flying cars are just one part of a far-reaching business model that, at its most ambitious, aims to jump-start a sputtering capitalism.

Our research shows that the idea of flying cars does three related things. First, it provides a place to invest surplus capital. Second, it functions to exploit and discipline surplus labor. Third, it provides a broken economic system with a technocratic and ideological fix. And ultimately, that means that the main purpose that flying cars serve is not just technological or even economic—it’s political.

To understand the scope of Uber’s sales pitch, and what it means for politics today, we have to come back down a little closer to earth.

Uber is one of the world’s most valuable private companies. Despite its recent trials and tribulations, it remains a poster child for a new generation of Silicon Valley start-ups. In 2010 the company was valued at $5 million. In February, at its latest valuation, Uber was valued at $72 billion. A wide range of investors, including Goldman Sachs, Google Ventures, Sequoia Capital, Fidelity Investments, Qatar Investment Authority, Microsoft, and the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund have fueled this astronomical growth. What exactly are these investors buying into?

Uber’s business model appears to be based on three stages. First, Uber will monopolize cities’ ride-sharing market through an expensive battle to eliminate competitors and change cities’ regulations, allowing its business model to flourish. Second, it can begin to raise prices for consumers based on its market dominance. Third, it can invest the resulting profits in autonomous and flying vehicles, thus promising investors a ground-floor buy-in to the future of transportation. This vision has proved irresistible to many investors.

Uber’s rise in the wake of the global financial crisis is not coincidental. Ride-sharing companies and other start-ups provide at least a short-term solution to broader problems of capital accumulation presented by the financial system’s collapse. Expansion into new spaces—both physical and digital—is a way to offload accumulated capital and to create fresh opportunities for bigger and faster returns. This is what radical geographers might call a “digital spatial fix.” However we call it—the gig economy, the sharing economy, platform capitalism, or the surveillance economy—the aim is clear: the proliferation of new on-demand services circumvents barriers to accumulation in the form of unused private cars, spare rooms, lawnmowers, regulations, data, and the ultimate barrier, free personal time. These companies allow the market to colonize new spaces and monetize our lives in new ways. To combine the language of Marx and Apple, capital cannot abide a barrier; luckily, there’s an app for that.

Investors are gambling on riding this wave of digital accumulation and are swelling Uber’s coffers. And it is a gamble. Uber made a loss of $4.5 billion in 2017. In January 2018 it sold 15 percent of its shares to Japanese tech giant Softbank, at a price reportedly 30 percent lower than its $72 billion valuation, and probably much closer to $48 billion. Uber remains a private company and it is difficult to get exact numbers regarding its operations and finances. However, even the selective numbers Uber releases has given rise to increasing skepticism about its ability to turn a profit despite high revenue. The company spends much more than it makes, and it is difficult to see where it can make up the shortfall while pleasing consumers, shareholders, and drivers.

So far, enough investors have looked past Uber’s financial losses and eroding market share to keep the company growing. Those investors may look back fondly on the 2010s as a transformative decade, when capitalism ushered in extensive automation and a peer-to-peer economy. On the other hand, we may look back and marvel at an era of Juicero capitalism, where investors, desperate for increasing returns on their capital, threw money at every purported “disruptive” technology in hopes of owning a significant stake of the future.

Which will it be? For most of us, the answer lies firmly in the realm of speculation. Moving it into the realm of politics, where it belongs, means first of all understanding how these technologies function in the present. This brings us to Uber’s second major innovation: disciplining labor.

The future of work is no work

Uber argues that its biggest boon to “driver partners” is to present them with independence, flexibility, and more-than-competitive compensation. In this argument the on-demand economy ushers in a bright new future and an ostensibly new labor category: the flexible worker. In a twist on Marx’s utopian dream, such a worker can, Frank Pasquale pithily comments, “knit Etsy scarves in the morning, drive Uber cars in the afternoon, and write Facebook comments at night, flexibly shifting between jobs and leisure at will.”

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