Douglas Coupland: Red dot
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I’ve always felt vaguely embarrassed for cats chasing the red laser-pointer dot on the floor. We like to think of cats as being smarter than that.
Oh, come on — the dot comes from this laser pointy-thingy I’m holding. Get your act together. I also always feel slightly annoyed at myself for holding the pointer and leading the cat along . . . It’s not that I’m being cruel — it’s more that I’m making it clear to myself and to everyone that intelligence is a continuum and not a threshold, which in turn makes me wonder what metaphorical red dots I’m following and not knowing about. Who’s holding the laser pointer and laughing contemptuously at me?
And then I was in Paris last week ordering a car from Uber. I was in the office with two co-workers and we were sitting staring at my iPhone watching the little black car on the streets navigate the tangled topological mess that is the streets of the 9th arrondissement.
“Look. It’s stopped.”
“I wonder why?”
“Maybe it’s hit a red light.”
“Look! It’s started moving again.”
“No! It’s going the wrong way!”
“That’s not true. That’s a one-way street so it has to go that way.
It’s Paris.” Note that it wasn’t the driver, a human being, we were discussing: it was the little black car on the screen.
“Look at it now. It’s making good time on rue Saint-Lazare.”
“Oh no — it’s stopped again.”
“What is its problem?”
Then I had a chill: Uber is the one holding the laser pointer — and I wonder if they’re even aware that they are? For fans of Uber, and there are many, possibly the most underrated asset they have going for them is the red laser-dot experience of staring at the phone’s screen and watching the car come ever closer.
“It’s almost here!”
Everything about Uber makes sense. Beyond the onscreen fun of ordering, they show up, their cars are clean and new, the drivers are well-dressed and courteous. “Bottled water? Phone charger? What music do you like?” And then they take you where you need to go. And their prices are good. Uber in LA is the best. Also Berlin. And Paris. And London and Sydney. But not in Vancouver, where I spend a fair deal of time, and in a few other cities that seem to have problems with Uber, where the service has been halted by local governments.
I get a lot of visitors in Vancouver, and those from New York City are always horrified because my kitchen has a garburator in the sink. (An in-sink disposal service.)
“Oh my God, you have a garburator.”
“Oh. Yeah. They’re great. They reduce your trash stream by a lot.”
“But people put their . . . babies down the garburator!”
I know. But in their defence, these are otherwise really smart people standing there saying this. So I always go easy on them and point out that the reason New York didn’t have garburators until recently is because back when they were invented, the Teamsters went crazy because trash going down the drain is trash the Teamsters can move in their trucks. So to galvanise the public on their side they fabricated the urban legend of people putting babies down the garburator.
So back to Uber. What I hear from some people now is, “Yes, but you could get raped by an Uber driver! They could be psycho murderers.”
“Well, you could get raped by any driver, really. So why are you focusing only on Uber? That seems strangely convenient.”
I think right now the Uber situation is like the Teamsters and garburators in the mid-20th century. There’s no real argument to not have Uber drivers. They are superior to taxis in all possible ways. The only thing stopping them are all these cab drivers who had to pay extortionate amounts of money for a medallion, and suddenly entering their arena are these new people with superior service in every way, who also didn’t get hosed buying a medallion (honestly, medallions? How is that even still a thing?). So of course taxi owners are angry, and of course they’re going to lash out and try to generate urban legends to frighten people who, the moment they use an Uber, will never use a taxi again if they don’t have to. Uber’s not alone in this sort of engineered fear environment. Remember the Craigslist killer?
Gosh — someone didn’t buy an ad in a newspaper, and for their stupidity they paid with their life.
And in Canada two weeks ago, the press revelled in the fate of an Edmonton couple who rented out their house on Airbnb, and came back only to find it trashed to the tune of C$100,000. Airbnb now has the largest hotel footprint in the world. Uber has image problems but they’re on the correct historical track. Craigslist, Lyft et al . . . the shareconomy? The freeconomy? It’s going to happen. And the moment these firms start paying more in taxes is the moment they officially suffocate to death the old economy. As for Vancouver, which has the lowest number of taxis per capita in Canada, fearmongering can only last so long. People travel. They know something better when they see it. And one day soon I can follow the red laser dot on the floor of my home town.
Douglas Coupland is artist in residence in Paris at the Google Cultural Institute. Twitter @dougcoupland
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