Science Finds-Industry Applies-Man Conforms

Back during SXSW, I noticed articles about SideCar, the app that connects willing riders with willing drivers who then drive them to their destinations at flat, negotiated fees, being banned in Austin.

SideCar received a cease-and-desist order from the city. And on Thursday, the Austin City Council voted to enable its police officers to impound the cars of unlicensed drivers who are found to be giving out rides for pay in violation of City Code 13-2-3 — i.e. the rule around operating licensed taxi services. That, of course, could put a damper on SideCar’s plans, as it relies on unlicensed drivers to make the service work.”

I honestly wasn’t bothered by this. I thought, just because there’s an app for that doesn’t mean it’s legal. But it angered me when I read the reaction in a statement/blog post from their CEO, Sunil Paul, proclaiming:

“Innovation is under attack. Innovators have always faced opposition from traditionalists who are threatened by new ways of thinking. Battles may ensue but in the end innovation will win.”

And a paragraph later:

“Innovation will not happen if government regulators are in charge.”

Government regulators may promote social welfare, though.

I was reminded of this debate while reading Evgeny Morozov’s new book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. In it, he warns against falling victim to the “it’s okay because it’s from the Internet” (in which I would include apps such as SideCar’s) mindset and failing to critically analyze the arguments and technological solutions(?) offered by the proponents of such simplistic doggerel.

This bastardized paraphrase from Morozov, in reference to a different technological solutionist, applies well to Paul:

“The problem with [Sunil Paul’s argument] is that, while nominally about technology, it’s actually deeply political; what’s worse, it traffics in rather obnoxious politics.”

It’s true. It assumes that society is made around the app and, thus, is not subject to human law. Laws? We don’t need no stinkin’ laws.

But let’s look at just a few of the impacts his app may have outside of just its “disrupting” transportation consumer technology cocoon:

  • SideCar’s and others’ ride-sharing services immediately impact the livelihoods of those who drive taxis. I’m the first to agree Austin needs more taxis, but charging a flat fee or negotiated fee with a private individual undercuts the safety precautions legitimate, licensed taxi drivers must apply in order to earn an already meager wage. In fact, because taxi driving is often drivers’ primary gig, they have far more economic incentives (keeping their jobs) for safety than a possible drunken (or worse) volunteer. [Note that the Austin DA and a state representative from El Paso did not lose their jobs after recent drunk-driving arrests.]
  • Do SideCar’s drivers have similarly thorough or better background checks than licensed taxi drivers?
  • What kind of information is in those background checks? Are they as open (public review, amendment, appeal, what-have-you) as public documents? Are they privately stored or destroyed?
  • What information is being stored? Location-based monitoring? Other things we may want to know about?
  • How secure is the app? Can others access it without your knowledge under your credentials?

These (and there are far more) are serious issues that require public debate and deliberation before we change laws to accommodate “innovation.” But instead of engaging in such debates, SideCar’s CEO would prefer to reduce the discussion to calling questioners “traditionalists” and this:

“The complaints are coming from people with business models that they’re trying to protect. [T]he role of government is not to protect these business models.”

One could quickly ask: Doesn’t he have a business model to protect, as well? Certainly there’s a profit-motive and monetization effort behind his service/app. And maybe government isn’t protecting certain business models but instead protecting social well-being. Surely there’s a reason we have licensed taxi drivers. I’m not allowed to slap a card on my car and call myself a taxi driver/company either. Innovation and entrepreneurship stifled!

There’s plenty of debate to be had about these issues. We don’t make or repeal laws willy-nilly (at least, we shouldn’t and we don’t normally), and we shouldn’t do it now just because the argument is guised under “innovation.”

We need to hold these innovations — whether they be in transportation, education technology (edtech) or elsewhere — up to the light. We can’t be dazzled by their mere newness and seeming simplicity, efficiency and effectiveness.

A more recent example of ride-sharing companies evading regulation: “Lyft and SideCar, beware! Uber storms the arena of ride-sharing.”


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