…So now what?

By Andrew J. Pridgen

The last time I used Uber was after one of those long work days of meetings that turned into a long after-work dinner. I got back to my hotel room around nine, couldn’t go to sleep and didn’t want to watch ESPN or The Golden Girls, which always seem to be the only two options on the hotel TV. I had had a couple beers but didn’t want to go back down to the lobby bar where everyone and their 12-hour work breath was still hanging out. So, I checked my phone, saw that there was a 10pm showing of The Big Short nearby, and dialed up an Uber.

I enjoyed the movie an empty theater. It felt luxurious. I think the film’s themes of financial hubris and meltdown also carried some kind of heightened relevance for me, like when you watch something on an airplane. After all, I was on a work trip that was centered around the what’s next now that a private equity firm had just taken over the small, distressed software company I worked for.

We were based in one of the remaining rural areas of California, in a windowless warehouse plopped like a cow pie in the middle of a field across from the one-runway airport. Now we were being taken, individually and in groups, up to the Bay Area to see Oz. Some people were impressed. Some believed the lies. I had kind of done the opposite of what you’re supposed to in my career: Started in San Francisco and worked my way back to a small town. I’d been told the story before from the bleached teeth/travel blazer sect who ask for individual questions and give group platitudes in exchange. I was familiar with what the use of words like “thought leader”, “nascent technology”, “engagement”, “value proposition”, “curator”, “KPI” and my personal favorite, “ideation” really meant. But there I was, staring beyond the PowerPoints and pen boards trying not to inhale the coffee fart smells as it was all banded together like a daisy chain and shoved at us unironically in a conference room like a hot poker.

I was feeling sick that evening and it wasn’t from the group-dinner chicken. I was experiencing the side effects of the lie-and-wine-and-dine fake honeymoon that immediately precedes the first of many rounds of layoffs.

While I was enjoying the movie, my phone died. When I surfaced, there was nobody left in the theater lobby. I could have stolen all the Goobers. I was in a strip mall off the 101 a few exits from the town I’d grown up in and about eight freeway miles south of the hotel. I supposed if worse came to worse I could have walked to one of my friend’s homes and they would have taken me in but that would seem odd. So I sat there for a minute on the curb, thinking, pausing and smiling at my minor misfortune. I kind of felt OK about it, good in general for whatever reason.

The payphone just outside the theater was hollowed out, but I remembered there was a pristine pair at the gas station across the way that I’d used many times to call someone’s older sibling for a ride when we were similarly stranded at the cineplex. The price for our rescue was usually something from the non-value side of the Taco Bell menu, like a Mexican Pizza.

I walked over to the gas station with a light step. It was a beacon—its too-bright-lights could be seen from outer space. And there were still a pair of pay phones. I went in, bought some gum and got some change, and went back out. The phone book (an actual phone book!) was still hanging there. I felt like Marty McFly in the phone booth of his hometown diner, in his vest, back in time—using some kind of disappearing technology that now seemed novel. Looking an actual number up from a physical book, dialing numbers on a public machine, hearing a mechanical ringtone, waiting for a stranger, an actual person, to answer.

The voice that picked up at Safari Taxi didn’t sound tired or bedraggled or graveley like I’d anticipated, but happy to hear from me, happy to get the call. His name was Ray. Ray was about to call it a night but decided to get a snack. “They shut the Denny’s downtown years ago,” I said.

“Yeah,” he paused. “There’s nowhere to eat anymore here late, so I went home to get some food but thought I might go out one more time.”

“Sorry, if it’s any trouble…”

Ray showed up seven minutes later and got me back to my hotel in a jiff. He was a “mostly retired PG&E guy” who still got called out on emergencies. The winter had been particularly eventful thus far and he was grateful because it was work he needed. I asked him if anyone took Safari Taxi anymore in the age of Uber. He laughed. “Uber man, they always let you down.”

“How so?”

“Oh, you know. It’s expensive or the driver’s weird and doesn’t know how to talk or not from around here so they don’t know where they’re going or just something is a little off. It’s convenient, but I still have all my regular fares—the widows I take to the store. The folks who need to go to their weekly dialysis. Kids like you who lose their phones at the bars. People like the cab.”

I appreciated him calling me a kid then tried to remember the phrase, “Uber man, they always let you down.”

Ray dropped me off and I gave him a twenty. He tried to shove twelve dollars change in my hand but I told him to keep it in exchange for a receipt. He obliged.

I checked my phone the next morning. My one-way Uber to the movie theater was $33.

***

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down Tuesday.

He was one of the founders of the ride service in 2009 but was forced out after investors at the giant, digital gypsy cab company—valued for whatever reason at $70 billion—got tired of him acting like a horny 14-year-old living by himself in a mansion, rich parents permanently out of town having just broken ground on the waterslide in his backyard.

In a winking memo from the investors entitled (ready?) “Moving Uber Forward,” the CEO and the chief financial officer were asked to step down. As harbinger last week, the company announced that Kalanick, 40, would take an indefinite leave of absence—in part to grieve the sudden death of his mother in a recent boating accident. That wasn’t enough for his overlords who were tired of the steady stream of allegations of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and a toxic work environment emanating from Kalanick’s office and permeating the entire company.

Just read Susan J. Fowler’s piece about a year at Uber (not on a full stomach) to get a glimpse of the ruckus.

We put a man on the moon almost 50 years ago. Once that happened, possibilities seemed limitless. For the last 20 years, we’ve spent all our technological firepower and fervor on re-inventing new ways to do old things that weren’t that difficult in the first place (communicate, navigate, shop, get a ride somewhere, book a haircut.) Now we are more insular, inconsequential and judgmental for it—not to mention, dumber. Now our president doesn’t hold press conferences but gives staccato mini hate speeches with no repercussions. Now, we are technologically susceptible to having the most important transactions, including elections, hijacked by foreign adversaries.

And all we have to show for the effort are $33 one-way rides to the movie theater.

…I deleted Uber the next morning along with a couple dozen other worthless apps that put space between me and other people or generally wasted my time—Angry Birds: Star Wars, I paid for that shit. I also purged Amazon, Snap, Venmo, Mint, Path, Instagram, Yelp, Waze, Vine—gone. Forgotten instantly. No regrets.

I’m not a Luddite, but I’m trying to reconcile this lie I tell myself: How can I still rely on some pieces of “necessary” technology (my laptop, my iPhone, Facebook, Google AdSense, Twitter, Netflix) to stay informed and entertained but still rail against the horrific culture and worthless, toxic mess today’s technology has brought? Do I just go full hipster word processor and dust off my Nokia brick from the garage, throwing caution—and my grandfathered unlimited data plan—to the wind?

At this point, whatever “disruption” the Silicon Valley gave us is a punchline. Add to that the fact that technology is buoyed by a finite supply of venture capital money which, like fossil fuels, will eventually run out—bankrupting municipalities and pensions along the way. And private equity firms, like the one that bought—and set fire to—the little company I worked for, will similarly strip mine the rest, leaving in their wake what they’ve been designed to leave: not a more informed, enlightened, empathetic society, but a handful of the wealthiest people in the world and the rest of us addicted to crack.

I don’t have the answers but I know it won’t end well. So, for now, I choose Ray, the mostly retired PG&E guy and CEO of Safari Taxi.

Andrew J. Pridgen helps run sister site Death of the Press Box and is the author of the novella “Burgundy Upholstery Sky”. His first full-length novel will be released in late-2017.