Until last week, it was just a series of rumblings. The allegations were of horrible episodes, but they simply didn’t penetrate the mantle of achievement, riches and accumulated goodwill of the groundbreaking icon. To dwell on the dirt would require you to see a hero as a monster. Now we have to answer hard questions about events, and about ourselves.
What will we tolerate when we are in the thrall of genius, and what will we be willing to look away from? Will we make feeble excuses for the culprit? Will we blame the young women, victims of both casual sexism and chilling violation?
I speak, of course, of Uber.
What a revolutionary idea. What a great service. What a darling of the investment community. What a bunch of frat boy creeps in charge.
The latest eruption of adolescent id came with the dinner-table musing, by Executive Vice President Emil Michael, about spending $1 million to hire reporters and political “opposition researchers” to dig up dirt on journalists who have criticized the company. According to BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith, who broke the story, the main target would have been PandoDaily editor Sarah Lacy.
Key words from Michael’s meditation on such investigations, as quoted by Smith: “your personal lives, your families.”
And why was Uber upset with Lacy? Because she had the temerity to call them out on a jaw-droppingly sexist rider promotion, in which men could get an Uber pickup in Lyon, France, from a hot “model” provided by the agency Avions de Chasse, which explained the opportunity thusly:
“Avions de chasse” is the French term for “fighter jets”, but also the colloquial term to designate an incredibly hot chick. Lucky you! the world’s most beautiful “Avions” are waiting for you on this app. Seat back, relax and let them take you on cloud 9!
Putting aside the sordid notion of car service as escort service, what this implied about the sexual availability of female drivers -- a vibe perhaps transferrable to female passengers -- drew the ire of Sarah Lacy. She said she no longer felt safe in an Uber car and would delete the app from her phone.
Did the company apologize? No. It fantasized about smearing Lacy. And there is no reason to think those fantasies weren’t a genuine action plan. Earlier, Uber New York General Manager Josh Moher used the company’s master traffic application to track the trip of a female reporter en route to his office -- an invasion of privacy apparently routine at the company.
Should that creep women out. I dunno. Although CEO Travis Kalanick took to calling the company “Boober,” because his fame and fortune were getting him so much Avions de Chasse.
This puerile misbehavior adds up. And the coming few months will determine how much -- as measured in billions of dollars. We dwell, after all, in the Relationship Era. As in all previous commercial epochs, success requires that you have the goods. But the goods are no longer evaluated by the public solely on their intrinsic qualities. You are also being judged on your values and your corporate conduct, and those judgments are the currency of social media. Oh, and they live there -- and on Google -- in perpetuity. Longevity tip: if you want to be successful in the long term, don’t let a Google search of your brand name turn up “misogynist swines.”
Till the past week or so, the Uber schweine were actually unterhunde. The target of taxi companies, drivers and municipalities, the company has continued to brave mass demonstrations and onerous legislation with the full knowledge that it is a better mousetrap. Yes, it is very bad for the status quo, but -- as they say -- is the toll of progress. Though the taxi industry is heavily regulated, it is also sloppy and exploitative. Cabbies are overworked, undercompensated and labor at great risk. Consequently, some of their number are chiselers or other category of menace.
Uber’s model not only provides for faster pickup, but the expensive dispatcher middleman is replaced by a phone app. Drivers keep more of the fare revenue, riders (usually) pay less, customer-service incentives are baked in and each trip is tracked to promote safety and limit disputes. It just works, and works well, which explains the panic in the incumbent industry and the $18 billion valuation.
So, yeah, they have the goods. But they also have a growing case of the bads. The New York Times has already described the phenomenon of “Uber shame,” using a service you find morally suspect. There is also a burgeoning “delete uber” movement that could snowball into a meme. Behavior has consequences. (See: Cosby, Bill) And thus -- stratospheric valuation or no, hot co-pilot or no -- could this high-flying startup head a tailspin and wind up in the drink.
By the way, entitled rich dudes: There’s no app for that.