We might not want to go, but Uber is taking us there anyway

SHARE We might not want to go, but Uber is taking us there anyway

Columnist Neil Steinberg says taxis will go the way of the manual typewriter because technology always wins. | Sun-Times file photo

I’m old enough to remember when authors of a certain vintage fetishized their manual typewriters. During their smug, how-I-create interviews, they would emphasize the physical process of setting down words on paper, as if the devices themselves somehow conveyed authenticity.

Let amateurs surrender to the siren call of newfangled electric typewriters or, God forbid, the soulless word processor. They were artists, and artists made a whap-whap-whap sound on their beloved Royals and Olympias.

That went away, eventually. Because manual typewriters are a pain. Computers are far easier, and they won. Technology always wins.

Still, before that inevitable victory, the two technologies existed side by side for a spell, the old and new, until the inferior one dies utterly clutching the curtains, decrying its doom.

We’ve entered that fatal last act with taxis. I never realized it until last week when I had one of those moments where the two technologies go head to head.


Something called the UI Labs invited me to visit, which required showing up at 1415 N. Cherry.

Had I been less busy, I’d have figured out where the nearest Divvy station was and biked over, it was only two miles from the newspaper.

But time grew short, and I jumped in a cab at the stand in front of the newspaper.

“1415 North Cherry,” I said. “On Goose Island.”

The driver started well but sailed past Division, going north, I told him he needed to turn around. We got to our destination. The meter read $10.75 and I gave him $12.00, unwilling to tip any man a quarter.

My hour tour over, it came time to go back. One glance at Cherry Street, a pervasive emptiness, and I figured I’d hoof toward civilization and hail a cab. Or, I thought, a block later, I could deploy the Uber device. Three minutes later Mubeem rolled up and conveyed me back to the paper. The tab was $7.61.

Hmmm, $7.61 versus $12 to cover the same distance. Do you see why the taxi model is crumbling?

Of course it is unfair. The playing field is skewed toward Uber. To drive a taxi in Chicago, you need a medallion, which could cost a third of a million dollars. Drivers need to study for and pass a difficult test. There are city regulations.

Uber showed up in 2011 and sidestepped all that by claiming not to be a cab company but a kind of dating service, pairing Mr. Takeme Somewhere with Miss Gotta Car then stepping back to let the chips fall where they may.

Are both drivers and passengers less protected under the new system? You betcha. But that is the world we’re careening into, with customers and employees both increasingly vulnerable.

A lot of my readers drive cabs, and I don’t want them to think I’m being glib with their tragedy. I’m not. It hurts to be mooted by technology. Trust me on this. I’ve spent my career with the growing shadow of devaluation spreading over my business, where a well-constructed, well paid-for sentence is jostled aside by 100 facile memes assembled by the unpaid volunteer public. We’re all pundits now.

I should mention what I saw at UI Labs. A vast hangar, very new — it opened in 2015 — designed to promote digital manufacturing, aka making stuff without people. I saw several “assisted reality” systems where, rather than go to the bother of training factory workers to reach into certain bins in a certain order and assemble a particular gizmo, lights will automatically flash upon the designated bins in the proper order, so your less trained — and less paid — employee can do the work by following prompts.

We are living in a growing bear market for human skills. Twenty years ago a cabbie — or a columnist — who knew his way around the city was a prized commodity. Now lines of code do our reckoning, and will soon our opining, for us. This new system yanks away institutional protections, further skewing the odds against the have-nots who must scrabble along best we can.

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