Biased algorithms, left history of tech, Uber AB-5 lies, cars expanded policing, & more!

Issue 111

Hey urbanists,

A few days ago I attended the Mobilizing Justice workshop in Toronto, and gave a presentation about how elite visions have had significant influence on our cities and why we need to stop being distracted by them (especially the tech industry) as we move forward. We need to refocus on the needs of those at the bottom. I believe there will be a video posted at some point; I’ll share it once it’s available.

Andrew Miller of Sidewalk Labs also gave a “presentation” (see: sales pitch) in which he said the Sidewalk Toronto project, which is promoted as an equitable smart city, was “akin to Hudson Yards in New York City” — a much-criticized wealthy enclave. When I asked how SL plans to ensure its big ideas are able to be implemented, when there’s a long history of ambitious urban plans getting significantly scaled back at that stage, he did not provide a convincing answer.

This week I highlighted an excerpt from Lizzie O’Shea’s “Future Histories.” Also worth reading: Ben Tarnoff on why the tech left needs to learn its history, Uber’s lies about its AB-5 replacement, Apple’s bullshit housing pledge, cars created modern policing, tons of new oil is coming to market, Disney needs to be broken up, and the streaming wars aren’t really a war.

I’m off to London in a few days, then I’ll be in Paris for a debate at the Salon des Maires the following week.

Have a great week!


An excerpt from Lizzie O’Shea’s “Future Histories” about the social consequences of biased algorithms was published in Longreads. You can read it here, and I highly recommend buying the book.

In his analysis of the automobile industry in the 1960s, Ralph Nader argued that secrecy was one of the policies most inimical to the improvement of car safety. ‘Not only does this industry secrecy impede the search for knowledge to save lives … but it shields the automobile makers from being called to account for what they are doing or not doing.’ We can see a similar force at work today when algorithms are used as a substitute for human decision-making without proper transparency or accountability. Proprietary algorithms used by the government are often kept secret for security reasons, or by the manufacturing companies for commercial reasons, so they can charge for the use of their product. This lacuna of transparency and accountability undermines equality of opportunity and conceals inequality in outcomes. We need to force ‘black box’ algorithms open.

Tech dystopia

✊ “A year later, the legacy of the [Google] walkout has been far-reaching and complex. Although most of the protesters’ demands remain unmet,their efforts have given rise to a network of worker-led movements both inside Google and in the broader tech industry, marking a new era of tech companies being challenged by their own employees.”

⚠️ Microsoft beat out Amazon, IBM, Oracle, and Google for a $10 billion Pentagon contract to provide cloud storage and artificial intelligence for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) project. “The tech industry clearly has a nationalism problem. Intent on boosting their profits and global market share, tech leaders are using jingoism to justify ethically dubious decisions, while politicians use it to rationalize a closer partnership between the tech industry and the military. Worst still, the kind of techno-militaristic nationalism seen in the JEDI project could eventually set off a catastrophic AI-arms race.”

➡️ Related: In “The Code,” Margaret O’Mara explains how military funding played a key role in establishing Silicon Valley, subsidizing companies like Google that now dominate, and remain essential for newer tech companies, including arch-libertarian Peter Thiel’s Palantir.

🤦 “The rising movement in the United States to consider charging the country’s biggest tech companies with violating antitrust laws is running headlong into powerful and well-funded conservatives and libertarians committed to pushing back on those efforts. […] Both Facebook and Google have financed a slate of groups that support current antitrust law.”

🛑 7,000 leaked documents show Mark Zuckerberg “oversaw plans to consolidate the social network's power and control competitors by treating its users' data as a bargaining chip. […] Facebook would reward partners by giving them preferential access to certain types of user data while denying the same access to rival companies.”

✊ “The tech left needs a usable past. We’re not the first generation that has attempted to construct a more democratic relationship to technology. On the contrary: we belong to a long tradition of movements and organizations that have done this work in the past.” — Ben Tarnoff

✊ In the aftermath of the WeWork’s implosion and Adam Neumann’s billion-dollar payday, WeWorkers are organizing to demand fair treatment in the face of mass layoffs. “We don’t want to be defined by the scandals, the corruption, and the greed exhibited by the company’s leadership. We want to leave behind a legacy that represents the true character and intentions of WeWork employees.”

🗳💰 Amazon funneled $1.5 million into Seattle’s city council race, with much of it dedicated to defeating socialist Kshama Sawant. Despite an early lead by the Amazon-backed candidate, Sawant won reelection. CEO Jeff Bezos also called up Michael Bloomberg to ask him to enter the presidential race. He announced his campaign a few days ago.

🇯🇵 “Microsoft’s Japanese division found that reducing its working week to four days throughout the month of August caused an increase in productivity and a decrease in costs. […] Electricity use declined by 23 percent and paper printing decreased by 59 percent. Employees were encouraged to use tools like Microsoft Teams to communicate rather than holding meetings and 92 percent of employees reported that they were pleased with the reduced hours.”

😡 The U.S. FCC approved the T-Mobile merger with Sprint, which many believe will increase the price of telecom services in the long-term. However, 10 state attorneys general launched a lawsuit to block it, so CEO John Legere announced a number of misleading, targeted programs, which The Verge’s Dieter Bohn described as “a no-holds-barred campaign to win support for the merger from constituencies that might put pressure on those attorneys general to settle their case.”

💬 The U.S. military is funding research into how social media posts go viral. Keith Spencer, author of “The People’s History of Silicon Valley,” points out this could be used to spread propaganda and disinformation.

🙃 “The current open government data landscape is like an area of common land that everyone has access to and works to cultivate; except that only a few have the tools and technologies needed to harvest its crops. The land has yielded resources that the few have used to improve their tools over time. But they neither share the tools nor the nourishment they reap from their use with the other ‘commoners’ – the many.”

👁 Freedom House report says free speech and privacy declined on the internet for the ninth consecutive year, citing the failure of governments and companies to curb election interference and an increase in surveillance of social media, including by the United States. I’d also like to see more focus on how tech giants like Google are attacking the open web to lock everyone in their ecosystems.

📱 Bill Gates thinks Windows Mobile would have beaten Android if Microsoft hadn’t been subject to an antitrust inquiry. Do you need any better argument for antitrust action against the tech giants?

💸 Uber and Lyft’s ballot measure to replace AB-5 in California promises drivers would “receive a guaranteed pay equal to 120% of the minimum wage,” but an analysis out of UC Berkeley finds that several loopholes would leave drivers earning much less: “the equivalent of a wage of $5.64 per hour.”

🇬🇧 The U.K. competition authority is investigating Amazon’s recent investment in delivery app Deliveroo for a potential reduction in competition

👩‍⚖️ Uber is facing a class-action lawsuit in New York City representing 96,000 drivers over a failure to repay taxes it wrongly took from their earnings. Meanwhile, Canada’s Supreme Court will be hearing Uber’s appeal to an Ontario ruling that its arbitration clause was “invalid and unconscionable.

🌯 Restaurants pushing back against high fees charged by GrubHub and Uber Eats

👩‍⚖️ Kate Cox provides a brief overview of U.S. antitrust law and the aspects that are relevant to breaking up the big tech companies

📱 Video: Capitalism Didn’t Make the iPhone: How the fundamental tech we rely on was developed with state research funding — not by private enterprise

Critical urbanism

🏘 Apple pledged $2.5 billion to combat California’s housing crisis. It was praised by neoliberal Gov. Gavin Newsom, but Bernie Sanders (rightfully) criticized the announcement: “Apple is the latest tech industry tax evader that has portrayed its entry into the housing business as an act of philanthropic altruism.” If companies like Apple paid taxes, governments wouldn’t be so starved of cash that could be used to build public housing and quality transit to connect everyone. FT Alphaville noted it “echoes many of the developments around 19th century industrialisation, such as Carnegie’s libraries,” which were aimed at stopping the breakup of their corporate monopolies.

📉 Uber lost $1.2 billion in Q3 2019, and made a big deal of its 29% revenue growth, but Hubert Horan notes its total costs and expenses rose 33% to achieve it: “to obtain a $969 million increase in revenues, the company spent an additional $1.2 billion.” CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is promising “adjusted EBITDA profitability” in 2021, but that still excludes a lot of losses. Even if it hits that goal, “it will still be losing a ton of money, and it will be a long way from actual profitability, and it will be even further away from significant actual profitability that would create some kind of reasonable earnings multiple as appropriate for a taxi and delivery company.”

☠️ In March 2018, a self-driving Uber vehicle killed Elaine Herzberg as she walked her bike across the road. A new report by the NTSB says it happened because “the system design did not include a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians.” Herzberg died because Uber engineers didn’t consider people might cross the street. The people who designed the software and made the decision to test it on public roads should be charged.

🚔 In episode 30 of The War on Cars, Sarah Seo explains how the rise of automobility was paired with a massive expansion of policing

🚗 “Uber and Lyft barged into the public’s consciousness on a promise to end personal car ownership and improve urban transportation, while marketing themselves to drivers as a fun and easy side hustle. A decade later, these companies are being blamed for rising traffic congestion, increased tailpipe emissions, and a growing wealth gap between the rich and poor.”

🛬🚌 Transportation at Los Angeles International Airport isn’t going to get better until the airport puts more energy into transit and shuttles, not Uber and Lyft

🇬🇧 U.K. Labour’s Warm Homes for All scheme would “install loft insulation, double glazing and renewable technologies in almost all of the UK’s 27m homes,” creating 450,000 jobs over the next decade. Low-income households would be able to apply for a grant so they pay no upfront cost.

🙄 Elon Musk has again revised his position on self-driving cars: “he is promising that his ‘Full Self-Driving’ will be feature-complete by the end of this year but that this level of completeness doesn’t have the same level of autonomy that Tesla was claiming for itself three years ago!”

🌍 Motorbike taxi apps are getting more popular across Africa, and venutre capitalists want in

🚇 FT investigation finds “the air in [London] Tube carriages was up to 18 times worse than the city’s roadside air […] The problem is hardly limited to the London Underground. Studies of subway systems from Toronto to New York to Seoul have consistently shown higher air pollution under ground than above ground.”

🇺🇸 Los Angeles suspended Uber’s permit to rent electric bikes and scooters in the city because it won’t abide by data-sharing requirements

🇱🇺 “Late on Oct. 7, the mayor of Luxembourg City received an email from U.S. startup Bird Rides Inc. saying it would roll out its service overnight. The next morning, dozens of electric scooters lined the pavements. Just over a week later, on Thursday, Bird was forced to pause its service.”

🙄 Uber may have to seek a licensing agreement with Waymo or make costly changes to its autonomous vehicle tech after an expert found it’s still using Waymo’s tech

🇨🇦 A minimum wage worker in Canada doesn’t make enough to afford a one-bedroom apartment in 91% of the 795 neighborhoods with publicly available rental information, or a two-bedroom apartment in 97% of neighborhoods.

🇺🇸 San Francisco’s “Prop. D will add a 1.5% surcharge on shared rides and 3.25% on solo rides with ride-hailing apps in the city.” It needed 66.6% to pass, and got 66.66%. Prop C. also passed, banning the sale of e-cigarettes in 2020.

🇸🇬 Singapore banned scooters from sidewalks. Anyone who breaks the rule could go to jail for three months.

🛑 After a major report on Airbnb scammers and a shooting that killed five people, the company now says it will verify all listings and either refund or find a new place for people whose listing isn’t what was promised. Do we believe them?

🙄 Uber will test scooter surge pricing in Dallas

Climate crisis

🛢 Canada, Norway, Brazil, and Guyana “stand to add nearly a million barrels a day to the market in 2020 and nearly a million more in 2021, on top of the current world crude output of 80 million barrels a day. That boost in production, along with global efforts to lower emissions, will almost certainly push oil prices down. […] cheaper oil may complicate efforts to combat global warming and wean consumers and industries off their dependence on fossil fuels, because lower gasoline prices could, for example, slow the adoption of electric vehicles.”

🔋 Lithium batteries in electric vehicles “weigh hundreds of kilograms and contain a substantial amount of raw materials […] however, an organized recycling industry is only just now developing, and it faces significant technical hurdles before recycling becomes both widespread and economical.”

🤦 Twitter got a lot of credit for banning political ads, but the policy will let Exxon keep running ads that greenwash its business, while banning those that call out its actions that fuel the climate crisis

🇳🇴 Oslo is aiming to cut emissions at its port 85% by 2030, with the ultimate goal of reaching zero-emissions. Part of the plan includes electrifying ferries.

👩‍⚕️ “We cannot continue to accept the casual devaluation of the incalculable contribution of a large group of people in our society, underpinned as is by an indefensible and deeply patriarchal hierarchy of value. And to move in this direction, we must abandon the high-tech patriarchy which passes today for innovation policy. […] In a time of climate crisis, developing a non-extractive relationship with nature will also require developing a non-extractive relationship with each other.”

🚨 11,000 scientists declared a climate emergency that could cause “untold suffering” for people around the world. “We declare clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency. To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live. [This] entails major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems.”

🇬🇧 U.K. Labour could ban private jets by 2025 if it wins the December 12 general election. Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said, “A phase-out date for the use of fossil fuel private jets is a sensible proposal.”

🇮🇳 Air quality is so bad in Delhi that schools were canceled, construction was halted, flights were delayed, and cars were taken off the road

✊ More than 1,000 Google workers called on the company to cancel all fossil fuel contracts and commit to zero emissions by 2030. Google says it’s carbon neutral through the purchase of offsets, but that’s not good enough.

📚 Verso is releasing two new books on the Green New Deal, from the U.S. and U.K. Both are accessible and worth a read.


🎬 Martin Scorsese on how the movie business has changed and why Marvel films are not ‘cinema’: “Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. […] They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit. […] If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing. […] For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.”

🐙 Matt Stoller has a great breakdown of Disney’s new monopolization strategy, and I agree with all of it until he gets to the capitalism/markets section. “The new Disney is more a private equity group than studio, collecting brands and using them to bargain aggressively with partners, suppliers and consumers. […] [CEO Bob] Iger’s strategy is to do what Netflix is trying to do, except with more raw power. Netflix’s strategy is to produce so much content and sell it at a loss through subscriptions, in the hopes it can drive its competitors out of business. Once it has a large base of subscribers and no competitors, it can then raise prices on its subscribers (as it is doing in the U.S.) and pay its talent less money. […] Analysts are betting Iger is setting up a new studio system. Disney will lose money in order to generate market power that the corporation can later use, often against consumers. […] The real target of Iger’s monopolization strategy is suppliers of entertainment product. Put another way, the target is labor.” Meanwhile, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said this week that, “Disney’s the one that we really have the most to learn from in terms of entertainment.”

🎮 “‘Death Stranding’ could be described as the best ‘video game movie’ ever made, but that doesn’t quite capture what makes it feel special. Is it a film that you play? A game that you watch? Does it invite all of the same criticisms that have been leveled at [Hideo] Kojima’s work since last century? Yes, yes, and yes. At a time when video games can finally look like movies as much as movies have started to look like video games — when people like Kojima and James Cameron are working towards similar ends with many of the same techniques — Kojima has created a bizarre masterpiece that doesn’t just blur the line between these mediums, but also illustrates the power of knotting them together.”

✌️ Leading scholars on streaming media, Amanda Lotz and Ramon Lobato, explain there isn’t exactly a “streaming war” because every service has very different goals they want to achieve with their streaming video services

🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia demanded Netflix take down an episode of Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act which criticized the country over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Netflix complied, and CEO Reed Hastings responded, “We’re not in the truth to power business, we’re in the entertainment business.”

🎮 Sony beat other companies to game streaming with its Playstation Now service, but as competitors launch their own services, Sony hasn’t been able to keep up

💷 Rockstar North, the studio behind Grand Theft Auto V, one of the most profitable entertainment products of all time, hasn’t paid U.K. corporation tax in ten years

🎦 Disney+ was promoted as being ad-free, but will now run ads for Starz in order to secure rights to some Star Wars and Marvel films that it holds the rights for. The company is essentially going all-in on Disney+, and announced many its Fox properties — including FX and Fox Searchlight — will be key to the future of Hulu.

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