WeWork exposes gig economy, Airbnb scam, LAX Uber whining, NYC delivery mess, Deadspin solidarity, & more!

Issue 110

Hey urbanists,

Jet lag hit me hard these past few days, but I still have a great issue for you.

I wrote a piece for NBC News (before taking the aforementioned flight) on how the gig economy has failed workers and why they deserve more power. I think you’ll find this issue has a lot of examples of workers pushing back and fighting for their rights.

I want to highlight the pieces on how Facebook bought into right-wing bullshit, Airbnb scammers, Saadia Muzaffar’s Sidewalk Labs’ lessons, the whining over LAX Uber changes, how Amazon packages are crippling NYC, Helsinki’s new library, implicit bias in protest coverage, the courage of Deadspin workers, and Call of Duty’s propaganda.

Have a great week!


P.S. — Hit the heart below the title or at the end if you like the issue.

📉💥 By Paris: WeWork and Uber's struggles show how venture capital-backed-tech giants fail workers (NBC News THINK): “For a decade, tech founders promised they were transforming the economy, but the troubles of WeWork and Uber suggest, rather, that they were burning cash to benefit people like them while making life more difficult for a lot of urban residents.”

Tech dystopia

😈 “Facebook is a right-wing company, hostage to conservative ideas about speech and economics, its fortunes tied to its allies in Republican politics, including the president, whose campaign spends millions on Facebook ads. Offering support to some of the worst figures in American political life, Facebook is as nihilistic as an oil company and just as willing to dump its pollution on all of us. That it has come to so thoroughly dominate our public sphere is a tragic indictment of American civic life and American techno-capitalism, which has confused the pitiless surveillance of today’s internet with utopian empowerment.”

⛓ Investigation finds Facebook-owned Instagram is facilitating slave markets

✊ Hundreds of WeWork employees sent a letter to the new CEO requesting information on whether support workers will be laid off and for them to be provided with severance if they will be out of work. It’s a sign WeWorkers are organizing.

🙂 Though I frequently criticize the monopolistic behaviors of major tech companies, I don’t think all monopolies are inherently bad. Public monopolies can provide significant benefits by decommodifying key services and infrastructure.

💳 Uber, desperate to show it will turn a profit someday, is making a renewed push into financial services with new debit and credit cards. Because in a financialized economy, every firm has to become a bank.

📱⛈ 3,000+ delegates met in Egypt this week to resolve a conflict over radio frequency bands that has pitted meteorologists against telecom companies. “To keep 5G from interfering with forecasting, English and other scientists have pushed for strict limits on the noise that 5G devices are allowed to generate outside of the 24GHz channel. But the US [FCC] has proposed much less stringent limits, even though concerns over the potential threats to science and public safety have been mounting ever since the FCC decided in March to auction off that part of the radio spectrum. […] the outlook in Egypt so far is grim for those hoping for stronger protections from the potential interference 5G could pose to weather forecasting.”

🗳 Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash found some drivers and couriers to found a group opposed to AB-5; now they’re throwing $90 million at it to support a ballot initiative. The companies are offering concessions they never would have without the regulation, but that doesn’t mean AB-5 should be overturned in favor of the rules they’ll accept. Executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation said it’s a “brazen attempt by some of the richest corporations in California to avoid playing by the same rules as all other law-abiding companies in our state.” Uber is also taking Los Angeles to court over its data-reporting requirements for dockless scooters and bikes.

🧙‍♂️ “By emphasizing the technical innovations (and obsessive dedication to them) as more important than the political and economic contexts in which they were germinated, the graybeards of internet history and PR machines of the tech industry perpetuate the illusion that technology magically exists outside of politics, rather than existing in a constant dialogue with it.”

😡 Allie Conti was scammed on Airbnb. Then she tracked down other people scammed by the same person, and eventually identified who he was — but “Airbnb, which plans to go public next year, seemed to have little interest in rooting out the rot from within its own platform.” However, she ends by says she and the others would keep using Airbnb because they feel there’s no alternative, and I hear similar from people who use Uber. Why do people act as though hotels and taxis don’t exist when we got along just find without these companies a decade ago? (She later added that the FBI had contacted her, but Airbnb had not; then Airbnb issued her month-old refund.)

🛑 Excerpt from Matt Stoller’s “Goliath” (on my reading list) about the Microsoft antitrust case: “In 2000, the court ruled for the government, and put forward a plan to split up Microsoft into two companies, one that held the operating systems and the other that controlled the Microsoft software businesses that ran on top of the operating system […] Microsoft would still retain its monopolies, even if they were now in separate companies. But [Bill] Gates appealed the decision anyway, and the most conservative circuit court in America overturned the breakup order. In 2001, the George W. Bush administration essentially dropped the remainder of the case.”

💰 Facebook, Amazon, and Apple are plowing record amounts of money into lobbying as the government investigates their market power and anticompetitive practices

Instacart Shoppers will be walking off the job Sunday through Tuesday to protest the actions of CEO Apoorva Mehta; specifically how their pay has been systematically decimated. “Every year we push back as our pay spirals further down the drain, and Instacart’s valuation swells by the billions, and your net worth skyrockets. When will enough be enough? Because of your greed or inaction, or lack of concern, Shoppers now struggle to put food on the table and a roof over their families’ heads.”

👩‍⚖️ New documents released from Tesla investors’ case against Elon Musk strongly suggest he misled shareholders over the viability of SolarCity to convince them to back the acquisition so his empire wouldn’t collapse

🤖📚 By Paris: Aaron Bastani’s ‘luxury communism’ is a false future (Canadian Dimension): “A true communist future requires a break with billionaire futurism, and that means not being blinded by the sleek, bankrupt visions of Silicon Valley that present technology as the solution to all our problems on vastly overoptimistic timelines.”

Critical urbanism

☠️ Dalerjon Shahobiddinov picked out his own bike for his 8th birthday. Earlier this month, he took it out for a ride and was killed by a driver in an SUV. As biking deaths in NYC are surging, his blood is on the hands of officials who’ve chosen to prioritize parking over safety for pedestrians and cyclists.

🇺🇸 Uber’s lawsuit against New York City’s ride-hail vehicle cap has been dismissed

🇪🇸 Superblocks are taking Spain, and slowly going international: “In parts of downtown Vitoria-Gasteiz, he and his team have reduced the number of cars on the road by 27%, leading to a 42% reduction in the city’s carbon dioxide emissions. A full 50% of residents walk as their primary mode of transportation, and 15% bike.”

🇨🇦 After a major report detailing Sidewalk Labs’ leaked 2016 vision for an authoritarian smart city with everyone given a social credit score reminiscent of China, Waterfront Toronto agreed to continue examining its project on Toronto’s waterfront, but confined it to the 12 acres at Quayside instead of the 190-acre Port Lands it was trying to grab and made it agree that “Waterfront Toronto, not an independent ‘civic data trust’, will lead all digital governance and privacy matters.”

💡 Saadia Muzaffar, who resigned from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Advisory Panel, wrote about the lessons she’s learned from the past year of Sidewalk Toronto debates

🛬 Los Angeles International Airport moved Uber and Lyft pick-ups to a garage and users lost it because there were problems on day one. Josh Barro wrote about how to improve the experience, but notably didn’t suggest people take a shuttle or transit. Meanwhile, a Flyaway shuttle driver said it was the quickest she’d ever driven through the terminal, while the Rideshare Guy implied Uber users would be hostile to transit initiatives because people called them crybabies (thus proving their point).

☠️ “Pedestrians under age 18 are twice as likely to be struck and killed by a car on October 31 than on any other day of the year.” The larger trend shows “nighttime crashes accounted for more than 90% of the total increase in pedestrian deaths between 2007 and 2017.”

📦 “About 15% of New York City households receive a package every day.” With Amazon moving toward same-day delivery, cities are already struggling to cope with the increase in shipments. In Paris and Hamburg, many packages are delivered on bikes and tricycles, but that’s not the case in NYC. Some are proposing a tax on same-day deliveries because of the difficulties such short timelines cause for the city.

🇦🇺🏫 In Australia, a shocking 30% of primary and 40% of secondary school students go to private school. Those students are more likely arrive by car and “their car trips are almost twice as long as for government school students. As these trips are in peak hour, private schooling has a disproportionate impact on traffic congestion.”

🇬🇧🏠 In the United Kingdom, “around 13,000 homes were built by councils last year. Sure, it’s not the 300,000 we need, but it indicates the beginning of a slow and gentle revolution.” But councils say they need more subsidy from the national government and for an end to right to buy.

🏘 Nicole Aschoff dissects the FT’s future housing trends. “In a system where wealth and power are inextricable, and wealth for ordinary people is primarily stored in housing stock, replacing landlords with individual homeowners, public housing, and cooperatively owned co-living spaces is essential to democratizing the economy.”

🇫🇮📚 Helsinki’s new central library has a public square, café, theatre, flexible rooms, 3D printers, music rooms, sewing machines, language classes, and patrons can “borrow season tickets for … popular professional basketball games.” Oh, and 100,000 books.

🇬🇧 The first phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry which killed 72 people was very critical of the London Fire Brigade and found it was fitting with flammable cladding in violation of safety regulations

✊ “Feminist City: A Field Guide” explains how cities were build by and for men — and how they can be redesigned to work for everyone else too

🇺🇸🚗 The Trump administration is trying to roll back vehicle emissions standards in California, and it has the support of GM, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota, Mazda, Nissan, Kia, and Subaru. If you must buy a car, make sure to avoid these brands.

🇦🇺🌳 “The year was 1985, the car was king, and Melbourne was a doughnut city – dead in the centre. Melbourne City Council urban designer Rob Adams was tasked with making the city more liveable. He quietly began planting trees and widening footpaths. The idea was that if you can design a good street you can design a good city.”

📺 What would an honest car ad look like?

Climate crisis

🌇 620 cities responded to the “Cities at Risk” survey. “The top reported climate hazards were floods, heat waves and droughts. […] Despite these hazards, CDP found only 46% of cities are carrying out vulnerability assessments to see how they can adapt to climate change. Those that have done the assessments, the report says, are taking six times as many adaptation measures as those cities that haven’t.”

🇺🇸 As fires rage in California, “social media is swimming with promotions for solar power, back-up generators, and air purifiers,” including from a company which makes “the worst air purifier”

🌊 New projections of sea level rise find it could affect three times more people by 2050 than previously thought. “The new research shows that some 150 million people are now living on land that will be below the high-tide line by midcentury.”

🏙 Cities around the world are hoping that reclaiming land on their waterfronts, which they could sell for a profit, will allow them to fund defences for rising seas. But the mayor of Rotterdam isn’t so sure: “Safety and security is not a business model.”

💧 “Strawberry Creek is emblematic of the intense, complex water fights playing out around the nation between Nestlé, grassroots opposition, and government officials. At stake is control of the nation’s freshwater supply and billions in profits as Nestlé bottles America’s water then sells it back in plastic bottles.”

Media mess

🗞 Popular demonstrations are happening around the world, including Haiti, Ecuador, Chile, and Hong Kong. But an analysis of media coverage of those events supports the theory of worthy vs. unworthy victims developed by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky thirty years ago in “Manufacturing Consent”: reports pay disproportionate attention to Hong Kong and ignore actions of the U.S. government in Hong Kong that get emphasized when done by Venezuela in Ecuador.

💥 The interim editor-in-chief of Deadspin, Barry Petchesky, has been fired after management told journalists only to write about sports, and they rebelled by filling the home page with non-sports stories. Management also removed a blog post on the site which solicited reader feedback about autoplay video ads, which was in violation of the collective agreement. One of the posts getting the most attention is “The Adults in the Room” by former EIC Megan Greenwell, who writes, “The tragedy of digital media isn’t that it’s run by ruthless, profiteering guys in ill-fitting suits; it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen.”

✊ In the following days, every writer at Deadspin quit, showing how workers have power and are using it. “Yes, part of the mass exodus stems from unhappiness with G/O’s culture and a desire to speak out against corporate overlords. But it also reflects how powerful union organizing in digital media has created an opening for workers to rethink what they are settling for and how to take matters in their own hands.”

🎥 Matthew Ball wrote a four-part series arguing cinematic universes are the modern incarnation of epic myths of gods, heroes, and villains. They’ve emerged in this moment because of cost reductions in VFX, new markets (especially China), the internet enabling online fan communities, and corporate consolidation providing the financial capacity to commit such large sums of money. He also agrees that directors are right to be concerned about the degree to which ‘universe’ films are dominating the box office because they provide only the “illusion of change” — which I argue makes them perfect for the post-recession, neoliberal period. Ball also argues the Marvel Cinematic Universe will eventually fall to a different universe, but that assumes a highly consolidated media environment in perpetuity.

🛑 Facebook employees wrote a letter to management to oppose the decision to allow lies in political ads on the platform. They say the policy “doesn’t protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy.”

😬 Apple TV+ launched this week, and the reviews aren’t stellar. Variety’s Daniel D’Addario writes, “None of the shows, to my eye, are truly successful because each feels in its own way curated to death, overworked with an eye on transmitting quality rather than actually allowing it to spontaneously happen.” Caroline Framke says it “doesn’t seem to have much of a brand at all, unless it’s ‘expensive’.”

🎮 Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s “Highway of Death” mission casts Russians as brutal killers who murdered people trying to escape after an invasion of the fictional country of Urzikstan — but it’s eerily similar to a real-war slaughter known by the same name that was committed by Western forces in the Gulf War. A lot of media reports say that Russians are angry about the portrayal, but kudos to Polygon’s Charlie Hall for noting that Western consumers are also turned off by the blatant propaganda.

David Palumbo-Liu interviews Teen Vogue executive editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay about what it’s like bringing radical views to a new audience while under the umbrella of Condé Nast

🎬 Manu Saadia on Blade Runner’s impact on science fiction and the need for more utopian thinking: “Despite science fiction’s failure at imagining a future worth living for, the city remains the starting point and the contested terrain of today’s utopia.”

📰 A great spot for old Communist newspapers? The Toronto Reference Library, apparently.

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