Thoughts On “The Rating Game”

Posted Thursday, November 5th, 2015 at 7:35 am

I started reading The Verge’s recent article, “The Rating Game” (subtitled “How Uber and its peers turned us into horrible bosses”), and quickly started thinking, “Wow, I have to tweet about this. Including some comments I have.”

By the time I was halfway through, I’d come up with so many comments, they’d have required a huge tweetstorm to fit them all into. Instead, I’m taking my own advice to just write up a blog post and then tweet the link to that.

These are various reactions to various parts of the article — and partly just to the entire thing as a whole. They’re not necessarily in any particular order (point-by-point, order of importance, whatever).

Worse Than Dystopia

Talking about how customer ratings can get Uber/Handy/etc. workers fired, The Verge’s Josh Dzieza pointed out that “If you imagine the things customers rate down for as firing decisions in a traditional workplace, they look capricious and harsh. It’s a strange amount of power for customers to hold, all the more so considering that many don’t know they wield it.”

And I was reminded of the awful, dystopian first few chapters of Marshall Brain’s online essay/novel, Manna, where workers’ job time is ruthlessly monitored and controlled by expert systems that give them orders through headsets and track their productivity according to creepy, quasi-Taylorian work metrics. Workers know that they can and will be fired — automatically, by the system’s algorithms — if their productivity falls below a certain level.

The Uber setup reminds me of Manna, except it manages to be even worse. In the science fantasy land of Manna, at least the decision to terminate you was made by a computerized, unbiased algorithm driven by vaguely objective data. In the reality that Uber’s employees live in every day, the decision is made by assholes who want to bring drinks in the employee’s car, or who dislike the fact that they have a beard (for reasons that may well be pure xenophobia of one or more types).

We’ve managed to make a real-world system that’s worse than a fictional, didactic dystopia.

Think about that for a few minutes. It gets worse the longer you ponder it.

You Gotta Pay to Do This Work

Some drivers are so beholden to the whims of their passengers that they’re offering freebies just to keep their ratings up? And how soon will all the passengers come to expect getting free bottled water and candy from their Uber drivers?

And how much is that costing the drivers every shift?

And of course, there’s not a ghost of a chance they can recoup that money from Uber.

Emotional Labor

Possibly the one aspect of the piece that I thought might not be horrible was the contention that this is forcing men to perform emotional labor.[1] And get good at it, since their livelihoods depend on it.

Maybe there’s some benefit to men learning to perform emotional labor? One of the problems with the division of emotional labor in our society is that it makes women responsible for catering to men in so many ways — far beyond just when they’re working in service professions. It’s assumed, in everyday life. Men expect it of their female, platonic roommates, and they expect their romantic partners to take care of their emotional connections to their own families (tons of examples here), and apparently they even expect emotional labor of the women who are paying them for a service! And women often feel that they have to extend such labor to their own stalkers.

What if we evened things up a little? What if men started learning how to manage their own emotions, and take care of the birthday cards and holiday presents their partners have been doing? And started to learn to pull their own weight in their relationships in general?

I’m a dreamer, I know. But I’d like to see it happen. (Preferably because men wise up and realize the value of it, rather than because being oppressed Uber drivers taught them how.)

The Rating System Only Goes One Way

The Verge’s writer has some good comments on how unbalanced and asymmetrical the rating systems are, even in the rare cases where workers get to rate customers. Most of the time, they just don’t. But even when they do: “To start with the obvious, only one party’s livelihood depends on ratings.” And “Uber drivers are deactivated when their ratings fall below 4.6… but there’s no point at which customers are banned for ratings.” And: “Handy and TaskRabbit workers both said that customer ratings aren’t displayed at all. Instead, [they] must swap information about bad customers in private Facebook groups.”

That pretty much says it all right there; there’s nothing I can add to show how unfair this is.

The Sharing Economy’s Not to Blame for Racism, But…

The stuff about how black Airbnb hosts get less money than white ones, and white taxi drivers get higher tips than black ones, does not surprise me. But it does depress me, and anger me.

If you’re one of those white people who thinks, “Hey, I’ve never gotten any cool ‘privilege’ stuff just for being white“, take those links (“study of Airbnb” and “another study”, nearly halfway through the article) as starting points. Yes, you have gotten cool stuff — you just don’t know it, because you haven’t found out how much of the stuff you take for granted is stuff that people of color aren’t getting.

Like the Bad Old Days Before Unions

The other awful, dystopian thing that it reminded me of is the days before unionization — and that parallel came to me a few paragraphs before the quote from Professor Sachs about how “[a] lot of the history of the union movement was the fight against arbitrary managerial decision-making”. Before the labor movement, workers were pretty much completely at the mercy of management and bosses — and they didn’t show much mercy.

Back then, workers didn’t get things like health care, or compensation for injury, or for wear and tear on their tools. And they could be fired at any time, for any reason, on the employer’s whim. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose… It’s just that now, the “whims” are those of passengers instead of anyone in Uber HQ — which puts them outside the purview of anti-discrimination law.

It’s a Classic “Sick System”

I’m not going to bother to connect all the dots here, but it sounds to me like a classic “sick system“, designed to keep people trapped. (The same could be said of far too many startups that aren’t part of the “sharing economy” or the rating system…)

One parallel to play with:

“You’re in a state of neurotic anxious terror of making the tiniest slip-up.”

unnamed Uber driver

“Quite an experience, to live in fear… isn’t it?”

Roy Batty, Blade Runner

This Range of Stars is Deranged

If Uber deactivates drivers when they fall below 4.6, on a 5-star scale, what the hell is the point of the ratings below 4 stars? Why even have the options for 1-, 2-, and 3-star ratings if those are all tantamount to saying, “Just fire this person”? Why not just have the rating be 0 to 1, and fire people under 0.6?

If I didn’t know this aspect of how it works, I’d naturally consider 3 stars an average, baseline rating — nothing particularly good or bad about the experience. A driver who gave me pretty good service would get 4 stars, and I’d consider 5 stars to be reserved for exceptional cases. (And similarly, a run-of-the-mill bad experience would garner 2 stars, with a 1-star rating reserved for an absolutely awful time.)

It’s a good thing I don’t use Uber, or I’d routinely be nuking my drivers’ ratings.

The Entire Thing is Rotten

In fact, after reading this thing, I’m really glad I don’t use Uber at all. I’ve long been critical of the company: for its accessibility issues; for the way its smartphone-based model locks lower-income people out of its service entirely; for the way it’s draining taxicabs (which are mandated to include a certain percentage of wheelchair-accessible vehicles) out of the market and replacing them with completely non-accessible private vehicles; for its mistreatment of blind people and throwing their service dogs in the trunk; and for some drivers harassing and even raping their female passengers.

But now I’m seeing that (when they’re not abusing their riders), the drivers themselves are brutally exploited. I don’t want to further that exploitation.

Who Rates the Rating Services?

Of course, the ultimate folly, the place where it all becomes a ridiculous, overly-meta, tail-devouring fiasco that satirizes itself like something out of a Cory Doctorow novel,comes roughly two-thirds of the way through. A TaskRabbit worker was called in to cleaning startup Handy, “to research which upcoming Handy customers were prolific Yelp reviewers so that good cleaners could be sent and bolster the company’s reputation. It’s ratings all the way down.”

I can’t even find anything to say beyond the absurdity of that.

[1] It’s interesting that the pronoun for the hypothetical Starbuck’s barista at the beginning of this piece is “she”. I don’t know if MSNBC just normally uses “she” as the default pronoun for hypotheticals, or if they mix it up and it just happened to come up female this time… or they deliberately chose a female pronoun, because women have to do much more emotional labor in our society, and they’re explicitly recognizing that. ↑↑

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