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Tech Columnist Farhad Manjoo Laments Uber's Rise As Company Goes Public

AARTI SHAHANI, HOST:

And now to another story we'll hear more about this week. It starts with a number - $90 billion. That's about how much Uber is expected to be worth when it goes public - that despite the fact the company has never actually turned a profit. It's made plenty of money but never more than it spends. Its move to go public and consolidate power comes at a time when Americans are questioning the power of Silicon Valley and leading politicians are calling for the breakup of tech giants. New York Times opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo recently called the Uber IPO a moral stain on Silicon Valley. He admitted his once-bright-eyed take on the startup has dimmed dramatically. He's here to talk with us about why. And he joins us from Mountain View, Calif. Welcome.

FARHAD MANJOO: Hi. Good to be here.

SHAHANI: You say you used to be a naive baby tech pundit who bought into the Uber hype, fanboy of sorts. These are your words. But this past week in your column, you lamented, what's become of Uber? What exactly are you lamenting?

MANJOO: Yeah, I mean, I once thought that Uber could be a win for everyone. You know, we used to - in cities, we used to sort of have these taxi cartels which limited supply and didn't really offer a great service. And Uber seemed like a better version of the taxi. And it also kind of offered these environmental promises. We'd have, you know, people using cars more efficiently. Like, Uber promised that it could get us - you know, more people in cars, get fewer cars on the road.

And also, it promised that it could give all of its drivers a living - and even a better than living - wage. And those promises really haven't materialized. Instead, we have this company that had this really reckless history. And that is - you know, with the IPO, rewarding many of the people who pushed its kind of lawlessness and its recklessness until now.

SHAHANI: And so the lament is that it's not a beacon for environmentalism, it's not a beacon for greater labor standards or labor protections, but it's something else?

MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, it has turned into this dystopian vision of tech, where, you know, a few people prosper, and everyone else gets kind of poverty wages. Users of the service get pretty good service but kind of at the cost of all of these drivers getting very little from the service, getting very little equity. I think it is a betrayal of what Silicon Valley, you know, said that it stood for, which is creating new ideas that are good for the world at large, not just, you know, a few hundred people on the West Coast.

SHAHANI: You know, many would herald Uber as a great American success story, a testament to what capitalism can create - right? - jobs for millions of people in the U.S. and around the world. And its IPO will make a handful of people millionaires and even billionaires. Isn't that a good thing?

MANJOO: I mean, it's perhaps better than not having it, but I don't think it's fundamentally or sort of objectively a good thing. What would be better is if Uber was a smaller and less valuable company but that less value was sort of more equitably distributed.

SHAHANI: Is your concern about how Uber has operated, or is it also how the media, how journalists in business and technology, have covered Uber's growth? You know, it was not a secret in earlier years that Uber was running circles around regulators, flouting laws, for example, not having insurance to cover the rides, refusing to pay livery taxes. These were not secrets. And even as they were happening, there was still a celebration of this - you know, this startup.

MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, I think that criticism of the tech press kind of applies to the Uber case, and it also applies to Facebook and Google and Amazon and even Apple. Like, one of the things that we've learned over the past, you know, two or three years is that, you know, for the preceding decade, we kind of - we and the press and just the media and society generally gave tech companies a pass because they were new, and they were celebrated.

And they were - they seemed to be giving us kind of the best of the future in America, you know, building the American dream. And, you know, in some cases, they were. And I value and appreciate many of their services. But I think that their kind of effect on the world wasn't, you know, looked at skeptically enough.

SHAHANI: When you lament where the company is, do you feel there are steps that can be taken to bring it back to the loftier values that, you know, you first believed were true?

MANJOO: Yeah, I think there are steps, but I don't think they're kind of what Uber should do. I think they're what regulators and lawmakers and sort of society should do. I mean, sort of a very easy step would be to, you know, re-examine this independent contractor status of their drivers and see if there's some way to have them be employees or gain some equity in the company. That would be one way.

SHAHANI: So basically you're saying, as we're about to hoo and ha over the massive figure of possibly a hundred billion dollars in worth - regulators, pay attention and protect the drivers and the little people in the game?

MANJOO: Yeah. And I think actually, you know, Uber going public may prompt that - which we are seeing strikes. We are seeing protests from drivers. And we're in this moment where lawmakers, presidential candidates, regulators are paying more attention to this industry and its effects on the world. So I don't think Uber's IPO is going to be the end of the story for its drivers and for its culture. I think it's, you know, maybe the beginning of a new, more restrictive, you know, oversight over the company.

SHAHANI: That was Farhad Manjoo, New York Times tech columnist. Thanks for coming on. It's been great talking with you.

MANJOO: Hey, thanks a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAN HAYES SONG, “NAKED AS THE SUN”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.