As WeCrashed, this season’s most cartoonish financial porn offering, makes abundantly clear, WeWork had about as much to do with actual technology as Olive Garden does with authentic Italian food. WW was a pathetic series of desperate lurches, a mouthful of fantastic buzzwords foisted upon millions of millennials by an egomaniac aided and abetted by a fawning press and a gaggle of greed heads from Benchmark, Chase and elsewhere. The WW carcass as well as other co-working spaces, which were never novel to begin with, survive in a much-reduced form — validated and sustained in some unexpected respects by the pandemic — while the entrepreneur and his spouse are out of the picture, having been both booted and bolstered by billions in severance payments.
super pumped, On the other hand, attempts to demonstrate in an equally superficial and overamped fashion how Uber created and created a truly exceptional and revolutionary technology — albeit in often illegal, anticompetitive, and fraudulent ways. But Uber’s tech actually did change the daily behaviors of tens of millions of consumers while it simultaneously destroyed the lives and livelihoods of thousands of taxi drivers worldwide. Uber’s founding CEO was also abruptly ousted and similarly showered with billions by his board to induce him to quietly drive off into the sunset.
But in the residue of Uber’s rancid corporate culture there remains a very large and powerful component that continues to dominate several industries through the implementation and extensions of its innovative technology. Uber, and to a lesser extent Lyft, continues to be a forceful demonstration of the power of platforms and the “winner take all” nature of big tech. At the same time, thousands of other eager people who tried to replicate Uber entrepreneurs’s model in different industries and verticals and almost universally failed.
Yet there may actually be a serious challenge to Uber itself on the near horizon and– as buzzwordy as it may be–blockchain could be the next big disruptor, an enabling technology for a revolt by the oppressed masses. I won’t try to explain blockchain technology here. Suffice it to say that blockchain’s success and staying power so far suggests the strong likelihood that it can be the basis for a relatively simple, decentralized, and low-cost information sharing and payment system– one that’s both secure and stable and universally accessible. Such an information system scenario calculated to supplant would enable a big guys in the ridesharing business. It might be called the FAIR system, pun intended.
(1) A passenger in a ridesharing vehicle could directly and instantly transfer payment to the driver through a simple mobile-to-mobile transaction fully enabled and documented by the blockchain without any requirement that the payment move through either Uber, Lyft, Curb or any other central taxing and/or gatekeeping hub, platform or parent company. And without any of those entities extracting the typical current fees of 30% to 50% of the fares.
(2) The passenger and the driver could negotiate the fare (or it could be stipulated by specified travel zones similar to those in DC and elsewhere) and no portion of the payment would be retained by any parent company or other intermediary apart from any modest fees associated with the payment system itself. However, a portion of each fare (perhaps 10%) would be set aside to create an ongoing pool, which would be shared by all drivers and all passengers and assigned in real time dynamically based on their individual activity within the system as compared to all the activity in the system.
Participants on both sides of each transaction would be owners in common of the enterprise as well as active participants in it. The more they drove or used the system, the greater the value of their ultimate ownership in the overall enterprise would be over time. In blockchain terms, they would be “miners” building their own net worth through their own actions, which create tokens or other forms of convertible and transferable currency. And to be clear, the fares being paid by the passengers and the payments being received by the drivers would still be more attractive and more equitable than the current schemes, where the prime beneficiaries are the parent companies.
(3) While over time the enterprise could be externally funded and the collective owners could vote to develop some or all of the systems that now make up the ridingsharing universe, this isn’t initially required or even a financially prudent step at the outset. The new FAIR payment and sharing system would simply piggyback on all the work already done by Uber, Lyft and others and the initial pools of drivers and passengers would presumably be Uber and Lyft drivers (many of whom already operate under both companies’ brand umbrellas) and rideshare customers – all of whom would now be effectively working for themselves and actually being fairly paid for their services in addition to accruing long term value for their nest egg and/or retirement.
(4) The ironic charm of such an approach would be that, initially, drivers could be summoned by prospective riders using all the functionality of the current Uber or Lyft applications but requested rides would be quickly canceled once the driver and rider had connected in real life and the alternate FAIR payment system would be used instead. There’s nothing more satisfying or smarter for an entrepreneur than building your business on someone else’s rails. And – given Uber’s grievous history – this would be the sweetest form of comeuppance possible.
This is simply a simple example of the coming waves of innovation and disruption that we can all expect as the vertical pressure for decentralization combines with a new, highly mobile and highly motivated workforce looking for more control over their own lives. This workforce is far more interested in transacting in peer-to-peer and horizontal environments rather than the top-down hierarchies of old. Big tech and big business beware – nothing is the future forever.