(Cindy Chew/2006 S.F. Examiner)

Seeing with rear-view mirrors

When I agreed to be on a drivers panel for the Next:Economy forum last week, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting myself into. I knew there would be three of us on the hot seat: A cab-driver-turned-Lyft driver, a full-time Uber driver and me — the Uber-Lyft driver who became a “cabbie.”

Since I made it clear to the moderator during our preliminary interview that I was no fan of the on-demand economy, I figured I was there to be the lone naysayer, or to provide some requisite objectivity. Other speakers at the conference included the CEOs of Kickstarter, GE and Lyft, as well as David Plouffe, Uber’s Chief Adviser.

On Thursday morning, I put on a grey suit, a black shirt and my Florsheims. If I’m going to be a dancing monkey, I should at least wear a shiny red hat.

While on BART, I received word from my friend Maya that her husband Bill had lost his battle with cancer. Even though I knew he’d been fighting the disease for a while, news of his passing hit me hard.

Bill Doyle, who used the nom de guerre Guss Dolan in his activism on the web, was a hero of mine. A major advocate for progressive politics in The City, he railed against the negative changes he saw happening around him as tech money displaced his friends and the new Silicon Valley workers took over neighborhood after neighborhood and threatened his own ability to remain in The City he loved. He spoke at public hearings about the impact of Google buses and rabidly opposed Airbnb and the rest of the so-called “sharing economy.”

I admired his tenacity and ferocious wit. When I started challenging Uber and Lyft, it was Bill’s encouragement that meant the most to me. So while my train barreled through the Transbay Tube, I kept thinking about
how San Francisco lost a true citizen today.

At the Montgomery station, I climbed the escalator and walked right into the majestic Palace Hotel, where the conference was held. In the green room, I met Eric Barajas, the Uber driver who, it turns out, organized the protest at Uber HQ in October and is just as disgruntled as I was last year — stuck in a vicious cycle with Uber, barely making enough to survive, but never enough to move on to something better.

While we waited backstage, I watched the CEO of TaskRabbit on the monitor. She seemed to be selling her company to the audience, which I thought was odd. During the Q&A, a woman asked if “Taskers” were being adequately protected from their clients.

Huh? Who cares about workers these days?

When it was time for our panel, I walked through the curtain into the glare of stage lights. The next 20 minutes were a blur. I just imagined what Bill would say if he had the opportunity to voice his dissent.

I ragged on all the proponents of the gig economy. Surprisingly, I got laughs. Both Eric and I trashed Uber. At one point, much to the audience’s delight, I got into a heated argument with Jon Kessler, the third driver, who saw the writing on the wall a year ago and leased a car to do Lyft after six years of cab driving.

Eventually, we were ushered off stage and released into a crowded room of networkers who congratulated us on our lively panel, some comparing it to “The Jerry Springer Show.”

After talking to several dozen attendees, who paid $3,500 to be there, I realized the conference wasn’t a celebration of the on-demand economy. It was more of an examination of how these advances in technology will impact labor and shape the future of work. Most people I talked to were affiliated with labor organizations or nonprofits. I even ran into Steven Hill, whose latest book “Raw Deal: How the Uber Economy and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers” rips these on-demand companies a new asshole.

Still, tech was in the air. The CEOs were there to pitch their disruptive technologies, and most of what they said was obvious doublespeak. If the future of work means the end of professionalism and less need for workers, what do we do with all these people being born each day? Isn’t this what Marshall McLuhan meant when he wrote about how we’re driving into the future using only our rear-view mirror?

Throughout the afternoon, I took advantage of the open bar, sampled the free food and marveled at the vaulted ceilings, ornate fixtures and chandeliers. The combined experience was Orwellian and surreal.

The next day, I went back to hear the CEO of Microsoft talk about “augmented workers” and cheer on Eric when he confronted Ploufe during the Q&A session about how little money he makes driving for Uber.

After that, we had lunch in the ballroom. They put out quite a spread. We started off with a Caesar salad, followed by salmon with a tasty lemon and butter sauce, white rice, two asparagus spears and some kind of couscous concoction. For desert, a chocolate tart and a cup of coffee.

Once I’d finished eating, I said what I wish I’d said on stage, but even though I spoke loudly, only the people at our table could hear me:

“A friend of mine died from cancer yesterday. For two days, I’ve been listening to presenters tout this new technology that will outsource work to machines and amateurs and all I can think is, find a cure for cancer and then I’ll be fucking impressed.”

With that, I wiped my mouth on the fancy cloth napkin, stood up, walked out of the Palace hotel and took BART back to Oakland.

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. Write to him at piltdownlad@gmail.com and @piltdownlad.

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