Robotic consumption – what Uber’s new ‘quiet mode’ tells us about the human and the machine

Taxi app Uber has announced a new ‘quiet mode’ for customers using its premium Uber Black service. By selecting the option via the app, users can order a cab where the driver is instructed not to talk. While this change has proven positive with many users, some taxi drivers have responded negatively to the new quiet mode, with some critics claiming it treats taxi drivers more like robots than human beings.

While these critics may certainly have a point, they miss the essential fact that all taxi drivers – and indeed, all humans being – behave, and are encouraged to behave, in a robotic fashion. This blurring of the human and the machine isn’t really anything new, but rather, has been going on for a very long time indeed.

User booking taxi with Uber app

Robot workers

The issue here, is one of standardisation, and the way we as humans, are compelled to behave in an increasingly robot-like fashion.

This concept goes back as far as the early days of Fordism at the turn of the twentieth century. Fordism saw a shift away from handmade specialist production, towards mass production by unskilled labour working on assembly lines.

Fordism had many advantages, not least the way it made goods easier to produce and repair. It also reduced inefficiencies, and made factories far more competitive on a global stage. However, it also had significant drawbacks, including the de-skilling of workers who were employed to work on assembly lines performing repetitive, low-skill tasks.

Workers on Ford production line

In many respects, these workers were constituted as much like ‘robots’ as the machines that gradually replaced them. It’s no wonder then that the first ever recorded use of the term ‘robot’, was coined to describe ‘humans capable of work but not thinking’ – as if the distinction between human and machine were blurred right from the very start.[1]

Mass production, mass consumption

But while the days of Fordism are long behind us, the concept still remains, and the legacy lives on. It’s not enough now that we standardise production in order the meet the needs of the masses, but that we also automate the process of consuming manufactured goods and services as well.

Writing in the 1950s, science fiction writer Frederik Pohl warned of the dangers of mass consumption in his chilling tale, ‘The Midas Plague’ (1954). In Pohl’s story, citizens have to ‘work’ at consumption in order to be regarded as good citizens. In a remarkable twist, the protagonist solves the problem by putting his household robots to work ‘consuming’ the products he buys, wearing them out in order to fulfil his consumption quotas.

Cover of Galaxy Magazine, featuring 'The Midas Plague' by Frederik Pohl.

This story was followed a few years later by a similarly chilling tale published by Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders (1957) – a real-life investigation into ‘the chilling world of George Orwell and his Big Brother’ (p. 5). But while Packard’s introduction may sound like the opening from a dystopian nightmare, he was writing non-fiction, and exploring the many psychological techniques being put to use to manipulate consumer behaviour, in order to align mass production with mass consumption.

Introducing the robot consumer

Fast forward a few decades and we are at a point now where consumers are compelled to robotic behaviour in much the same way as robot workers. We want the latest goods and services, and we want choice, and so both workers and consumers must adopt modes of being that tend towards standardised, robotic behaviour. Of course, no consumer can have exactly what they want, but business can come pretty darn close, by providing a standard template service that meets as many needs as possible.

Mass consumption: stocked supermarket shelves

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Uber ‘quiet mode’ story isn’t so much the fact that drivers think they are being turned into robots, but more that consumers are likewise being turned into unthinking robots. It says a lot about our modern world that we apparently desire the option to turn our taxi drivers ‘off’.

Of course, the bosses at Uber would argue that they are merely responding to the demands of users, and I have no doubt that this may very well be the case. However, the issue here isn’t so much with Uber per se, but rather with the whole regime of consumption that makes consumers as much like robots as the automated factory workers of the Fordist era.

Do we want the option to travel in peace? Most certainly, yes. But there’s something quite unsettling about what this story suggests about the human condition. We’re not regular ‘human’ consumers any more, but much rather we are all becoming much like Frederik Pohl’s characters in ‘The Midas Plague’, consuming at all costs without a thought for where that consumption may lead…

[1] The first recorded use of the term ‘robot’ appears in Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R., also known as Rossum’s Universal Robots(1921).

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