Dan Hill writes well, keeps his eyes open and obviously reads voraciously. When he has the time to add to his blog ‘City of Sound’, it is usually a long form piece, teased out in loops of delicious in-group citations, but as often as not with a serious question at its heart.
And so it is in the latest Opinion he contributes to Dezeen, which is really just his latest column on his own blog. The concrete subject of the piece is the Uber taxi app, but the target is "Can public enterprises adopt the popular dynamics of private enterprises?"
Actually, Hill answers that question in the affirmative, so the really truly relevant discussion is whether there is something fundamentally destructive going on, impacting communities at city and nation state scale (to which we more usually refer as 'societies'), and to which those ‘popular dynamics’ may be something of an antidote?
The Uber taxi app is an internet based private referral service that matches people who want a certain kind of vehicle for a certain job, with people who have signed up to provide that service. So far so good, and from his urban informatics vantage point, normally Hill would be enthused. But he immediately identifies his unease that the referral service sidesteps all the regulatory overburden of the conventional taxi industry. Hill argues that while those regulations are just a framework for safety, probity, and taxation, more importantly that framework ensures an integrated and equitable public utility, even where it’s made up of private elements.
Hill generalises his concern to question whether the rise of private services which pick off the profitable aspirational opportunities is not leaving the harder problems for the public sector. If so, they can be seen as stripping out not only the opportunities of policy initiatives for cross-subsidy, but more generally the integrative nature of those services, necessary for maintaining communities at the large contemporary scale of cities, regions and states.
I happen to think he is right, that the trend is overwhelming, and exemplified at almost all levels of services for which city and state are most appropriately responsible. Hill refers to mobility, communication and health as examples. He doesn’t mention education, the sector where I happen to work, and where we in Australia are about to see the willful destruction of public universities by just that process.
In the end the piece does no justice to the complex problems of the time scales and systematic diversion of resources. But one such article shouldn't be expected to. And as this kind of review post on a blog is even less likely, you really should read Dan Hill's article here.
- "France mulls car-sharing GPS app ban" on BBC here."
- "Uber 'ride-sharing' service under investigation as public warned off app" in Sydney Morning Herald, here.
- And to be fair, an enthusiastic and comprehensive description of the Uber service in Sydney
"Now That I've Started Using Uber, I Won't Book Taxis The Normal Way Ever Again" from Business Insider, here.
So why the title? It may be unfair to bring to mind Marie Antoinette's infamous ignorance of the connection between the lives of the elite and of the less privileged. But there is an alienating underbelly to the changes in communications technology, that is almost the opposite of the inexorable leveling of opportunity so commonly promoted. Hill's piece reminded me of that.