Last month's SmartMouth outing questioned the contemporary search for cultural affiliation in a DNA test kit. This new installment addresses another way in which the natural order of things has been upended: the curious indignity of being rated as an Uber passenger in a world that declares itself dedicated to serving the customer.
Cutting-edged and dual-edged
This is not exactly a screed about Uber, although few companies deserve it more. And it’s not a rant about Uber drivers, who – like Uber passengers – are mostly fine.
For starters, it’s about the wounds to my self-esteem opened by mediocre Uber ratings. But more broadly -- if we take Uber’s system of mutual ratings as a harbinger of things to come -- it’s about how the vaunted concept of customer-centricity may already be spinning off its axis into a parallel universe.
To live the modern life, you need a keen sense of irony. Here’s another dose. In an age of relentless “customer experience” monitoring, we’re already at risk of getting spanked by businesses for our performance as consumers -- with the very same rating yardsticks that used to be exclusively in our hands.
Wait. I thought the shoe was on my foot. I thought that I was king.
How that delusion unraveled is a story that begins on a cold street corner in Brooklyn. I had ordered an Uber by entering a specific pickup address, but even so, it turned out that the driver had been dispatched by the app to someplace 10 blocks away. I can’t get him to change his destination just by asking (because the Uber interface is not hospitable to any sort of human improvisation) and I’m now fumbling for a new ride in a hurry because the driver is no longer accepting my calls. My son, who is coming with me, looks over at my phone and laughs, “Wow, your passenger rating is only 4.58. That’s pretty bad.”
“Is it?” I ask. I had always assumed that a lot of drivers, like a lot of survey respondents, don’t use the top of the scale. And I’d never really noticed or thought about my Uber rating. There really are so many ways to fail at life.
So, then I start to wonder why I am not a five-star Uber passenger. I always show up, I don’t cancel, and I am never, ever late. (Only Uber drivers can say that about me.) I don’t open my app until I reach the door of my building, even though that means I’m always the one waiting. And I tip. Almost always.
I admit there have been a few instances – typically in the canyons of Lower Manhattan where GPS doesn’t work so well – when the driver and I couldn’t rendez-vous or hear one another on our cell phones. Sometimes, it’s been hard to spot my ride: a Honda Pilot isn’t always easy to distinguish from a Toyota Highlander on a dark, rainy street. And, well, maybe once or twice I cancelled when the driver seemed to be spinning on my phone like a wounded bug for 5 minutes and then somehow got to be much farther away. That’s never encouraging.
But all in all, these incidents represent a small numerator over a large denominator of Uber rides. And most of them actually have something to do with the app interface, which Uber drivers themselves acknowledge has some shortcomings. Why take it out on me?
So, then I think, well is there something else about me? I'm always friendly, I never ask them to turn off terrible music, and I always thank them. Have there been, perhaps, judgments made about the quality of my conversations with someone else in the back seat? Might some drivers have downgraded me for sounding like a nag with my own family members?
I feel the beginning of an existential crisis coming on. Being a customer, a good one, is a basic identity for me. But being rated at that thing I do – consuming -- upends the natural order of things.
Life may be overrated
My day job involves a lot of customer experience modeling – forklifting ratings like “net promoter scores” and using the data to understand what matters to customers and how we can better serve them. Never has there been a moment in our culture when the minds of customers were so deeply plumbed for insight on the smallest sources of dissatisfaction. Whether consumers feel that the service they experience today is any better than it was a decade ago is debatable, perhaps along generational lines. But certainly, all of us would agree that our satisfaction is rated extensively. The internet has made of ratings and customer feedback the lingua franca through which we think and feel and communicate about our Experience.
Turning the tables
So then, what’s the big deal, why should I wince at being rated by Uber drivers? There is a digital dossier, many thousands of data points thick, on each of us. And while some of the data is meant to give us a “better customer experience,” most of it is meant to slice and dice us for consumption by the businesses that serve us.
I’ve never complained about having a credit rating, yet that rating -- not Uber’s judgment of my performance as a passenger – is what really defines my consumer destiny. And there’s no evident violation of privacy by Uber. Yet. So, grow up and get a grip, you might well say. Uber ratings are just a galling turn of the tables on customers who have chosen unregulated transportation and need to live by a new kind of social contract to be served. Just be grateful, I tell myself, that there are websites to help rehabilitate Uber passengers with failing grades.
(And for the record, I can always get an Uber, things haven’t sunk that low.)
Looking into the dark mirror
My mother taught me to be a gracious customer because, at one time, being a customer was an extension of being a person. That is still true, I think, but in digital environments, most transactions are impersonal and soulless. They don’t need to be gracious, only fast and easy, which means, for the most part, automated.
Uber, on the other hand, sits at the curious corner of automation and personal transaction. At that intersection, there is me and there is the person who comes to pick me up, and until Uber is really driverless, we must always meet face to face. What stings is not the injustice of being judged by another person but the “Black Mirror” math of it and the multiplier effect of cumulative judgments that are used to locate me on a broad digital grid. The ratings are not there to serve me, they are there to train me. To make me a compliant, efficient consuming member of the hive. In an economy where people and customers will be bidding for the right to serve and be served, we’d better shape up or lose out. That’s why Uber thoughtfully reassures me that it’s now easier to see my customer ratings on the updated app.
There’s probably nothing at all odd about that to younger generations growing into adult “consumer-ship” today. They are quite likely to see ratings as a form of social and commercial reciprocity, in which, fair’s fair, we rate each other to grease the wheels of commerce. But we need to be less sanguine. If we’re not careful, things will evolve toward something like China’s dystopian social credit system, in which financial ratings are integrated with social data to define each person’s civic worth. In a way, Uber may be a first and last opportunity to be rated based on personal interactions as a customer. From here on in, it’s algorithms all the way down.
There are, in the end, two ways to interpret the word, “customer-centric”. I am reminded of my favorite Twilight Zone episode of the 60’s. In that iconic sci-fi story, space aliens arrive with the intent of bringing Utopia to us earthlings. The bible-like volume they carry everywhere is titled, portentously, “To Serve Man.” In the end, it turns out to be a cookbook.
I am also reminded of the following. The concept of Facebook began a long time ago with ratings of freshman coed photos. Zuckerberg’s initial stroke of genius was to modernize a humiliating old Ivy college tradition by taking it online and branding it. Social media and customer fitness ratings share a common DNA and, perhaps, similar epigenetic expression. Community-building is kin to classification.
Postscript: As of today, my Uber rating has risen to 4.62. I must be doing something better.