Is Driving for Uber a Job or a Gig?


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Uber is under new pressure to treat drivers as employees. The New York State Department of Labor ruled in two separate cases in August and September that two “deactivated” Uber drivers were eligible to receive unemployment benefits. Such payments typically only go to full-on employees rather than independent contractors (The New York Times). In some ways these are narrow rulings that “do not directly affect other drivers or extend to other protections normally accorded employees,” the Times explains. But they clearly represent a major challenge to every gig-economy company’s assertion that it its workers are contractors, not staff. Uber maintains that its drivers value the flexibility its model affords them more than anything else, and that flexibility will fade if the company is forced to follow overtime regulations, minimum-wage laws, and other employment rules. Since the unemployment benefits rulings are going to keep coming in piecemeal, and they often conflict with one another, the issue may ultimately only get resolved with new state or national legislation. Lawmakers could, for instance, establish a new labor classification of “dependent contractor” halfway between employee and independent contractor. Are we ready for the Uber Regulation Act of 2017?

Is Elon Musk spreading himself, and his companies’ money, too thin? As Tesla and Solar City prepare for a mid-November vote on their proposed merger, Technology Review asks whether Musk is building a “house of gigacards.” His ambitions are unprecedented: A moderately priced new electric car from Tesla is due next year. A gigantic battery factory in Nevada is under construction. And of course there’s talk of colonizing Mars. All these projects require massive amounts of cash, and it’s not entirely clear where Musk will get the money. Where Musk sees opportunity in how much of the U.S. market for electric cars and solar installations remains untapped, others see risk. The biggest risk of all, writes Peter Burrows, “is that Musk loses credibility by taking on so many huge challenges at once.”

The office of the future wants its doors back. Nothing says your company’s ready for the future like an open floor plan. Getting rid of offices fosters collaboration, dismantles hierarchy, and promotes fun, right? But if you’re a programmer, you may very well hate working in a big open bullpen, and you might be getting less done there, too. That’s what programmer/entrepreneur Joel Spolsky, founder of Stack Overflow and Trello, argued recently (Quartz). Programmers need to load complex abstractions into their brains, and that can be hard while the people a desk away are arguing over button design or the foosball league is revving up. Spolsky, who has long made the case for giving programmers private offices, maintains that any additional costs will be outweighed by productivity gains. A whole lot of commenters on Reddit seem to agree.

Automation begats more automation. When we introduce automation systems to activities that used to be performed by human beings, like driving, people tend to lose some of their skills in those activities — pushing us to add more automation. That’s the theme of “The Automation Paradox,” a 5-minute video from Braincraft’s Vanessa Hill. This isn’t exactly a paradox, but it’s definitely a powerful and ubiquitous process: Virtually every new convenience provided by our digital networks and devices has also promoted the atrophy of some painstakingly acquired human skill, from reading maps to studying languages. You could say, who cares, as long as our needs are fulfilled? Or you could say, we better make sure we keep providing ourselves with challenges that keep our brains and bodies in sharp shape.

The shock of the new becomes the prize of the old. In 1962, the year Bob Dylan’s first album came out, the Nobel Prize for Literature went to John Steinbeck. If you’d told people then that, 50 years later, the same prize would go to Dylan, they’d have laughed. Dylan wrote popular songs. Popular songs — even the complex, playful, prickly, strange, and epic songs Dylan would go on to create — simply weren’t literature. Thanks to Dylan, and waves of artists he inspired, they became literature, or, in some way, its moral equivalent. At least, the differences between what he was doing and literature became trivial, and the similarities became essential. (Read critic Jon Pareles’s appreciation if you need convincing.) As you take in the new culture that’s being made on laptops and phones, in words and music and images, it’s good to ask: What’s getting created today that our children will embrace as literature in 50 years? It could be on your screen or in your earbuds right now.

Featured in NewCo Shift: When 5 Billion Customers Shift Their Habits, You Shift With Them. NewCo editor-in-chief John Battelle talks with P&G’s Marc Pritchard about how he works with Google, Facebook, and Snapchat to help his company transition to a new world order.

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