It Must *Be* Good
You wake up to the sound of your phone. It's early, cold and still dark outside. Half-asleep, you reach for it. Your eyes adjust to the light. Five new messages. Twelve new emails, mostly spam. You open your feed. One friend request. Twelve people liked your picture. You browse your feed. You like some pictures, watch an ad about Hawaii. Your day is packed with calls. Any spare moment is filled with more scrolling and browsing. After a long day of work you finally close your laptop. You feel exhausted. Time for dinner. Empty fridge. Ordering food takes 45 minutes. You fill time by scrolling your feed. Finally, the food arrives and you eat while watching a show. You settle into bed and take one last swipe before you drift off to sleep.
Technology is so loud
We’ve come a long way, but our technology is loud, so so loud. As Adam Wiggins (1) describes:
"In pursuit of connectivity, computers have come supremely good at begging for our attention. Red badges, notifications, inboxes, and feeds are baked into every operating system and most apps."
It's becoming increasingly clear that our relationship with technology is not as healthy as it should be. We are constantly bombarded with notifications, messages and updates, leaving us unable to disconnect and recharge. We are always on, always connected and always available.
How did we get here?
How companies initially start
But how did we get here? Most services and apps that have become harmful started as new positive ambitions to change the world for the better. Instagram began as a well-built photo filter app, a way to share your life with friends. I'm pretty sure that the founders didn't anticipate that it would turn into a dopamine indulging app of self-centeredness.
Imagine the early days of popular products like Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn or YouTube and how different they are today. The process usually goes something like this:
The founder comes up with a grand idea for an app that will change the world. Initially, the app is built with a small team of skilled engineers and designers. They deeply care about the user experience and obsess over every detail, and they don't really worry about monetisation yet. However, to start growing they need money to support staff, marketing and an office. To get the money, they take on venture capital and give away a percentage of the company. The investors often expect a return on investment in the order of magnitude of tens or hundreds of what they paid in. This investment immediately introduces misaligned incentives that will, in the long run, not align well with building out the best user experience. Instead of a sustainable company the company is now put on a growth trajectory of a gigantic scale. Moreover, it's only at this scale where the 'model' really works, leaving the company and its founders with no choice of going towards two paths: advertisements or selling personal data.
So, you get Instagram that started out as a well built photo app, but is now an addictive theme park where product managers try to add more and more engagement features. Venture capital becomes this beast that can become uncontrollable to even it's founders.
But simply getting rid of venture capital is not the answer. I am convinced that you will need large amounts of capital to get something highly ambitious done in the world. But that doesn't mean that capital needs to be used to squeeze out entire parts of the population or lure people into addictive behaviour. Earlier, I critically wrote about Uber and its role in society. In this piece I said that venture money should be used for the right reasons:
"I am hyper-aware that disrupting something as fundamental as car ownership will always be controversial. Venture capital itself isn't unethical, the world progresses on it. But it is the constructs in which people behave that is questionable. Business incentives will never fully align with ethics. It is in the nature of capitalism to look at numbers rather than humans."
Capital should be used to make the world a better place for everyone. For capitalism to thrive, this must be paired with strong ethical values and a company culture that is conscious of its impact on society and the planet. I realise that writing an essay about that is easy, to actually achieve it is a whole other job.
Free is complicated
To align a company with its customers and shareholders there needs to be a model that is beneficial for all. Software makers should ask themselves if their incentives are aligned with those of the users or of its shareholders. For a lot of the modern day apps, the incentives are fundamentally misaligned.
This all starts with the business model. When it comes to software, free is... well, complicated. When your business is advertising, your marching orders are to connect more people and maximise the time spent on your app. The incentives between companies offering "free" apps and the individuals using them are misaligned. While these apps may not generate revenue through advertisements, they can still profit by collecting data on users.
Instagram benefits from you spending as much time as possible in their app, because they make money from ads and personal data. If you scroll through Instagram, every tab will bring more money into the pockets of the company and its shareholders. Everything is designed to lure you into more swiping, more scrolling, more liking.
At the same time, advertising on the internet has allowed millions of small businesses reach new audiences. On top of that, billions of people rely on useful services that are provided for free - these wouldn’t be able to exist without advertising. However, what remains is that the advertising model is designed to maximise people’s attention. The features that make the app addictive are an attempt to increase the gains for its shareholders. It is unfortunately trivial that the 'user' comes second in that story.
Once upon a time, land was considered the ultimate form of capital, and nations and empires fought to lay claim to as much of it as possible. But now, the entire earth has already been claimed and conquered. The brightest minds of our generation have set their sights on a new frontier: attention. Like the colonists of old, they compete fiercely to capture and hold onto as much of it as they can, using every trick and tactic at their disposal.
From Netflix to YouTube, Instagram to Headspace, devices and apps have become little monsters, screaming for our attention. We live in an era of increasing distraction and busyness, as companies fight to capture our precious hours.
It became the new way to make money: to command the attention of consumers, to shape their beliefs and habits, and to drive their behaviour in profitable directions. The modern economy is no longer based on land, but on the precious commodity of our time.
The right business model is paying
Alignment between a company and its users starts with a healthy business model. A business model where parties agree on the mechanics of the transaction and where incentives aren’t hidden behind difficult third party deals.
At first glance the only way forward seems to be paying in the form of subscriptions. You pay, the company delivers - it can't be clearer than that. If you're not satisfied with the product, you can cancel your subscription. Headspace benefits financially from you making mindfulness part of your daily routine, because they monetise through subscriptions. If they fail to do that, they will probably lose you as a customer. This positive alignment is powerful, because it is now in Headspace’s best interest to do everything it can, to stimulate you towards the positive act of meditation (2).
However, relying solely on subscriptions can be problematic. Many people around the world do not have the financial means to pay for software and rely on services being "free". In fact, the majority of companies with a "freemium" model find that more people choose the free version over the paid version. Additionally, businesses face the risk of high customer churn as customers have more options and can easily switch to a different provider if they do not see value in their current service.
Be on the good side
Venture capital, colonising attention, customer alignment, ads or subscriptions... navigating this complex landscape can be challenging. And the truth is, there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. What works for one company may not work for another and it’s up to software makers to make the right decisions. They have an obligation to make software that doesn’t exists to harm the people. Apart from business models or venture capital, we simply need to do the right thing. As the writer and designer Frank Chimero writes: “it must not only look good and feel good, it must also be good.” (3).
I believe that software can create positive change. However, the ones that we have now have been built by corporations to capitalise on our attention and money. The question is, how do we keep the good aspects without succumbing to the bad aspects? What can companies do, but more over what can you do as software maker?
First of all, believe that doing the right thing will eventually lead to a net positive result. While this is hard - so hard - to see in the short term, you have to trust that this is the only way. It needs to be engrained in everything you do.
Doing good isn't straightforward. There isn’t a simple answer to complex questions. The ethical approach is to engage with the difficulties rather than avoiding them.
With big technological advancements such as artificial intelligence on the horizon, the stakes will be even higher. When technology gets a soul, we all have to fight for that soul to be friendly and kind.
Making good software is extremely difficult, being 100% ethical and positive is even harder. However, by choosing to persist and recognising that this path will be rewarding in the long run, we can continue to strive for excellence and do good in the world. It requires a commitment to a higher standard, and a willingness to put in the work to make something that is more than just profitable. It requires us to think beyond our own interests and to consider the wider impact our software will have. Deal with the struggles. It is time to reimagine software. It's time to be good.
The Desktop Metaphor
Your computer is an old writing desk. Or at least, that is its conceptual metaphor. When the first computers appeared in 1973 the primary goal of the interface was to make people familiar with their new online space. The desktop was originally designed to mirror digital content with its physical equivalent.
Interface designers used metaphors to give meaning to their newly created environments. As Thomas D. Erickson describes (1995): "*Metaphors serve as natural models; they allow us to take our knowledge of familiar objects and events and use it to give structure to abstract, less well understood concepts." That’s why we throw our files from the desktop into a trashcan. These are all premises from physical times.
Apple was the king of giving this kind of meaning to our interfaces. It was the 1984 Apple Macintosh that first popularized the desktop to the grand public. Much later this was also the premise of skeuomorphism, a fancy word used by designers to describe that a digital concept mirrors a physical item.
Face to face with a 1973 invention
We are by now far past the introduction state of software. It is engrained in our life but does our computer match this? If you squint at the OS you might think different. This picture of Apple's OS more than thirty years apart says it all:
Somehow in 2022 we are still so close to 1973. For almost 50 years we've designed and iterated on largely the same foundation. Jason Yuan notes:
"And when we strip away all the chrome—all the Aero and Paper and Frosted Glass, all the evidence of the “design systems” we have poured billions into developing and maintaining—we come face to face with a skeleton of XEROX PARC’s 1973 invention."
Was XEROX PARC invention pure genius, or did we fail to develop our constructs further?
Quasimode for Text Selection
Picture this situation:
You select some text, tap Command X (cut), and before hitting Command V (paste) somewhere else, your attention moves to a different part of the document. Before paste'ing your precious text your eye catches another juicy sentence. You decide to cut this piece of text as well. With the usual convention, the first text you selected vanishes at your new keystroke, and your new selection is now saved and ready to be paste'ed. This happens whether the text was a few characters or three quarters of the essay you were writing. There is nothing in the interface that lets you know that text has been deleted.
This probably sounds familiar to a lot of people who work with text on a computer.
"A humane interface never puts your work at risk. The interface should require you to explicitly delete text if you want to delete text and not delete it as a side effect of another action." This is one of the many gems in the famous book 'The Humane Interface' by Jeff Raskin. The book stems from 2000, but the topics are still very relevant in modern day operating systems.
My immediate thought was to use use text drag-and-drop instead of cut and paste. Raskin however, disagrees: "I would not design an interface with drag-and-drop in text" Scrolling with something selected is painful and you lose the ability to create a new selection overlapping the current selection.
Enter the quasimode
So instead, a separate quasimode is the solution for this selection and dragging problem. Quasimodes are modes that are kept in place only through some constant action on the part of the user.
Instead of cut+paste or trying to drag text around, you could simply move selected text to the left side of the application.
One application that already implements such a 'quasimode' is the thinking app Muse.
Muse calls it "The Inbox", a persistent stack of cards on the left edge of the app where added cards appear; stays with you as you navigate.
Quasimode for selection within iA Writer
This design pattern might also be interesting for other apps. Particular within writing apps this could be a useful concept. I explored how this would work in the writing tool iA Writer.
Whenever you want to move a text selection you would simply drag your selection to the left side of your screen. Here it would wait gently to be used in a different part of the text.
This enables you to see how the text 'looks' without a piece of the text, all without accidentally losing it.
Selections could even 'stack' so cut text doesn't accidentally gets deleted (A humane interface never puts your work at risk). An inbox like this could also be used for writing prompts that have no place in the text yet.
This enables to have both selection and drag-and-drop without cognitive interference.
Software is Polluting the World
"Please consider the environment before printing this email".
You have probably seen this line at the bottom of an email before. By now it's widely known that you should pay attention to what you print to reduce your carbon footprint. But how much does it cost sending this email in the first place?
What few people realise is that there is also something called digital pollution. When we send emails we are using computational energy; this energy usage increases our carbon footprint and can have a big impact in the long run. That makes "Please consider the environment before sending this email" a valid statement as well.
The Internet consumes large amounts of electricity in data centers, telecoms networks and consumer devices. If the Internet was a country, it would be the 6th largest polluter in the world. (Nature.com, 2018).
“If the Internet was a country, it would be the 6th largest polluter”
Carbon emissions and their impact on the environment are luckily widely discussed in the modern day. So much so, that a certain sense of embarrassment has arisen when becoming aware of your own carbon footprint. One of the new terms that has come from this is 'flygskam', the Swedish word that describes the feeling of shame that comes from traveling by airplane with the knowledge of how much pollution it causes.
How much is your entertainment worth?
When you binge-watch your Netflix series, group call on Houseparty (thank you, Covid-19) or buy Bitcoin, you are indirectly emitting carbon emissions into the world. Binge-watching shows on Netflix for a month straight contributes to as much carbon emissions as a flight from London to New York (Atmosfair, 2020).
And then you could ask, "Who binges Netflix for a month straight?", but that's besides the point. The Internet is a numbers game where even the slightest changes can have a big impact on the total.
“Binge-watching shows on Netflix for a month straight contributes to as much carbon emissions as a flight from London to New York.”
Take, for example, YouTube: the video giant has over 60 million-page views per day. According to researchers (Preist et at, May 2019) YouTube's annual carbon footprint is about 10Mt CO2e (Million Metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent) — about the output of a city the size of Rotterdam (600.000 inhabitants).
Given the vast number of YouTube users across the planet, a slight optimisation of the UI adds up. That's 60 million times that the logo gets downloaded and displayed. With these numbers, even the slightest changes in design and engineering influence footprint. That's why nowadays, YouTube's displayed logo is only about 5kb (Der Funke, 2020). It's optimised to reduce energy usage and make the overall browsing experience as fast as possible.
Sustainability vs good design
With the rising awareness of carbon footprints, some designers also started considering sustainability in their work. Enter the term 'sustainable UX'. This movement "takes into account its responsibility to the environment and utilizing practices that reduce harm to the environment", (Rossul, July 2019).
Those in the tech industry have an important role to play, as they can tackle the problem at the source. We as designers have the choice to make more sustainable decisions in the work we deliver, or we could nudge our users into becoming more sustainable themselves. But if we focus on this, will we still be able to deliver good design?
Sustainable UX is a movement that is still in its infancy. Some companies, however, are already doing their part in creating a smaller carbon footprint for themselves and their users. These measures differ from big to small, but all show a certain awareness of digital pollution.
We identified two different ways designers and developers are pushing sustainability: small nudges, in which the user is (maybe unwittingly) prompted to choose more sustainable options, and content optimization, in which content is optimised as energy efficient. In this piece we will discuss both.
How small nudges can make a big change
Designers can use small prompts in their interface to reduce the carbon footprint of their users. They don't necessarily tackle the problem of pollution by changing their content; instead, they present it in a way that allows the user to make better decisions for the environment.
Starting out small
To reduce plastic waste, Deliveroo has introduced an opt-out option of plastic cutlery from the restaurant. Automatically, the option to receive cutlery is turned off with a small text as to why this option would be better for the environment. Users can still decide for themselves if they want to receive plastic cutlery by switching the toggle.
How we could do more
In Artiom Dashinsky's article 'Product Design for Sustainability' (2016), he proposes different ways in which existing interfaces could push for more sustainability, discussing "how small-effort improvements can affect the environment".
In a first example, Dashinsky presents a more sustainable way of printing documents. Sometimes, the last page of a printed document only contains a few lines. If the interface would give an option to scale down the document (or do this automatically), a lot of paper could be saved
For Google Maps, Dashinsky proposes to present more sustainable options of transport first. If the app promoted public transportation or biking over cars or cabs, people might be nudged into using the prior options, even though they would take longer.
Our Take: Messages & Image Compression
Similarly to Artiom Dashinsky, we challenged ourselves to look at apps we use on a daily basis and think about ways in which we could reduce our own carbon footprint without limiting ourselves in phone usage.
Nowadays, messaging apps go beyond the simple text message. We're constantly sharing data with others: from emojis to short videos. We love the fact that our contacts receive this data within a few seconds. But we probably forget about the real impact of this data-sharing.
45,000,000 images sent through iMessenger every day
When you send content such as photos such as through WhatsApp, it is automatically compressed. To the average user, this compression is visually unnoticeable. In contrast, images through iMessage are sent in full resolution. Even a random selfie to your best friend is sent in an unnecessarily pixel perfect quality. This requires extra computational energy resulting in a higher impact for the environment.
Taking inspiration from WhatsApp (automatically compressing photos) and the Apple Mail application (giving users the option to compress email attachments), we created a small UI change for iMessage.
Our suggestion provides the user with different size options in which they can send their photos. We decided to leave the choice of compression to the user because, sometimes, people still want to be able to send photos in full size and not lose any quality. To nudge people into sustainable behaviour, the smallest picture size option is automatically selected. Users can change this selection by simply clicking the option they would prefer.
Does such a small change in UX make any difference on a larger scale? Let's run some calculations.
According to research on Wonder (Wonder, 2016) an average of 1.8 billion digital images are loaded (globally) each day, totaling around 657 billion photos sent per year. Unfortunately, the percentage of images sent with iMessage is unknown. To make an estimation, we will use WhatsApp's statistics as a placeholder. 2.5% of the messages sent through their service are images. So on a daily basis, assuming this is the same for iMessage, 45,000,000 images are sent through the app everyday.
The CO-2 emitted from the images sent through iMessage each day is equal to 11,862 people flying from Paris to New York.
Taking the average size of phone images (13.18 MB (S. Hollister, CNet, 2015), this brings us to a total of 593,100,000 megabytes worth of data sent each day, or 593.1 terabytes. With this, we emit 11,862 tons of CO-2 per day, equal to 11,862 passengers flying from Paris to New York (Energuide, n.d.).
By compressing the images we send, we can bring this number back by about 40%. The rate of a JPG2000 compression is 1.72, which would make the total amount of data shared 345 terabytes. We could even take it a step further by using an AI-based compression. This could further reduce the data to 280 terabytes a day. Instead of 11,862 people taking that flight from Paris to New York, it would be around 5,600. All of these calculations are based on the paper 'Integer Discrete Flows and Lossless Compression' (Hoogeboom, 2019).
Friction vs. Seamless
As mentioned earlier, WhatsApp compresses images automatically, keeping the user out of the process. This is, partly, a financial consideration. After all, smaller picture sizes mean fewer servers, which means fewer running costs. This can be an important factor for a company that pays for their own servers while running a 'free' product. But, an even bigger consideration is that of design friction. Friction is anything that prevents users from accomplishing their goals or getting things done as quickly as possible. It is usually the opposite of being intuitive or effortless. However, it doesn’t mean that it’s always bad for users.
Are messaging apps supposed to hoist the sustainability flag?
iMessage and WhatsApp are all about seamless messaging. Sending a picture just works. Adding an extra interaction to stimulate sustainability adds an 'unnecessary' friction to that experience. But maybe this 'friction in the experience' is exactly what consumers need.
Up to now, consumers have not typically considered the computational energy needed to deliver their messages. The whole product is organised so that the end user doesn't have to care. By adding an extra interaction, you could let users realise that there is a downside of sending an image — you can make them aware. The question then remains: Is a functional messaging product like iMessage or WhatsApp created to spread such a message?
Content for Optimisation
"Data is the culprit behind the monster carbon footprint of our websites." In their article, Sustainable UX design: saving the environment with smarter websites, the tech company Parker Software discusses their views on the impact of data on the environment. They see that the ever-increasing creation of websites is demanding more and more energy. By making the right decisions in our designs we can improve this energy usage.
Lost in the web
When users visit a page, all of the data on that page has to be downloaded. Energy is used to receive all the necessary content and present it on the screen. Depending on the goal of the user, all of that loaded data might not even be interesting for them, causing a waste of energy. Webshops, in particular, are notorious offenders. When you navigate to a specific item, you have to click through category upon category and retrieve new data every time. With every click to open a new page, your website becomes less sustainable, so it's important to make your material as accessible as possible. But, how do we ensure the content is right there for the taking?
With every click to open a new page, your website becomes less sustainable, so it's important to make your content as accessible as possible.
On their website, Ikea is tackling it well. With a clear navigation panel and suggested products when searching, users are able to find items they're looking for as quick as possible. Like in most webshops, Ikea uses the navigation panel to let their users filter through different product themes. From a UX standpoint, this is clearly done to make searching for products in a huge database easier. But, it also avoids the necessity to load in product data that the user doesn't want or need to see.
When typing a product into the search bar, the Ikea website automatically suggests popular products that match this search term. By immediately presenting possibilities for the user, they can find the product they're looking for even faster. With this, Ikea also avoids that users load entire pages of, let's say, mirrors, and therefore an entire page of energy usage is spared.
Now make it smaller
To reduce the impact of our designs on the world, we need to start removing those extra bytes of data. A company that is really aiming for the smallest content size possible is Low-tech Magazine. With their solar-powered website they try to "radically reduce the energy use associated with accessing [their] content". They’ve made several choices in design to reach this goal. The website is fully static, and so, asks for less computational energy to load, avoids custom typefaces and logos, and images are converted with a 'dithering' technique.
Our suggestion: An optimal filter for Instagram
The biggest culprit of our daily data usage might just be Instagram. With its ever refreshing images & videos and its endless loop of stories, Instagram is a data polluter.
In 2015, Instagram updated their standard 640 px square picture format in order to support the vertical and horizontal formats (16:9). Since then, an Instagram Story picture has the dimension of 1080 x 1920 px, and a maximum of 30MB in size.
To reduce the size of the content shared in Instagram Stories, we created an environmentally conscious AR filter. For this, we were inspired by Low-tech Magazine and the way they dither images on their website. Our Instagram filter uses a halftone effect, which compresses images into dots rather than tones. A lot less data is needed to fill up the images, which makes their size significantly smaller.
With the use of the AR filter, we want to reduce the size of the Instagram Story at the source. The filter reads and creates a dithered image of reality in which some pixels won't have to be shown. The result is a remarkably smaller filtered picture size than the original. In fact, by using our filter, Instagram users can reduce the size of their original picture by over 50%.
With the introduction of a new sustainable filter in Instagram, we might have users unknowingly becoming more sustainable. We don't have to push any sort of choice for them, but can simply make the filter available for them to use. Optimisation in content doesn't have to be thrown in the user's face. It can be done in the background and still make a big difference.
The Sustainable Dot filter has launched on Earth Day, Wednesday 22 April and is available for all Instagram users. Simply go to the Instagram profile page of Master Digital Design (@master.digital.design) and check the middle filter icon just above the profile’s feed.
Good UX is Sustainable UX
In the article by Parker Software, it's proposed that badly executed UX design in a website could indicate that it isn't that sustainable. They might be right. A big part of good UX is making content easily accessible and speed, of course, plays a role in this. We see this too in the examples presented in our article. As designers, we have to avoid wasting the user's time with endless navigating or slow loading content.
With every design of a new page, we should be consciously considering what effect the addition of this content is going to have. First, the user's experience was our biggest motivation in this. How would people navigate to this page? How would they use it? Where could they go from here? Pages would be optimised to make the journey through products as easy as possible.
Now that we're actively, and almost naturally, making a seamless flow in our work, we could maybe take it one step further. How can we revise our work so much, that the impact we have on the environment is as little as possible?
Some closing thoughts
In this essay, we’ve touched upon the emergence of the field of Sustainable UX. It's a subject-matter that is still in its infancy. Most people have yet to realize that software can pollute our planet. A dirty factory chimney or a polluted car is easy to label as unsustainable. But the intangible nature of software makes pollution too abstract to get a grasp on. We simply can't imagine that sending a message from our phones has an impact too. Data moves from place to place through machines that are powered by electricity. These machines consume energy that emits CO2 if it doesn't come from renewable sources.
So what's the solution? Do we stop using digital tools altogether? In the world we’re living in, that’s difficult to imagine. We could start pointing fingers at streaming services, as they’re one of the biggest digital polluters, but we won’t stop binge-watching our favourite series. So, reducing emissions in digital products has to be tackled in another way. As designers, we can do this with a set of focus points for the next couple of years.
It starts with awareness
To fight the problem of computational energy usage, we need to create an awareness of data usage and its impact on the environment. We hope that this series of articles has already shed some light on the subject. If we, as designers, make each other aware of movements like Sustainable UX, we can actively consider the impact of our designs and how we can make them greener. We all share and use the web, just as we all share this planet, and can come together to fix it. By sharing knowledge through articles like these, we can actually use the ‘problematic’ data slurping Internet as a solution.
Measuring is key
To make sustainability more understandable we need better tools to measure Internet pollution. It's important to understand that measuring is much more complex than it seems. Sustainability acts in a system of actors that all influence each other. Measuring sustainability includes so many aspects that it’s not always easy to understand which decision is right sustainability-wise. There isn't yet a reliable model for energy modeling in interactive applications.
“We need better tools and methods to measure internet pollution.”
Designers, product managers, engineers, and entrepreneurs have the responsibility to consider the web as a polluter. It is up to us to create something that is good for the user as well as the planet. We can create good design by choice without compromising aesthetics and functionality. Good UX-design might equal sustainable UX-design. For the user experience, we strive to bring the user through our products in the fastest way possible. Now, we can bring it a step further. We have to consider how we can prevent our users from loading more data than needed and we can tweak our work accordingly. Reduced data leads to reduced energy consumption.
Scale does matter
From our own experiments this week and looking at what others have done in the field of sustainability, we have seen how small we can start out. The changes we make in our solutions are small but can have a big effect in the long run. Every conscious design choice helps in the reduction of our computational energy usage.
Small nudges in UX can go a long way. By presenting more sustainable options to our users clearly, we can help them make more environmentally friendly decisions. Options don’t have to be pushed, but can simply be presented (or even automatically selected). Unwittingly, people can make a choice to save the planet.
"The moment we create digital products or services we become part of the problem."
Even systematic changes to reduce small bits and pieces in an interface can massively change the emission rate. The simple compression of an image can have a big impact once it goes around the world. The internet is a numbers game and scale does matter. Think about what impact everything you design and build would have if 10 million people would use it.
You may wonder whether as a designer it is your responsibility to design more sustainably or to bring this awareness to the user. But from the moment we create digital products or services we become part of the problem. The question is whether you would like to be part of the solution as well.
Short Exploration of Space
It is expected that by the year 2030 almost 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. What will that do to society and the spaces we live in? What happens when space becomes a precious good?
For my course 'Design Futures' we started designing for the year 2047. Due to overpopulation people have to live in very small spaces. By thinking in extremes (living on 4m2) I had to question every object in a living space. What is left is only the essential for live, work and play.
To question the future of living I am using a method called speculative design. To discover new insights about the future of living I am planning a workshop in Amsterdam. Let me know if you are interested in joining the workshop.
I want to share a few of the highlights that I found during my search for small, but livable space.
In my exploration of space I naturally turned to Japanese cultures; more precisely: sleeping pods. There is something magical to pods and capsules. They bring the coziness of a small tent and techniness of Japan. But above all sleeping pods show a glimpse of an dystopian future where private space is a luxury good.
I stumbled on a building by the Japanese Architect Kisho Kurokawa. The building is founded on a movement called 'Metabolism'. The idea was to build flexible living pods that could be easily maintained and replaced throughout the years.
The building is made up of 140 concrete pods that are preassembled in a factory. The individual capsules are 2.3m × 3.8m x 2.1m, just enough for one person to live in; although probably a bit too small for my size.
Each pod comes with a mini fridge, freezer, small TV, radio, and bathroom with a bathtub. The main window in each pod is very large, and it's this big window is what makes these pods so special.
Kurokawa envisioned little pod rooms that could be swapped around. Unfortunately that original vision never came true. By now the building looks abandoned. But inside, now 48 years later, people still live there.
And that's exactly what the Japanese photographer Noritaka Minami captured. He made this beautiful photos series about the different pods in this building. They show an appeal, a vie extrème, to living small. Enjoy:
Take for example the 9 hour capsule hotels in Kyoto. You pay for one hour to get ready for bed, seven hours to sleep, and one hour to get up in the morning.
Finally, during that same exploration of Japanese pod apartments, I also stumbled upon this picture of private smoking pods. These are the kind of pictures I stroll for on the internet. I love everything about this picture. The style, the moustache, the furniture. Let smokers smoke in their smokerpods, while living that sixties style.
Uber Money, Uber Everything?
Uber everything? It sure as hell looks like that with Uber's move into payments. Announcing Uber Money, the company seeks to implement new financial products and technologies within the Uber network.
While Uber's press release mostly focuses on a couple of new product features, there is more than meets the eye behind this move into financial products. “The first product features are only the beginning”, as the Head of Uber Money, Peter Hazlehurst said: “We’re continuing to expand our suite of financial products”.
Uber's move into money is important to examine. It stands for a bigger shift in which tech companies are slowly but surely overtaking more and more touch-points. I felt a strong need to write this essay because we need to critically examine the role of the big tech companies. Do we want an Uber everything, or is the question irrelevant because it will happen nonetheless? I will lay out the incentives for Uber to move into payments, examining it from a range of perspectives. To understand why Uber made this move, let me start by explaining Uber's core service offering.
Uber: A legitimate promise
No more shady taxi drivers, hassle with money, or detours to up the taximeter resulting in a fully transparent experience where you can book a taxi from the palm of your hand. At an abstract level, ride-sharing sounds like a legitimate promise. Riders can avoid car ownership and avoid inefficient cab riding; drivers can make an additional income by being flexible, all under the premise of being your own boss.
What drives Uber is trust. Uber acts as the intermediary and facilitates a trust network between the users of the platform. Through their rating system and a thorough screening of the drivers, it can guarantee that you will arrive safely at your destination. Uber acts beyond an intermediary; it's an infrastructure that allows for user interaction, new development of apps, and the servicing of both sides of the market -the drivers and the riders.
A virtuous cycle
Uber's growth and network effects come from a virtuous cycle (David Sacks, 2014). It's a classic two-sided marketplace where more cars in the network attract more riders and vice versa. With demand rising, there are more drivers needed which results in better geographic coverage. Better coverage implies both faster pickups, as well as less driver downtime. This means the platform can offer better prices to travelers. Both aspects boost demand even further, bringing us back to the beginning of the loop.
Uber acts as a middle-man to manage services relating to both supply and demand. This relationship is. to some extent, a zero-sum game. Anything Uber does to benefit its drivers comes at the expense of higher cab prices. This ultimately cuts Uber's growth model, which isn't beneficial for a venture-backed company. Experiencing company growth comes at any expense, as long as its backers, "the VC's", benefit from it the most.
Uber and their drivers, a bad marriage
Uber set out to build a tool that could democratize access to cars, but ultimately resulted in squeezing out its drivers. It generates billions from the labor of its drivers without the expense of treating them as employees. Uber calls itself a tech platform, effectively distancing itself from the standard employer-employee relationship entirely.
Uber even publicly stated that it would fix its troubled relationship with drivers. “We’ve underinvested in the driver experience,” a senior official said (Uber Press, 2017). “We are now re-examining everything we do in order to rebuild that love.”
To me, this is just baffling. A company whose very foundations are built on its number one asset - drivers - has been neglecting them outright. Why? The sad reality is that drivers are replaceable. Driving a car is a low-skilled job. There is an endless supply of unemployed people that are just trying to support themselves.
It seems like Uber "sees their drivers as temporary pawns in a long game of chess" (HN, 2017). Drivers aren't part of the long term plan.
Why do you think Uber is investing billions into self-driving vehicles? It’s labor that is their biggest expense. Uber hopes to replace their drivers with self-driving vehicles. After all, machines don't complain about a higher salary and better working conditions. Robots usually don't protest on the street. Uber has the best knowledge of urban transportation in the world. It will leverage that to remove their biggest expense: their drivers.
Until robots sprawl the streets of your city, Uber still requires to mitigate the relationship with its drivers.
A move towards profitability
Is this move for Uber a business choice? Earlier this year, the company had to lay off a huge number of employees. It was a latest attempt in achieving profitability. In the second quarter of 2019 Uber lost a jaw-dropping $5.2 billion in just four months. In the tech world, the business model usually comes later. A lot of these venture-backed companies create new social constructs and disrupt industries without ever being profitable.
It's fair to say that Uber Money has a path to revenue. Its data about drivers' cash flow will enable better lending decisions, while interest rates on loans to drivers will grow the overall trip volume. In an industry-backed by venture money, it feels good to say "business model" and "venture capital" in the same sentence.
Bettering the driver relationship
We can put questions around the incentives of Uber Money, but certain elements are beneficial to drivers. What if Uber attempts to better the driver relationship here? Let's put aside all tech pessimism for a moment and look closely at what Uber offers here.
Uber money announced a range of new services, all directly targeted at drivers: real-time earnings, an Uber debit account, a credit card, and a mobile wallet app. It's like one central hub for all Uber-related transactions.
From a user perspective, I see Uber Money as a direct investment in the driver relationship. Regardless of whether the tools are useful for everyone, they certainly provide value for many drivers.
A gamified experience
Uber Money has a feature called real-time earnings. Drivers have immediate access to their earnings after every trip instead of waiting for their weekly payments. Initially, this sounds favorable for drivers, but is it really? Instant money means the possibility of instant spending. Furthermore, you make the driving experience even more gamified. Every extra ride you take upon as a driver directly leads to extra cash.
The virtuous cycle I sketched earlier is important here. Faster pickups and less driver downtime have a positive effect on demand. Uber has a direct motivation to manipulate its drivers to take on more rides, which it undoubtedly does by gamifying the experience. When Uber drivers close their app they receive a message saying that they’re only a few dollars short of reaching a new objective. Drivers can also earn badges such as "excellent service" or "50 completed rides".
Banking the unbanked
Uber operates globally, in many countries where it is active, financial inclusion is not yet a matter of course. For example, 35% of Uber’s Mexican drivers have never had access to financial services before they came into contact with it through Uber itself.
And that is exactly what makes Uber Payments so fascinating. With the launch of the Uber Debit and Credit card, drivers can now use Uber as their sole financial touchpoint. We call this banking the unbanked.
With credit and debit cards, drivers receive cash-back on gas purchases and receive 5% back in "Uber Cash" if you spend within the platform. This includes services from Uber Rides, Uber Eats, and JUMP bikes and scooters. Managing all these transactions happens through the singular Uber wallet app.
Nearly four in ten Uber drivers in the US rely on the ride-share service for the bulk of their income (Forbes, 2019). This means from a driver’s perspective, it makes sense to run your financial services at Uber.
It is convenient.
But is it also 'convenient' from an ethical standpoint? Do we want all that data at one party? Do you want your boss to control your bank account? Probably not.
That brings me back to the main question of this essay: what is the reason Uber is moving into money? Yes, it's certainly interested in bettering the driver relationship. Yes, it is providing value for its drivers. Yes, Uber Money has a path to revenue.
But owning the money relationship is much more beneficial than just letting drivers pay with a mobile wallet.
It's not about instant payments, it's not about cashback. It's about increased surveillance. Uber is after your data, not your money (Economist, 2019)
One’s employer is now also one’s bank, and in the case of an employer with less-than-stellar records in ethics this may raise some legitimate concerns.
After reading this piece you will probably have more questions than answers. I have been critical of Uber. The company has exhibited total comfort in squeezing out its drivers, all for the mission of making a profit. I think it is important to examine the actions of a company from a range of perspectives. Don't forget that there was a world before Uber, was it much better?
I am hyper-aware that disrupting something as fundamental as car ownership will always be controversial. Venture capital itself isn't unethical, the world progresses on it. But it is the constructs in which people behave that is questionable. More power for tech companies might be inevitable. But together, we DO have a say in how that world can look like.
Business incentives will never fully align with ethics. It is in the nature of capitalism to look at numbers rather than humans. As someone working in tech, keep questioning yourself. You need to be able to look at the bigger picture. Raise questions around questionable behavior. Assess a situation, beyond business goals.
Look outside numbers, KPI's and OKR's. Think about what you create from a human standpoint. Whatever structure you create, it will create its context. A gamified experience might be beneficial for some, while horrendous to others. Think about that when you help to create it.
Uber might see its drivers as temporary pawns in a long game of chess. Until Uber figured out how to do self-driving cars, it will need to keep playing with those same bloody pawns. Designing for disruption comes at an expense. So be aware of your actions. Make progress, but do it for the right reasons.
Learn With a Plan
A good friend of mine poked me with an interesting question: “What is your strategy for picking what book to read first?”
I thought about the question for a while and had to conclude; I don’t read and learn with a predefined plan.
Of course, it's not completely blindfold. I don’t pick the first book I see on a shelf in a bookstore. Generally speaking, I follow the advice of people I admire online. From some people, I can follow their reading advice blindly because I know they have the same taste as me. If friends tell me to read a certain book, I will ask them: “What did you learn from this book specifically?”. This functions as a good filtering mechanism. Finally, I always read some reviews on Goodreads before deciding to add a book to my list.
Apart from following other people and reading some reviews, I don’t have a strategy for what to read first other than following my energy. When I first started to read more I picked up advice from Naval: “Read what you love, until you love to read”. But now that I have developed a reliable reading habit, I feel that there is a need to make some adjustments.
The way I currently learn is built around curiosity. I don't say that this is a bad strategy. There should always be room for serendipity and surprise. The surprise is well built in my systems already. I can obtain surprise in conversation. Twitter can be surprising. I know that surprise won’t disappoint me, because I am a curious learner.
But that voracious appetite for new concepts comes at a downside: lack of focus. And it's this lack of focus that holds me back to go deeper into topics. So as my friend and I concluded:
“I need a system for my curiosities.”
To tackle this quest, I will start to learn with a plan. Every 90 days I will choose 1 to 3 topics to focus on for that period. Whether it be personal finance, writing, design, programming or drawing. For 90 days I will deep dive in those topics.
To determine what to read I will do some research to find the best articles, podcasts, books, and courses on that topic. By making a learning schedule you can prosper your focus in the right direction. I will keep track of the hours invested and make detailed notes along the way.
I will be more fastidious in choosing what I read, watch and learn. Of course, there is still room for curiosity, and I will follow my energy accordingly. But above all I shall learn with a plan.
Self-driving cars excite me.
These moving objects, designed to carry people and stuff from point A to B without a human maneuver, are a sneak preview into the nearby future. Yet, for most people, they still sound like some farfetched utopia. But self-driving cars are coming. And probably sooner than you think.
Traditional car companies are trying to build cars with a computer. Tech companies like Tesla, Apple, and Uber inverted the innovation process by building computers on wheels. Current Tesla cars already have built-in LIDAR sensors. This means that an overnight software update can turn every Tesla car into a fully self-driving car without a mechanic ever touching it by hand. The biggest hurdle is not the tech and hardware anymore. It’s the trust of people and corresponding regulation. So we know fully autonomous cars are coming sooner than later. Let me philosophize about how these cars could change cities.
A historic view on transport and cities
History teaches us that transport has always been quite influential for urban environments. In the 18th century horses were the main means of transportation. If those were not available people could still walk. It was way easier to move people around (they have legs) than it was to move stuff like raw materials around.
Trains were the main transportation system for stuff. But trains are limit to the local railroad infrastructure. These limitations moved factories to a centralized point in the city close to the train station. This was in the city and thus the place where factories would evolve. The heart of the Metropole was the place where people came to work. The downtown areas were often poor and had a lot of problems. The rich people didn’t live here of course. They were safely tucked away in the countryside, far away from the dirty factories.
The great inversion
The revolution of the car changed everything. But not in the way you would expect. There was this great inversion from both factories and people. They moved out of the center towards the suburbs. Not because people would now take the car to work. Factory workers were way too poor for that. No, trucks made it possible to move stuff around without using trains. For the first time, people could move raw materials around without the fixed infrastructure of a railroad. It was trucks that pushed the factory out of the city center towards the suburban areas.
Re-inversion of the creative class
Now you see this re-inversion and the rise of the ‘creative class’ (see Richard Florida’s book on the topic). In this new way of employment, the job is being creative and creating new forms of things. And with creative, I not mean musicians or painters. It’s much more. Jobs like lawyers, software developers, marketers, and tech entrepreneurs. It is service-oriented high educated knowledge workers.
All these people are coming back to the downtown area to live and work. It’s re-inverting the old inversion and creates this new rich class. Remember that the city centers used to be places where poor people lived. Now real estate in the city centers around the world is the highest it’s ever been. But remember that this creative class is small. The industry, and all the places where we actually still make things are located in the suburbs.
People or stuff?
So is a driverless car more like a car or more like a truck? It will take quite some time before we see people spend the majority of their commute in driverless cars. What will happen a lot sooner is stuff moving around. And no, we won’t see pizza delivery in a driverless SUV. Our imagination is still quite shallow in that regard. The possible solutions are endless. Think drones moving your Amazon packages or little robots moving pizzas around. Moving stuff rather than people will be the first step in that direction.
And it’s already happening. We now use software as a way to move things to people, rather than people to the things. Take a look at Uber Eats or Deliveroo. Easy accessibility of food has lead to serious behavior changes in food consumption. It’s not people going to restaurants or buying food in the supermarket anymore. It’s food that is moving towards people. Currently via cars, or in dense cities via bikes. Deliverers move through the city based on an algorithm.
Why do you think Uber and Lyft are investing billions into self-driving vehicles? It’s labor that is the biggest expense. With self-driving cars, they remove the necessity for a human driver completely. Uber has the best knowledge of urban transportation in the world. And it will leverage that to remove their biggest expense: Their drivers.
So how does this change cities? Let’s say you want to start a restaurant. Instead of renting an expensive place, buying tables and hiring staff you slim it down. You rent a kitchen in the suburbs and just cook. Uber Eats will take care of the demand and all you have to do is cook. The economics of such a business is much less like a restaurant and much more like a factory. A food factory. With lower real estate costs, cheaper labor, and fewer upfront costs.
And guess what? Travis Kalanick, ex-CEO, and co-founder of Uber is currently ramping up a new company called CloudKitchens. The man who co-invented the algorithmic ridesharing revolution must know a thing or two about autonomous vehicles. After being pushed out as head of Uber, he is now working on this multimillion-dollar plan to build a worldwide network of food delivery kitchens around the world. He taps into the potential by buying real estate in less popular areas. He transforms these ‘hubs’ into fully equipped kitchens ready for food delivery.
With food and other stuff moving towards the people it is less important to be in the absolute city center. A place that is now dominated by this really thin later layer of rich creative higher educated people. What self-driving cars will do is give the suburban places the same quality of life in terms of service and delivery.
The future of self-driving cars
With fewer people owning cars the cities will change, parking spaces can turn into parks, and cities will be less noisy and polluted. People will be fine with living outside a city because if you can work during your commute you can live in more quiet and cheaper areas. These are all interesting consequences but as history tells us it will be most likely that stuff is the first thing that will be moved around fully autonomous. Following history, this will have large implications for sprawls of people. If stuff can come to you, and you don’t need to work in the city center why staying there? It’s more expensive and there is only this tiny group of people that actually wants to pay that price. Until now fully self-driving cars are still a utopia but they are coming. An over the air update can make the entire fleet of Tesla autonomous. Watch this space in the coming years, a lot will happen!
Books can make you more aware of your lifestyle. Even bad ones. I just finished the book ‘Goodbye, Things’ by Fumio Sasaki. It’s a book on minimalist living where the author, a Japanese writer, has gone to extremes when it comes to minimalism. Fumio Sasaki lives in a tiny studio in Tokyo with three shirts, fours pairs of trousers, four pairs of socks and not much else.
While the book is part of a proclaimed Pinguin ‘self-help’ category which sounds horrendous as it is, I do definitely see the value of it. Fumio lives in such extreme ways that you can do nothing else then also to look at your own behavior.
And that is the exact value of this book. It’s not about owning less, but it is about becoming aware of what you consume. Trying to ask yourself the simple question: Do I really need this? Having less stuff is definitely not a competition. Since I try to be a bit more conscious of my spendings, I tend to look down on people who are at the other end of the spectrum. The spenders and consumers who get intense joy from buying new things. There isn’t much to compare yourself with others anyway.
The switch we all have to make is understanding that more stuff does not equal happier. Modern research proves that right. They call it the hedonic treadmill. As a person makes more money, expectations, and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.
Most people act in the opposite way. When they move up the career ladder, which equals more salary, their spendings keep going up. You can call this lifestyle inflation. Lifestyle inflation tends to continue each time someone gets a raise. It makes it difficult to get out of debt or save for future dreams. It’s a rat race of paying the bills.
Avoid creating a “new normal” for yourself. It’s a trap. it will follow you throughout your career and is hard to get out of. Because once you are earning that higher salary, slimming down is hard. Remember that more is not always the answer.
Bring Enemies Together
Across the world, there are numerous examples of groups of people that are in conflict. Often, there is no clear reason why these people are fighting other than some arbitrary border or prejudice based on certain cultural traits and rituals or difference in opinion and value. Take Catalonia, for the past decades they are fighting for the independence of Spain. Especially in the last years, the discussion is heating up. They are resulting in rebellions, protests, and contra reactions of the Spanish government. The other example is the difference between democrats and republicans in the US. Often they are aligned opposite of each other and on most points, they think radically different. You could say that this difference in groups is all arbitrary. Some people have been manipulated to follow ideologies that hold influence over them and those are stronger than their own desire for survival-by-cooperation.
Group forming is a fundamental characteristic of human social interaction. Groups create boundaries for who is part of your tribe and who isn’t. An in-group can be formed by any similarity between two or more people and, similarly, and out-group can be formed through any arbitrary distinction.
So how is it possible that seemingly similar groups of people can be so divided? The Robber’s Cave Experiment (1945) conducted by Muzafer Sherif provides a possible explanation for this phenomenon. In the experiment, he takes this question into an artificially created environment. Sherif created a fake summer camp with two groups of boys of about 20 boys each and the first week of the camp they separated the boys so the boys didn’t know of the existence of the other group. The experiment focused on group bonding at this time, creating an identity using names, flags, and multiple in-group activities. As expected, after about a week of activity it brought the boys in the two groups together as a team. In the second stage of the experiment, the researchers introduced the two groups to each other. They added cross-group competition where there could only be one winner and one loser. This competition creates a lot of tension between the group which ultimately lead to vandalism, violence and even physical abuse to the point that the experimenters had to separate the boys. The Robbers cave experiment thus highlights how certain factors can create such prejudices among seemingly equal groups. By creating an identity and add in cross-group competition the prejudices emerged.
If we compare this experiment to the outlined examples we can draw some similarities. The people of Catalonia and the Democrats in the US also have strong cross-group competition. For Catalonia, this is the country Spain and for the Democrats, these are the Republicans. They also have their own identity (in the form of their own rituals, cultural values, flags/colors).
So is there a solution which can eliminate the created prejudice? The Robbers cave experiment provides us with a possible solution. How can we eliminate the artificially created prejudice among the two groups? In the third stage of the experiment, the researchers created situations in which the two groups had to work together in order to solve the problem. These teambuilding activities lead to a situation where the boys of the separated groups liked each other much more because of these team-building activities. Undoing the damage by collaboration and the creation of a common area. What brought the two groups together was a mythical third group, ‘the common enemy’ which spurred more ‘us’ vs ‘them’ with them being harmful outsiders that had been made up by the experimenters.
To bring big and small groups together it is thus important to create collaboration and a shared enemy. In the case of Spain and Catalonia, this could be in the form of a soccer World Cup for example. Football is both big in Catalonia and Spain and a good result for the national team with a mixture of players of Catalonia and Spain brings the two parties closer together. Similar the Democrats and Republicans learn to dislike each other but are also taught to hate a harmful third party, the terrorist, even more. The conclusion we can draw is thus that by adding collaboration and a common enemy we can bring groups closer together.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Over the last months I have made a few fundamental changes in the way I consume my media.
- I now filter constantly — remove ruthless
- I simplified my channels — reduce the # of channels
I was getting tired of all the different places I ‘had’ to read stuff. Twitter, Facebook, news sites, blogs, email newsletters.
My solution? I removed rigorously.
Lousy newsletter, unsubscribe. Junk Twitter feed, unfollow. By constantly removing things that waste your time you filter the noise.
It’s hard to know what’s good for us but it’s easy to understand what’s bad for us. Removing these bits will make you more focused. By constantly tweaking the things you see, you keep your consumption streams relevant. There is so much information to digest. So you better at least optimize for the things you see. By removing the junk, you will end up with better consumption. What you ignore is every bit as important as to what you know.
I applied the same tactics to my other social channels. Somewhere last year I changed my habits on Instagram and Facebook.
There is so much junk and the truth is: you really only want to see the stuff from real friends. Brands are only there to let you make impulse buys, that hot girl you follow is not falling in love with you through a screen and do you really care if your old fake high school friend is posting a new picture?
I definitely believe in the purpose of these channels, but personally, they don’t make me a happier person. Thus, I removed the Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook app from my phone and I started to unfollow (not unfriend) people and channels.
The power of Facebook lies in the network. For me, that is still an important aspect and I highly value that. What I do not value is seeing my Facebook friends liking stupid cat videos.
Removing people was painful, but mostly very refreshing. The beginning will feel strange and the FOMO will be there. I often caught myself going to the folder where those apps used to be. But slowly I learned how to get less dependent. Sure, you will have drawbacks and sometimes it is just nice to watch some ‘dumb’ shit. But by limiting yourself to usage, you get your control back.
Out of sight is out of mind.
Deeleconomie is Steeleconomie
Eerlijk delen was als kind het devies. “Gij zult eerlijk delen” zou zo op grootmoeders tegeltje hebben kunnen staan. Hoe anders staat de huidige term delen in het licht. Het nieuwe delen is een door kapitalisme geïnjecteerde horror beweging geworden. Er is weinig over van de ideologie waarmee kleine startups een nieuw soort economie probeerden uit te vinden: “Let’s share!”
Het klassieke kapitalisme had altijd al tegenstanders, maar na de kredietcrisis van 2008 werd meer dan ooit duidelijk dat mensen klaar waren met de macht van de superrijken. Het werd voor bewegingen als Occupy een protestsymbool. Gekleed in zwarte kostuums met hoge hoed en sierlijke snor werd het een uitbeelding van de superrijken zoals het mannetje van het populaire gezelschapsspel Monopoly. Mensen waren klaar met het kapitalisme en verlangden in meest extreme vorm misschien zelfs wel terug naar het communisme.
En in essentie klinkt het ook mooi natuurlijk. Wat is er mis met het feit dat mensen hun bezit delen? De geschiedenis heeft ons echter geleerd dat daar heel veel mis mee kan zijn. Lenin, Stalin en Mao hebben nou niet bepaald de goede kant van hun ideaal laten zien. Armoede, uitbuiting en een totalitaire staat tot gevolg. Mensen zijn van nature namelijk helemaal niet vrijgevig. Adam Smith schreef ver voor de tijd van Marx in zijn The Wealth of Nations: “Het is niet de welwillendheid van de slager, de brouwer of de bakker waar we ons avondeten aan danken, maar hun eigen belang.”Smith, als vader van de moderne economie, zag in dat de mens door eigen belang zelf zijn waarde kan creëren.
Maar is er dan geen middenweg? Een manier om bezit op de één of andere manier toch te delen zonder dat het de economie op zijn gat legt of doorslaat in kapitalistische grootmachten?
Ongeveer tegelijkertijd met het begin van de financiële crisis werd in Silicon Valley de basis voor een nieuwe economie gelegd. In 2008 konden studiegenoten Brian Chesky en Joe Gebbia hun appartement in San Francisco niet betalen. Ze kochten een luchtbed (airbed) en doopten de woonkamer om tot bed and breakfast. AirBed & Breakfast was hiermee geboren. Voor Brian en Joe was dit een goede manier om wat extra’s bij te verdienen en zo de huur te kunnen betalen. Het betekende het begin van een romantisch startup-verhaal waarmee Airbnb razendsnel de markt veroverden. Het bedrijf had de wind mee en de algehele tendens was zeer positief. Delen was hot, en het jonge bedrijf was een verademing vergeleken met de vastgeroeste hotelindustrie.
Rond dezelfde tijd werd ook de taximarkt op zijn kop gezet. Uber versimpelde het maken van een taxiritje tot het tappen en swipen in een app. Uber slaagde er in om het taxirijden zodanig te versimpelen en het was ook nog eens vele malen goedkoper voor de consument. Het veranderde van een luxe tot een betaalbare dienst en werd hiermee ook bereikbaar voor een veel grotere doelgroep, waaronder jonge mensen.
Airbnb en Uber zagen ruimte in de markt waar disruptie meer dan noodzakelijk was. Het was een markt waarin het gedrag van consumenten moest veranderen. Mensen moesten het als normaal gaan beschouwen om bij een vreemde in te stappen of anderen in je bed te laten slapen. Het ging om vertrouwen tussen mensen die elkaar nooit eerder hebben ontmoet, de Amerikaanse politicoloog Robert Putnam noemde dit ‘thin trust’.
Het Duitse BlablaCar is een goed voorbeeld van dit ‘dunne vertrouwen’. Met BlaBlaCar kunnen mensen hun auto delen om bijvoorbeeld van Amsterdam naar Berlijn te rijden. Het brengt mensen samen die elkaar nooit eerder hebben gezien. Uit onderzoek blijkt dat de gebruikers hun passagier zelfs bijna net zoveel vertrouwen als persoonlijke vrienden. En dat is ook het mooie van de deeleconomie, het brengt mensen samen en creëert een positieve vibe in de maatschappij. Maar de lofzang van de deeleconomie wordt vooral gevoerd op basis van sentimenten. Bijgestaan door de marketingmachines van Airbnb en Uber lijkt het een paradijs waar alles awesome en incredible is.
Ik zie echter iets anders gebeuren. De deeleconomie pretendeert dan wel een mooi sociaal systeem te zijn, maar in tegenstelling hebben Airbnb en Uber nog maar weinig met delen te maken. In amper tien jaar tijd zijn ze uitgegroeid tot kapitalistisch megabedrijven met een geschatte waarde van tientallen miljarden. De term ‘delen‘ lijkt daarmee niet op zijn plaats. In de Volkskrant van 16 juni 2016 wordt terecht opgemerkt: “Waarom spreken we over ‘deeleconomie’? Het Hilton ‘deelt’ zijn kamer toch ook met u als u ervoor betaalt.” In feite is het gewoon ‘platform kapitalisme’. Net als bij het klassieke kapitalisme is er een grote groep mensen die het ‘werk’ doet, en een kleine groep die de winst van het arbeidsproces opstrijkt. In het geval van Airbnb betekent dat 15 procent per transactie, iets waar ze vrij weinig voor hoeven te doen. Airbnb faciliteert enkel een platform waarop huurders en verhuurders elkaar kunnen ontmoeten om een transactie te maken.
Als we de deeleconomie gaan zien als platform kapitalisme is Marx opeens weer heel relevant. Marx stelde in zijn ‘Communistisch Manifest’ ruim 150 jaar geleden al dat er een ongelijke verdeling was tussen individuen. Er was een klassenstrijd gaande tussen de bourgeoisie, de huidige yup met hip koophuis in de Amsterdamse binnenstad, en het proletariaat, de groep die geen toegang heeft tot het kapitaal. Alleen de mensen met bezit kunnen geld verdienen met de deeleconomie. Zo sociaal is de deeleconomie daarmee helemaal niet en in de Tegenlicht documentaire Slapend Rijk wordt dit dan ook terecht omschreven als: “links lullen, rechts vullen”.
Maar er spelen rond Airbnb meer problemen dan alleen dit gelijkheidsvraagstuk. Een buurt zoals de Jordaan ziet of hoort op een dag zoveel rolkoffers dat van een sociale cohesie nog amper sprake is.
De grotere stroom toeristen heeft voor een algehele ‘verpretparkisering’ van de stad gezorgd. Loop een rondje door de binnenstad van Amsterdam en je raakt al snel de tel kwijt bij het aantal wafel- en ijswinkels. Door deze enorme stroom van toeristen is er een grote vraag naar accommodaties. Je kan met Airbnb meer huur opstrijken dan met reguliere huurders. Interessante business dus voor huizeneigenaren en daardoor zie je steeds vaker dat huizen permanent verhuurd worden voor short stay. Zo’n keihard verdienmodel heeft echter grote gevolgen voor de de stad. Huizen waar permanent toeristen verblijven dragen weinig bij aan de sociale cohesie en de Amsterdamse woningmarkt is door Airbnb nog krapper geworden. Doordat huizenkopers de potentiële opbrengst via Airbnb alvast meerekenen stijgen de huizenprijzen nog sneller.
Het probleem is duidelijk en de grote steden pleiten dan ook voor nieuwe wetgeving. Ondanks dat steden zoals Berlijn Airbnb inmiddels volledig in de ban hebben gedaan, besloot Amsterdam na onderhandeling voor een mildere aanpak. Met de ’60 dagen’ wetgeving mogen huizen nu nog maar voor maximaal 60 dagen via Airbnb worden verhuurd. Airbnb weigert echter openheid van zaken te geven en bemoeilijkt het hele proces enorm. Logisch misschien, aangezien Airbnb er nog altijd baat bij heeft als mensen hun woning zo vaak mogelijk verhuren. Een wens van wethouder Laurens Ivens om met de zogenaamde ‘meldplicht wet’ de illegale vakantieverhuurders aan te pakken werd echter door het kabinet snel aan de kant geschoven. Het kabinet benadrukt de vrije markt en een meldplicht is wat hen betreft “een disproportionele administratieve last”.
Ook Uber is in zijn achtjarig bestaan nooit vrij van controverse geweest. Waar er bij Airbnb vooral overlast voor stad en bewoner is, ligt dit bij Uber iets anders. Het grote succes van Uber bracht de taxidinosauriërs in verlegenheid en velen gingen daarom in protest. Ze blokkeerden snelwegen, daagde Uber-chauffeurs uit en vernielde zelfs auto’s die gewoon privé eigendom zijn van chauffeurs zelf. Ze vinden Uber oneerlijke concurrentie omdat het niet aan dezelfde strikte eisen hoeft te voldoen. Iets waar hotelketens ook tegenaan lopen, aangezien inderdaad gesteld kan worden dat Airbnb in feite de grootste hotelketen ter wereld is. Echter voldoet de keten in dat geval lang niet aan de veiligheidseisen van een normaal hotel.
Voor de bedrijven zelf is de deeleconomie eigenlijk een geperfectioneerde vorm van het kapitalisme. Waar in het klassieke model nog tijd en energie in het optimaliseren van werknemers moest worden gestopt heeft het platform kapitalisme bijna geen werknemers meer. Want werknemers kan je de chauffeurs van Uber niet noemen. Alleen de mensen die de werking van het platform zelf faciliteren staan nog op de loonstrook. De gebruikers van het platform, de mensen die de daadwerkelijke meerwaarde voor het platform creëren zijn geen werknemers van het bedrijf. Het zijn individuele micro-ondernemers die gedreven worden door het behalen van een zo hoog mogelijke recensie score.
Sterker nog, Uber is ze op termijn zelfs liever kwijt. Liever heeft het een vloot van zelfrijdende auto’s die de dure kostenpost voorgoed vervangt. De chauffeur is slechts een tussenfase om het algoritme klaar te stomen voor een geautomatiseerde toekomst. Zonder collectieve vakbond staat de micro-ondernemer eenzaam tegen het grootkapitaal.
Om meer over Uber te leren nam ik de proef op de som en meldde mij aan voor de uitrol van UberEats in Amsterdam. Uber gebruikt het algoritme waarmee het eerder succesvol was op de taximarkt nu om eten te bezorgen. En dus begon ik als fietskoerier, gehuld in Uber merchandising met een absurd grote box, app en natuurlijk mijn eigen fiets.
Zodra je online bent, begint het algoritme met schaken en verdwijn je in een virtuele landkaart van bezorgers die in een noodgang door de stad racen. Je krijgt betaald per bezorging en het loont dus om zo snel mogelijk maaltijden te bezorgen en daarmee een hoger loon op te strijken. Of dit ook veilig is, is een tweede, maar die verantwoordelijkheid heeft Uber slim uit handen gegeven door alle koeriers als ZZP’er in te huren. Deze constructie scheelt daarmee ook enorm in de kosten, want zonder pensioenbijdrages en onderhoudskosten blijft alleen een kilometertarief en vast bezorgloon van toepassing. Daarbij komt nog dat je als micro-ondernemer nauwelijks kan terugvallen op een werknemerscollectief of vakbond, daarvoor is de onderlinge strijd om de beste rating veel te hevig.
Langzamerhand verliezen de eens zo innovatieve startups hun gun-factor en gaan steden inzien dat verandering noodzakelijk is. Overheden hebben zelf in de hand hoe de deeleconomie zich verder zal vormen. Daarin lijkt de onzichtbare hand van Adam Smith niet de beste optie. Het reguleren van de markt is belangrijk omdat bedrijven zelf niet de morele verantwoordelijkheid nemen om de problemen ook daadwerkelijk op te lossen. Het inperken van de bewegingsvrijheid zal echter altijd een discussiepunt blijven waar vele belangen spelen.
Vraag blijft waar we op afstevenen? Doemdenkers zoals econoom Tyler Cowen denkt, dat Wallstreet en Silicon Valley alleen nog maar machtiger zullen worden met een grotere ongelijkheid tot gevolg. Econoom Jeremy Rifkin ziet het delen juist als het begin van een nieuw soort communisme, post- kapitalisme waarin de wereld één grote commune wordt. Persoonlijk denk ik echter dat dit een utopie is en overheidsregulering hard nodig is om kapitalistische grootmachten onder de spreekwoordelijke duim van de onzichtbare hand te houden.