The Week's Conversations: Uber, Dave Chappelle, Preventing Dystopia, Canadian Magazine Award Season, Kendrick Lamar

A weekly conversation between friends.

Uber Driver Receives Chip Implant in Quest to Gain Rare 'Unquestionable Loyalty' Badge

This week we learned that Edmonton is considering turning to Uber as a potential replacement for bus services in the city. This in itself is not surprising. Edmonton has some of the worst urban sprawl on the continent and creating bus routes that get enough ridership has always been extremely difficult (it doesn’t help that if you can get to a bus route you may have to stand outside in -30C waiting for unreliable busses that only come every hour).

However, I am concerned with any civic plans to partner with a company that has structured itself so as to purposefully evade existing labour laws. On Sunday, The New York Times published an article on Uber’s use of “psychological inducements and other techniques unearthed by social science to influence when, where and how long drivers work.”

Uber sends notices that drivers are close to hitting arbitrary earnings targets when they try to log off, sets up the next fare before they finish their current one (a Netflix-binge-watching-style algorithm designed to override self-control), making it easiest to navigate to a ‘surge area’ (which does not necessarily align with high-paying fares), only sends blind fare opportunities without providing the ultimate destination (again, a way of ensuring all riders get picked up, not just those who are going longer distances)... need I go on? Unpaid badges of achievement (Entertaining Drive! Above and Beyond! Excellent Service!) seem so old school when it comes to motivation, but are still important to Uber drivers! Psych! 

It’s not that these actions are necessarily outside the bounds of what other corporations do, but Uber is problematic in that it relies on thousands of contractors, which it controls exclusively through a closed app system. Uber constantly collects and stores extensive data on each driver as a condition of their employment, and then that data is used to motivate the driver into working to the benefit of the corporation, not the benefit of the driver. There are few to no legal limits on Uber's ability to manipulate drivers into working at no cost to corporation.

“It is, as a result, not too hard to imagine a future in which massive digital platforms like Uber have an appetite for tens of millions of workers — not only for ferrying people, but also for delivering food and retail goods. Nor is it hard to imagine workers’ obliging them, perhaps because their skills do not match the needs of more traditional employers, or because they need to supplement their wages.

In such an economy, experts say, using big data and algorithms to manage workers will not simply be a niche phenomenon. It may become one of the most common ways of managing the American labor force.

“You have all these players entering into this space, and the assumption is they’ll do it through vast armies of underemployed people looking for extra hours, and we can control every nuance about what they do but not have to pay them,” said David Weil, the top wage-and-hour official under President Barack Obama.”

The whole article is well worth a read and attempts to be more balanced than I have been here. But I had to scoff at the nice suggestion that Uber will independently adopt norms that protect drivers from manipulation. Or that, in fact, all that data Uber collects will prove to the corporation they have an obligation to protect drivers! For sure NYTimes, it’s just as you say: Uber hasn’t reached corporate maturity yet, but labour rights are definitely on the agenda, right after converting to self-driving cars.

In the meantime, as Uber, Lyft and other gig-economy corporations grow, legislatures and courts should be considering how labour laws could be adapted to protect workers from the continuing gamification of their reality into one that holds few tangible rewards. Badges though, there’ll be lots of badges.

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The Disappointing Return of Dave Chappelle

Dave Chappelle’s two new standup specials on Netflix are very bad. Sure, there are some funny bits on race in America, hip hop culture, the police — the subjects upon which Chappelle’s legacy was built. Unfortunately, he spends the majority of the shows exploring issues that seem clearly over his head.

Chappelle’s jokes about gay men and the transgender community range from tone deaf to abhorrent. His extended take on the Bill Cosby rape allegations, though at times funny, is mostly incoherent and confusing. At one point, he makes a confounding attempt to excuse Manny Pacquiao’s homophobia, arguing that Asian men have been emasculated, and so need a machismo hero to reinstate their manhood. He even wades into anti-vaccination territory. It’s all very cringey and uncomfortable.

This is particularly disappointing, given Chappelle’s long absence from the stage, and following his excellent, cathartic SNL monologue just days after the election of Trump. But, as a number of critics have pointed out, Chappelle’s homophobia and transphobia looms heavily over these performances. “Even if some of his audience finds these dead-fish-in-the-barrel jokes funny, why does Chappelle?” asks Eric Sasson in the New Republic. “Chappelle’s Show was brilliant because it upended our notions of race, not because it trotted out tired stereotypes.” According to Seth Simons, these specials are a “frustrating jumble of penetrating wit and ignorance disguised as transgression.”

Chappelle’s defenders are quick to point out that stand-up comedy is not for the easily offended; that the stage should be a safe haven for ‘free speech’, where comics can air out new ideas and push boundaries without fear of reproach. Indeed, some of the best stand-up comics are those who are able to identify, deconstruct, and interrogate the borders between what is acceptable to say, and what is not.

But while the notion of free speech certainly involves protecting an individual’s right to say what they want, its underlying purpose is to foster an exchange of ideas, and to encourage dialogue between a diversity of competing perspectives. There’s something unsavory about describing a comic who gets paid $60 million to mock the LGBTQ community for a highly publicized Netflix special as a beacon of free speech.

Fortunately, comics who are eager to provoke and to offend are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain relevance. This might have something to do with ‘political correctness’, but more to do with the fact that it’s not actually funny to hurl racial epithets at audience members, or to single out and mock marginalized communities. Indeed, apart from safer acts like Jerry Seinfeld and Kevin Hart, longevity in the comedy world is rare, while the list of comedians who have fallen from grace grows longer each year.

Today, some of the more successful comics are those who are prepared to recognize the medium’s limits, and engage with rather than decry their critics. As GQ columnist Damon Young points out:

“The rules of comedy—particularly, the rules on where it’s socially acceptable to mine humor from and how to articulate that humor—have changed. And the best comedians, at least the truly transcendent male icons like Louis C.K. and even Chris Rock (whose recent interviews and work suggest that his sensibilities have shifted to reflect our times and his circumstances), don’t just evolve with us. Like the best artists, they help to spearhead the evolution.”

A prime example of this is the famous “Poker Scene” from season 2 of “Louie”, a dramatized version of the conversation that convinced C.K.’s to stop using gay slurs in his comedy. Another example can be found in Michael Che’s excellent new Netflix special “Michael Che Matters”. The hour-long special featuring the co-anchor of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update explores a number of the same issues tackled by Chappelle, but it’s funnier, edgier, and far more consistent. But what stands out most, especially in contrast with Chappelle, is Che’s self-reflexivity, and his willingness to question the soundness of his own positions.

“For Che, doing comedy means being honest above all things—and being prepared for your honesty to run up against someone else’s truth,” writes Dennis Perkins for the A.V. Club: “Confessing that he used to use the word “tranny,” he muses about why just adding a “y” to something is offensive, then tells how a trans friend asked him, “How would you like it if I called you ‘blackie?”…”You gotta stop accusing people just for being honest,” he states. “That’s a teaching moment. You can school me.”

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Preventing a Dystopian Future

“The difference between utopia and dystopia isn’t how well everything runs. It’s about what happens when everything fails."

Science fiction writing is often set in utopian or dystopian worlds, shaped around conditions that create either an ideal or oppressive society. But, as Cory Doctorow explains in Wired, these conditions don’t determine whether a world is utopian or dystopian. This is informed by how the characters in the story respond to the adversity they encounter. In the face of disaster, do the characters band together to overcome obstacles, with their humanity intact? Or, do things descend deeper into despair through the emergence of predatory rivalries built on fear and distrust?

Dystopian narratives can be created, even in seemingly idyllic settings:

Here’s how you make a dystopia: Convince people that when a disaster strikes, their neighbors are their enemies, not their mutual saviors and responsibilities. The belief that when the lights go out, your neighbors will come over with a shotgun — rather than the contents of their freezer so you can have a barbeque before it all spoils — isn’t just a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s a weaponized narrative. The belief in the barely restrained predatory nature of the people around you is the cause of dystopia, the belief that turns mere crises into catastrophes.

This is an important lesson for 2017. As we deal with (Trump) and approach looming disasters (climate change), it’s critical we recognize that the outcomes — utopia or dystopia — are very much in our control. 

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Canadian Magazine Award Season

I love magazines, newspapers, and journals. There’s something satisfying about having an eclectic mix of good writing arrive at your doorstep or inbox on a weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annual basis  — to the extent that I spend almost $1,000.00 a year on subscriptions. Subscriptions are also my preferred gifts; there’s nothing better than receiving a subscription to Maisonneuve, Eighteen Bridges, Granta, The Caravan, Wired, Columbia Journalism Review, or The New York Times for a birthday, wedding, graduation, or just because.

Each year, I look forward to the National Magazine Awards (NMA), an annual award show for Canadian magazines. However, after 39 years, the NMA is facing competition from a new Canadian magazine award show called the Magazine Grands Prix, which announced its nominees last week.

The Magazine Grands Prix emerged last year “after years of complaints from some of Canada’s largest magazine publishers that the industry’s annual awards program was a bloated affair that honoured too many recipients.” But, there’s another reason for the new awards show. Big publications tend to not win as many awards at the NMA as they would like, with independent magazines like Montreal-based Maisonneuve and Edmonton-based Eighteen Bridges faring exceptionally well in recent years (Canadaland did a portion of an episode that explored this critique last summer [starts at 23:00]). The publishers of Toronto-based Maclean’s, Toronto-based Readers Digest, Toronto-based Walrus, and other large Toronto-based magazines are apparently concerned that a focus on quality over readership base, government subsidies, being based in Toronto, and other important metrics are preventing them from receiving the accolades that they deserve. They pulled out, and created the Magazine Grands Prix.

By design, most of the Magazine Grands Prix nominees are dominated by larger, Toronto-based publications. However, Maisonneuve and other independent publications also make an appearance, such as The Site Magazine and Peeps. It may be too early to tell if this is a genuine attempt to celebrate the best of magazine publishing and writing in Canada, or petty wrangling; but, on April 20, 2017, the NMA will be announcing its nominees, and it will be interesting to see how the nominations between the award shows stack up.

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Kendrick's Return

I’m not sure if we are in another Golden Era of Hip Hop, but it is certainly a great time to be a fan, especially in 2017, with Drake, Future, and others dropping projects so early on in the year.

But, my eyes are on Kendrick Lamar, an artist who stands above his peers, and brings an authenticity to the genre that is refreshing and rare. Lamar dropped “The Heart Part 4” and “Humble” in quick succession over the last couple of weeks, building anticipation for the release of his new album.

Hip hop is known for its artists assuming personas and gimmicks, where hype-people are staples, and “authenticity” is intertwined with materialism and painting drug-fueled fantasies that appeal to horny teenage boys. However, Lamar doesn’t employ these tired tropes, and is sincere in his artistry by providing a window into his life as an African American man from Compton with an unshakable belief in God. This has allowed Lamar to capture the fears and aspirations of this particular era, where Black Lives Matter has emerged as part of the mainstream political agenda (theread editors argue that Lamar’s Alright is the definitive protest song of our times, while his performance at the 2016 Grammy Awards has reached iconic status).

This 2016 interview between Lamar and legendary producer Rick Rubin provides a glimpse into Lamar and his artistry, which can help understand his forthcoming release:

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Links From This Week's Thread

Anne-France Dautheville rode around the world on her 750 moto-guzzi in 1973. Here’s her diary in video.

Erika Thorkelson chronicles the story behind the collapse of the Vancouver English Centre, one of the oldest private English language schools in Vancouver, which provided language training and support to thousands of people the world over since 1993.

Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary network based at the University of Toronto that “monitors, analyzes, and impacts the exercise of political power in cyberspace.” It plays a significant role advancing fundamental freedoms and human rights in the digital sphere, particularly on issues related to privacy, security, and expression. Citizen Lab was founded in 2001 by Ron Deibert, a “counterespionage hacker” that has been in the thorn in the side of many security agencies around the world, including Canada. The Globe’s Report on Business recently profiled Deibert and his innovative methods that some cybersecurity experts consider to be of questionable legality.

A brief essay on the changing schools of thought on rape and why it happens, which concludes that the best way to stop rape is to dedicate resources towards investigating reported rapes and prosecuting rapists. I would like to say this is not worth reading, but obviously it continues to be.

Ahmed Kathrada, a leader of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa along with friend and confidant Nelson Mandela, died on March 28, 2017. Kathrada was a prominent Indian South African leader of the anti-Apartheid movement who was imprisoned with Mandela for 24 years, transitioning from prisoner to politician upon his release in 1989. In his later years, Kathrada became a vocal critic of South African President Jacob Zuma, and his funeral became a flashpoint for the latest power struggle within the ruling African National Congress. His biggest regret: “being denied the ability to have children” due to his lengthy imprisonment.

It took nearly a decade, but the music industry seems to have finally adapted to the digital age, reaching its highest levels of sales since 2009, primarily through streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and even YouTube.

Writing in the Citizen, Tyler Dawson asks: Why should we trust the Ottawa Police Service?: “If police have the power of legitimate violence, they need to maintain their sense of responsibility too, to constantly justify why the rest of us give them that power. Sometimes, that means reining in liberties and impulses the rest of us freely exercise.”

theread is a fan of 4122, a newsletter that curates eclectic pieces on art, poetry, music, and politics. Its most recent edition: number 3.

Gary Bettman is shortchanging NHLers with short-sighted Olympic plan.

This is hilarious. “It makes sense that the [FBI]’s director, James Comey, would dip his toe into the digital torrent with a Twitter account. It also makes sense, given Comey’s high profile, that he would want that Twitter account to be a secret from the world, lest his follows and favs be scrubbed for clues about what the feds are up to. What is somewhat surprising, however, is that it only took me about four hours of sleuthing to find Comey’s account, which is not protected.”

This woman takes eating lunch at her desk to another level:

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Amy Sanderson