Big Tech loves disruption, when they're doing the disruption

My latest Locus Magazine column is "Disruption for Thee, But Not for Me," and it analyzes how Big Tech has been able to "disrupt" incumbent industries, but has repurposed obscure technology regulations to prevent anyone from meting out the same treatment to their new digital monopolies.

I cite the example of Uber and Lyft, which have gutted the (often corrupt and rentier-riddled) taxi industry, but which can't be similarly cannibalized my driver co-ops without risking legal retaliation through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

But imagine a disruptive app that disrupted the disrupters.

Imagine if I could install a version of Ride (call it Meta-Uber) that knew about all the driver co-ops in the world. When I landed, I'd page a car with Uber or Lyft, but once a driver accepted the hail, my Meta-Uber app would signal the driver's phone and ask, "Do you have a driver co-op app on your phone?" If the driver and I both had the co-op app, our apps would cancel the Uber reservation and re-book the trip with Meta-Uber.

That way, we could piggyback on the installed base of Uber and Lyft cars, the billions they've poured into getting rideshare services legalized in cities around the world, the marketing billions they've spent making us all accustomed to the idea of rideshare services.

This Meta-Uber service would allow for a graceful transition from the shareholder-owned rideshares to worker co-ops. When you needed a car, you'd get one, without having to solve the chicken-and-egg problem of no drivers because there are no passengers because there are no drivers. One fare at a time, we could cannibalize Lyft and Uber into the poorhouse.

The billions they've spent to establish "first-mover advantages" wouldn't be unscalable stone walls around their business: they'd be immovable stone weights around their necks. Lyft and Uber would have multi-billion-dollar capital overhangs that their investors would expect to recoup, while the co-ops that nimbly leapt over Uber and Lyft would not have any such burden.

Could we do this?

Yes. Technically, this isn't all that challenging. Create a service where drivers and passengers' devices all register unique, per-ride codes, have the Meta-Uber check to see if the driver's device has just posted a unique code that matches yours, and then use the built-in ride-cancelation tool that's already incorporated into Uber and Lyft to tear down the old reservation and re-create it with Meta-Uber.

Cory Doctorow: Disruption for Thee, But Not for Me
[Cory Doctorow/Locus]