Travis 2.0: Uber’s CEO Rides Away
Baby You Can't Drive My CarMike Windle / Getty Politics Features Travis Kalanick
Where Silicon Valley is concerned, every bro is sacred, every bro is great. When a bro is leaving, tech gets quite irate.
The Times reports that Uber chief exec Travis Kalanick is taking an indefinite leave of absence. The independent Holder investigation revealed even more unpleasant truths about the elite company. Uber is known for breaking new grounds in the fields of sociopathy and ride-sharing. The company agreed to a swathe of changes in their culture, including some real gems:
Some of those company values should be eliminated entirely, including those that are redundant or have been used to “justify poor behavior,” including “Let Builders Build”, “Always Be Hustlin’”, and “Meritocracy and Toe-Stepping.”
This is hugely important news for the Street; the least tremor of Kalanick’s right hand is bacon and manna to the investing class. Talking about Kalanick means discussing why a man like him flourishes in America, and what it says about our political and economic values. From the Times:
… an investigation into the company concluded that Uber must repudiate its aggressive start-up culture. The developments were part of a flurry of actions at Uber on Tuesday morning, which began with an internal email from Mr. Kalanick right before a staff meeting got underway. In the email to employees, Mr. Kalanick said he would take a leave of absence to work on himself and reflect on building a “world class leadership team” for the company. He did not specify how long he would be away.
In a sorry-not-sorry statement which was reminiscent of the face-saving Fyre Festival press release, Kalanick wrote that he was eager to build “Uber 2.0.” But he added:
“But if we are going to work on Uber 2.0, I also need to work on Travis 2.0 to become the leader that this company needs and that you deserve,” he added.
Let us speak frankly here: Kalanick is exactly what Uber deserves. They complete each other, a bonesaw in the hand of a reprobate war-surgeon.
Uber is theoretically “worth” seventy billion dollars. Kalanick, who is “worth” six point three billion, is theoretically one of the most valuable human beings on Earth. Forbes, that perfect scientist of moral value, informs me that Kalanick is the 190th richest person in existence. Now, as America reckons standing, this ranks him above all the poor prophets and unwashed martyrs who ever lived. But even for great men, some rain must fall, some stumbling must come, perhaps much stumbling, perhaps abundances of errors, and uh, well, alleged crimes. Thus Kalanick, the darling of billionaires and tech sites, is going to the great CEO farm in the country. You know the one—it’s where sick dogs and misbehaving executives end up.
It’s easy to learn about Kalanick. Watch the video where he berates an Uber driver. Or read his old WordPress blog. Or read any reputable account about him. Or read his Wikipedia page. Or, if you want the short version, Google Image Search him. Go ahead; have a blast. At the end of your investigation into Mr. Kalanick, you will get the sense that Kalanick is what would result if Joe Francis, the CEO of the Girls Gone Wild series of videos, had a baby with Littlefinger from TV’s murder drama Game of Thrones. And if they put that baby in charge of breaking taxi unions. That would be Kalanick. Travis 1.0. This was his company:
Interviews with more than 30 current and former Uber employees, as well as reviews of internal emails, chat logs and tape-recorded meetings, paint a picture of an often unrestrained workplace culture. Among the most egregious accusations from employees, who either witnessed or were subject to incidents and who asked to remain anonymous because of confidentiality agreements and fear of retaliation: One Uber manager groped female co-workers’ breasts at a company retreat in Las Vegas. A director shouted a homophobic slur at a subordinate during a heated confrontation in a meeting. Another manager threatened to beat an underperforming employee’s head in with a baseball bat.
What if the rumored Travis 2.0 returns to us? There are still four problems with Kalanick’s company, regardless of whatever upgrades he makes to himself.
First, Uber is bad for everyone except its principals. The tech giant seeks to break taxi unions, it impoverishes its drivers, it will take its investors’ money without return, and it props up the gullible naivete of the tech pundits. The ride-sharing angle cannot come to profit. Wall Street has whooshed through eight zodiacs since Uber was founded in San Francisco, and with not a doubloon to show for it. Uber has delivered everything but a living for their employees, profits for the moneymen, and the future they promised. What was their killer idea? Simply put, Uber was a team of tech kids who wanted to find a way to hire private cars easier. That’s it. That’s the big genius idea behind Uber. Its premises are practically unachievable, financially sketchy, and morally questionable.
Second problem: Uber is a uniquely toxic place to work. Consider the words of Bloomberg’s Eric Newcomer, discussing Uber’s handling of a rape case in India:
Uber is in the midst of responding to two probes the company commissioned into workplace violations after allegations of harassment, discrimination and potential criminal activity. The company said on Tuesday it fired more than 20 people for human-resources violations, and more actions are expected in the next week. Uber’s treatment of the India incident illustrates the challenge facing investigators and the board in dissecting one of the fastest-expanding corporate enterprises, whose operations now include more than 12,000 employees and over 500 cities worldwide. It also shows executives were willing to go to extremes in their attempts to protect the business.
Third, it is symptomatic of the entire Valley, and it is a perfect encapsulation of the bad tech corporation, and the bad tech capitalism which makes Uber possible. Remaining in perpetual state of gross adolescence is cheered in the valley; there is no downside to tech-bro culture. The outward face of the Valley is one of regal intellectual purity: cold in its judgment, sapped of trifling normie concerns. In actuality, the Valley’s a frat house, just with more rich Dads. Silicon Valley lives in an unending state of mutual entertainment. They’re so damned pleased with themselves.
But why? How could they be? Far from churning out newness to serve the world, the Valley is the same old seat of privilege and lechery, just in a different form. These companies take technology which has already been built and add apps. Or they capitalize on research that other people have already done. They do little themselves.
Occasionally one of them has a breakthrough. Apple had immense success with the iPhone—it built wealth faster than any other enterprise in history. Investors want more, so they unwisely throw capital at the Valley, and people like Travis 1.0. They pay for this lifestyle, this huge self-involvement of the TED Talk set. And so, the princes of Valley make laughingstocks of their investors and put the spur to their workers. In California’s gilded gulch, we see much sowing and seeding for no real reaping. The venturing angels stared upon Uber, and saw a moneyed horse whereupon they might ride to great profit. It won’t work. To invert Vonnegut: where Uber is concerned, nothing is beautiful and everything derps.
You could have seen the Silicon Valley mindset in 2015, at TechCrunch’s awards ceremony, which Kalanick 1.0 attended. According to The Verge.
For the past eight years, TechCrunch has hosted a bizarro tech world version of the Oscars called the Crunchies. The industry gets all dolled up, walks the “green carpet,” and watches Silicon Valley insiders present trophies for categories like “Best On-Demand Service” and “Best Overall Startup. … It is not lost on TechCrunch that the founders and investors celebrated at the Crunchies are no longer starved for attention or validation. Perhaps to introduce a little more awareness of the bubbling absurdity, in recent years TechCrunch stopped using its own writers as emcees and hired comedians. You can watch the Crunchie intros get more caustic as the class tension rises. Last year, John Oliver told the audience: “You’re no longer the underdogs, it’s very important you realize that,” and then riffed on ways they were “pissing off an entire city.”
Fourth problem with Uber: it is led by Travis Kalanick. There’s an old saying in politics: the candidate is the campaign. The startups of the Valley demonstrate the same social forces that formed religious cults in the Old World. Therefore, the CEO is the company. Kalanick is Uber, with everything that suggests.
We should observe and take note of Kalanick’s leave-taking, because of what it can teach us. “Market forces” did not bring Kalanick down. Market forces is a code phrase for the whim of the ultra-rich. What brought Kalanick down was norms, and the careful observation of a roused press and the attention of the law. Even as compromised as these institutions are, they still had enough vigor to shame the CEO into temporary retirement.
Moreover, Kalanick is the best single indicator that whatever illusions you might have about Silicon Valley, they needed to end yesterday. I will say this as simply as I possibly can: The Valley is not a collection of put-upon nerds. It is not a collocation of the shunned best and brightest. It is not the Triumph of the Geeks, the Big Bang Theory, Plato’s Republic, Steve Jobs’ Apple, Scandinavian innovation communes, Snow Crash, the digital frontier, the boundary of tomorrow, or whatever the hell you think it is. Silicon Valley is a collection of New Gilded Age Barons and their weird culture. It is class conflict and privilege. It is the past, not the future. The sooner everyone realizes this, the better off we will be. Understanding 2.0, not Travis 2.0, must be the next stage for tech.