Cabbies and Bookworms Go to War with Uber and Amazon
Tussling with technology but imprisoned by the straight-jacket of convention
It’s hard to imagine that a London cab driver and a New York book editor have much in common – but they do. Both are squealing like wounded animals about what technology – in the form of Uber and Amazon – are doing to their livelihoods. A few days ago, cabbies in London brought traffic to a halt protesting the arrival of Uber. In New York, the head of Hachette’s U.S offshoot, the publishing company that owns Little Brown and other imprints, is lodged in protracted negotiations that have caused his authors to be virtually black-listed by Amazon.
London cabbies portray Uber as a company, backed by evil American giants such as Google, that is sidestepping regulations and will flood London’s streets with unqualified and unsanctioned drivers. Their protest last week was spectacularly inept, and for Uber, the footage of hundreds of cabs causing gridlock and frustration in central London was a godsend resulting in millions of dollars of free publicity.
In London, unlike in U.S. cities, there is no prescribed limit to the number of cabs – or “medallion holders” – that can be on the streets. Instead, London’s cab drivers have to pass a stringent test, which can require two to three years of study, of their knowledge of the city’s streets and their vehicles have to be able to turn within a 25-foot circle. For passengers, this means the cabbie invariably knows the quickest route to a destination – a marked contrast to what happens on the streets of New York or other U.S. cities. The cabbies, understandably, are petrified that Uber drivers armed with powerful apps will render their years of training and accumulated experience worthless.
However cabbies have been slow to adapt. After much whining, they have come to understand the benefits of e-hailing apps like Hailo but the design of their vehicles – distinctive, endearing and fetching as it is – hasn’t changed much in almost 50 years. For passengers, this means bone-jarring rides, noisy interiors and, especially for the elderly, vehicles that are notoriously difficult to manage, even though they have enough head room to accommodate a man wearing a bowler hat. It’s no accident that the manufacturer of these vehicles – for which there appears to be little demand outside London – was scooped out of bankruptcy a few years ago for a pittance.
Now as private hire cars proliferate and Godzilla – in the shape of Uber – threatens their livelihood, the London cabbies are confronting the same demons that faced others in spheres where technology destroyed livelihoods: stokers on steam locomotives who were replaced by diesel engines; the laundry maid by the washing machine; hot metal typesetters by Linotype machines; shorthand typists by speech recognition machines; the bank clerk by the ATM; the garage attendant by the self-serve pump; and now the supermarket checkout clerk by barcode scanners – the list is endless. Most of the ‘Knowledge of London’ that the cabbie so painfully accumulated is now contained in Google Maps, Waze, and Siri. Today the apps may still not be as good as the best cabbies but, if a computer can beat a chess grandmaster, an app will figure out the killer move between Charing Cross Station and Oxford Circus in heavy rain and miserable traffic.
Meantime, in New York, the editors at Hachette – silently supported by other publishers – are locked in a tussle with Amazon that is ostensibly about pricing and unfair treatment. Scrape beneath the surface and – just like the London cabbies – this too is an exercise in denial about the march of technology and being trapped within the straightjacket of convention. Before the Internet and the rise of Amazon, publishers, like the cabbies, held their passengers (in their case authors) hostage. They usually obtained worldwide rights to the work, were responsible for sales, distribution and marketing and determined the author’s ride – which was almost always as uncomfortable as the back of a London taxi. (Only a few lucky authors were fortunate enough to benefit from a publisher’s high quality editing).
Today, a publisher’s influence is much diminished. Authors have far more control of their destiny. The savviest can completely bypass publishers and, especially if they are attuned to social media, can generate demand for their work more effectively than any Madison Avenue imprint. If writers use Amazon’s services, they can publish on Kindle within minutes and avail themselves of tools to prepare audiobooks. Instead of waiting many weeks for sales reports (and months for royalty checks), the modern writer can obtain real-time updates of his online sales and, if published by Amazon, will be paid quickly.
Whether it’s driving a car or writing a book, the past few days have shown how Uber and Amazon are transforming the prospects for people with pluck and gumption. For others that are lodged in the past, be they cabbies or editors, the march of technology just makes for the oddest of soulmates.
Top photo: London black cab drivers take part in a protest against Uber in front of Buckingham Palace (Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images).