A Tale of Two Smartphone Apps: Love and Ethics in the Time of the Travel Ban

It was the best of times, it was the Trumpiest of times.

I don’t write as often as I want to these days, and more often than not it’s for the same reason. In recent months, I find when I go to sit down and write one of these, then I read some awful news that just happened and decide that not only do I not feel like writing anymore, but wonder who would want to read any of my nonsense given what is going on elsewhere. The last time this happened was at the end of January, and President Trump had just signed his first executive order on immigration, the “Muslim Travel Ban”, which immediately barred even legal US residents from certain Muslim countries from re-entering the US. Slowly, stories started trickling in about people who left the country for a vacation and suddenly lost their whole lives. It was shocking not only in these personal stories, but also that a US president could have done this, and obviously not thought through the effects of his actions at all. Another reason I don’t write a lot anymore is that since all anyone talks about anymore is Donald Trump or Brexit, it follows that most of the things I’m thinking about are these two things, and there is already far too much stuff online already about them. So this isn’t about either of these things, it’s just set in this new world, against this madness that we all now reside in.

You were all alive at the time, and remember how the protests against the Travel Ban were organised very quickly, especially in major US airports. The largest protest was perhaps at New York’s JFK Airport, where thousands of people showed up to demonstrate against the ban. Out of solidarity, New York taxi drivers joined the strike, making it impossible to get a traditional taxi to or from the airport. People still needed to travel to and from the airport however, so the obvious replacement was Uber, which had been taking customers away from the traditional yellow New York cabs for years anyway. Uber, in situations like this with higher than usual demand, are famous for “surge pricing”, which entails charging higher than usual fares for car rides as a way to encourage Uber drivers to show up in places and at times where it wouldn’t normally be worth their while under normal circumstances. The company has caused controversy several times for seemingly profiting from terror attacks such as the Boston Marathon Bombing by, through means of surge pricing, charging customers high fares to flee danger.

In this case at the airport, there was high demand for Uber rides, but the company decided not to apply surge pricing in the area between the airport and the city. From their perspective, they were trying to help out with legitimate transport needs without attempting to profit from a bad situation. From the point of view of everyone else, they were not only crossing picket lines and attempting to break a strike, but through low prices were actively encouraging people to use the service, and thereby profiting from the Travel Ban. A Twitter campaign began, urging people to delete their Uber accounts. Apparently 200,000 people deleted their accounts over that weekend, a level high enough to force Uber to change the way they handled the process of deleting accounts.

The success of this campaign and the tarnishing of the Uber brand wasn’t very surprising: those on the left have severe difficulty in choosing their battles to fight, and Uber faces such grassroots opposition from taxi driver associations around the world so that any criticism about the company will be spread as widely as possible through networks that were designed for just this purpose. What did pique my interest that day was the news that the other main “sharing economy” company, AirBnB, was also receiving attention. The founder of AirBnB had announced that his company would aid in giving emergency housing to those affected by the ban. It was a very nice and welcome gesture, but it does needs a bit of context.

The Context

In simpler times (about a year ago), the type of thing that would light up the internet for a few days would be something like a “study” of the travails of a black person trying to get a booking on AirBnB in comparison to the ease of a white person. In a series of these, it became apparent that it was extremely difficult to get a place to stay on AirBnB unless you were white, and preferably straight. The conclusion that everyone drew from this was that AirBnB was racist, and possibly homophobic. The people at AirBnB took great offence to this, and vowed to solve perceived discrimination on their site. The culmination of this was that from November 1 2016, anyone logging into the site had to read and agree to a new user agreement, forbidding discrimination on both sides. If you want to rent out an apartment on AirBnB, you have to agree to rent it to anyone regardless of colour, sexual orientation or religion. Similarly, those seeking accommodation were encouraged to rent from all available properties, rather than just those offered by their preferred race or creed.

Ever since I received the email from AirBnB at the end of October 2016 about this proposed new user agreement, I have been planning to write something about it. Look, its intentions are obviously noble, and I would like to live in a world without discrimination, but to think it can be solved by a user agreement is one of the most arrogant things I have ever heard of. I might write about this again soon, as it is the topic of my PhD dissertation and it demands further exploration than the quite right-wing explanation I will give here for expediency, but the arrogance shown by AirBnB here is not that they think they can solve discrimination, it is that they see discrimination as a decision.

Deciding to Disciminate

To the AirBnB people in their start-up community, where they are connecting people through their app and website, rather than taking jobs away from people in the hospitality industry through the exploitation of legislative gaps in taxation and insurance, good people wake up in the morning and decide to treat everyone equally. Bad people wake up and decide that they don’t like certain groups. If only these bad people would stop doing this, then there would be no discrimination, and everyone would be equal.

In reality, discrimination is not like this: most discrimination is subconscious and ultimately involuntary. There is no one on this earth who can say they are not racist, sexist or homophobic, because they really don’t know, and in truth they themselves are probably not the ones who should be the judge of it. I like to think of myself as accepting of everyone, yet at times, and often very suddenly, I am shocked at how I behave in certain situations with people who are a different race, religion or sexuality than myself. I can check it, but often I only realise my behavior afterwards. The reason discrimination is so persistent is not due to choice; it is far, far deeper than that. I would even go so far as to say that it is a very depressing part of what makes us human.

This is not a popular view of discrimination however, and many would have us believe that it is something we can solve by simply being good people. AirBnB say that if you want to use their service, then you have to stop hating black people. That’s fair enough, but what if you don’t hate black people, and receive many requests on AirBnB, and suddenly you receive an email from the company telling you that through analysis of your rejections against acceptances, you reject black people a lot more than anyone else. You didn’t know it, but you’re a racist. And now you’re banned from AirBnB.

I’m not saying that we should all stop worrying about discrimination or that it will solve itself, just that its stigmitisation as something awful is not necessarily always correct. Gender quotas on management boards and parliamentary elections do not exist to enhance equality today, but to normalise gender equality and thus limit this subconscious discrimination in the future. Exposing and defining various forms of discrimination is helpful. Naming and shaming individuals who are perceived to discriminate is not. My grievance with AirBnB is that they expected all their discriminatory users to be aware of their discriminatory behaviour. It’s quite a high horse to ride on. While they have shown through their user agreement roll-out that they are attempting to tackle discrimination on their platform, there is no doubt in my mind that it will have no effect whatsoever, and new “studies” exposing AirBnB discrimination are inevitable.

Back to Reality

What’s this got to do with AirBnB’s actions during the Travel Ban, and with the announcement of housing refugees and US citizens affected by the order? It’s hard to be cynical about something like this, as they are in a position to help people out, and hopefully they have helped a lot of people throughout this period. However, if you have been following the company’s issues over the past year, it is also hard to avoid the fact that they are using the Muslim Travel Ban as a marketing stunt. The week after the travel ban, the company aired an ad during the Superbowl emphasising their inclusiveness policy, and just this week sent out an email to all their users about how inclusive they are. Again, their actions in helping real life victims are pure, but are their intentions any different from the criticism of Uber that prompted such vitriol? At the time of the #deleteuber campaign, the main message was that people would not tolerate businesses trying to profit from Trump’s policies, yet I would argue that AirBnB have done just this.

The moral quandary here is that AirBnB is doing good things, yet it is using a political situation to reposition its brand to a place that is comfortable with the values of its founders. When data inevitably comes back in a few months that its user agreement pledge had no effect, AirBnB can now point to their actions during the Travel Ban as a means to deflect criticism, and they are proving this by keeping everyone very aware that they are doing through massive advertising campaigns and reminder emails. All that could be said of Uber’s intentions were that they were questionable; the intentions of AirBnB much less so. If you’re going to punish companies for attempting to profit from the eccentricities of President Trump, consistency is necessary; the actions of Uber cannot be criticised while the actions of AirBnB go unnoticed. That, and at some stage we will all have to admit to ourselves that we discriminate, perhaps even every day.

 

My Dear Americans

 

Americans, this isn’t something that happened to you: it’s something you did to us.

Dear Americans,

I understand that you are angry. Some of you are angry because Donald Trump will soon be the President of the United States of America, while the rest are angry due to the fact that some of you are angry that Donald Trump will soon be the President of the United States of America. It’s a bad situation, but hopefully y’all will learn to get along in this new Trumpian world.

I myself, like many people over in Europe, were shocked and wary of the success of Mr Trump over there in the US of A, and possibly what his victory could mean for the world. I was initially shocked, then depressed, then finally set into a mode of extreme depression over the past two months since his victory was announced. Anger was not something I had experienced as part of this process, until very recently. And it wasn’t even a result of anything Mr Trump said or did, Americans, it was because of you.

While last week was a week of many classic news stories for the ages, the thing that got me unduly angry was not the stories of Mr Trumps association with Russia, it was about the early movements of the US Senate to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or to use its Sith name: Obamacare) which had provided health insurance to tens of millions of previously uninsured Americans. The story was covered in international news publications, and was given a lot of attention on Facebook and Twitter through shares and commentary by Americans and non-Americans alike. This, for some reason that I didn’t initially understand, made me irrationally angry. It took me a day or two of angry contemplation to come up with the source of my anger here, and eventually it came down to a simple question, Americans: why the fuck should we care?

Let me set my stall out at the front here: there is no reason in the world why anyone outside the United States of America should care what happens to healthcare (or any other domestic policy issue) as a result of the Trump administration. Donald Trump campaigned on a platform that criticised Obamacare and he told everyone he would dismantle it upon his election victory. Millions of Americans voted for him because of this. Now there are posts on social media calling the repeal of Obamacare as a massive humanitarian crisis. I’m sorry, but there’s a lot of bad stuff happening in this world, and America electing a guy who told them what he would do to their health system – and then implementing it – is not one of them. Whether you voted for Mr. Trump or not, this is the democratic wish of your fellow countrymen and women, Americans. Let’s not treat it as if it’s a great tragedy that suddenly occurred. He told you all what he would do, then the election took place, he won, and now he will do the things he said he would do.

I know, I know: Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote and is the rightful president. Except she isn’t, because it is an absolute fact that Donald Trump won that election, despite receiving fewer votes. And you all are probably angry about this electoral college stuff again, and will be for a few more months until you forget it again until your candidate loses an election in the future. If you’re unhappy with the Electoral College, Americans, you should do something about it. Don’t just wait until it’s relevant to your sudden partisan cause: do something about it next year, or the year after, or the year after that. You are the only ones who can. Can you guess what I’m mad about yet?

Americans, and especially those of you who didn’t vote for Trump, it may seem that you have found a lot of solidarity when conversing with people in Europe and around the world about our uneasiness with regards to the incoming president, but you are disregarding one thing that I don’t think is even clear to many people here in Europe. Americans, you all got to vote in that election. We didn’t. You were part of a process and political system that elected Donald Trump to the most powerful job in the world. A lot of you are complaining online and ranting in real life right now, but let me make one thing very clear to every US citizen: this isn’t something that happened to you. This is something that you did to us.

So your civil society and your judicial system will fall into ruin, America, and this is fine because you had an election on it, and you elected someone. So your healthcare will be privatised, so what? Too many of your citizens believe the propaganda that health insurance is communism by any other name, and they voted accordingly. So Trump will have the power to name highly conservative Supreme Court justices: so what? Americans, I don’t know if you noticed, but your country is and always has been highly conservative.

Outside the US, we shouldn’t care about any of this, because from a democratic point of view, you got exactly what you ordered. What you should actually turn around and think about, Americans, is the effect of your country’s decision on us, the rest of the world. Unlike you, we did not get a vote in that election, and yet we all will probably feel the consequence at some point. Whether it be through Mr Trump’s apparent inability to grasp the high art of international diplomacy, or his explicit inability to grasp the simple foundations of macroeconomics, it is fair to say that he will cause the impoverishment, suffering, and deaths of countless people outside of your country. None of these people had a say in your election, Americans, but you did.

Of course, it is not your fault that you were born a citizen of a country that has such an eminent position in the world, where voting outcomes such as last November could and have such a profound effect on the state of the world and conceivably alter the course of world history. But perhaps it is not too much to ask that a country in such a position, if it is going to provide a vote for every single of its citizens, could at least provide a decent level of education to each and all of these citizens, in the hope that when choosing a leader they can tell the difference between a responsible human being and a reality TV star. Americans, the scope of your country’s arrogance in aiming to lead the world, while neglecting its own education system and at the same time giving every one of its citizens a vote in your leadership is absolutely breath-taking, and is something that (hopefully) will be regarded in the future as akin to the hubris of the late-era Roman Empire. Should we help you out? Should the rest of the world send money to the USA to help fund your education system to ensure millions of your people aren’t fooled into thinking a billionaire cares about their jobs?

I reiterate, it is not your fault that your votes and opinions matter so much. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to care. Americans, you are told over and over again that your country is the greatest country in the world. While many of you liberal Americans may laugh ironically at this slogan, you were grew up hearing it on rotation, and there is no way that it is not embedded deep with your psyche. The reason that your politicians get away with using this rhetoric is because, officially, America has never done anything wrong. America was not the country that allowed centuries of industrialised slavery, America was the place that freed the slaves in the noblest war in history. America was not the country that committed the single greatest atrocity in human history by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, America was the power that defeated the mighty empire of Japan. America was not the country that terrorised the second and third world for much of the late 20th century, America was the country that defeated communism and saved the free world. Perhaps if you admitted to your mistakes a bit more, your fellow countrymen and women would have a more nuanced view of the effect of their vote.

Americans, if you are still reading, I guess what I am trying to say is that while you may be angry about the political situation in your country, you are also responsible. And taking responsibility is not something that Americans excel at. You are privileged to be in a position where, in the form of US presidential elections, you can vote for a major world actor, and while in your voting decisions you do take in a lot of consideration for domestic issues such as healthcare and the US economy, you completely disregard the effect of your decision on the rest of the world. Even those of you reading this who mailed in your vote, your decision was based on domestic issues rather than the effect of the election on the outside world. You take no responsibility whatsoever for how your domestic politics effects the rest of the world, to the extent that you neglect to educate a vast number of your citizens, who are eligible to vote. As well as this, you fail to recognise any failure whatsoever by your country in the past, leading to a large proportion of your people thinking that the USA is the greatest country that has ever existed. And Americans, this rejection of Donald Trump’s presidency is just another example of your complete lack of responsibility in realising the power of your vote. You didn’t vote for him, but he is your president.

And ever since that fateful day in early November, you have been sharing your opinion online incessantly about how he is the worst thing to happen to your country and how he will destroy us all. Well, Americans, at least you had a choice in all of this. And now when it is all done, you are sitting back making sarcastic comments about how stupid your new president is. Trust us, we get it, he is stupid, we believe you. It’s probably time now to do a bit more than share jokes about him with your liberal friends. Even if President Trump accomplishes nothing in his 4 (probably 8 since your education standards sure ain’t gonna get better in Trumps America) years of power, your system has ensured that all of us around the world have to listen to him for the entire period of his presidency. The very least you could do is not make us all listen to you whine about it too.

Yours,

The Rest of the World*

*(as interpreted  by Cian)

The Beginning of History

We all are currently in the middle of key historical events that will be analysed for generations to come. It is unlikely that this analysis will accurately reflect our experience of these events.

At times of key importance, I often find that the world can take the form of literature. Should someone (famous or otherwise) die, my mind highlights all the conversations I have had about that person recently, and find that these all alluded heavily to that persons passing. Perhaps I had taken an interest in a new hobby, and this hobby again would almost certainly be a metaphor for death. If I were reading a summary of these events, without any knowledge of what was to come, it would be obvious to me that this person was not long for this world. The author had signposted it without any subtlety whatsoever.

On the night of 23 June 2016, I went to bed, and just before I had drifted off to deep sleep, I was awoken suddenly by the crash of thunder. What followed was the most violent thunderstorm I have ever experienced. The rain and wind raged against my windows like it was the end of days. The boom of thunder sent vibrations right through to the objects on my shelves. The lightening lit up my apartment like it was the middle of a summer’s day. After a while, I got used to it, and finally did drift off to sleep. When I woke up, the world had changed completely.

On Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th of November 2016, temperatures here in Hamburg had plummeted to unseasonably cold levels, and on both of these days the city was covered in a layer of snow that would be more suitable in late January. Winter came early, just as autumn had gained momentum. During this time of the early winter, events unfolded that have stunned the world into a collective depression that has not been seen in my lifetime.

If I was making a movie, or writing a book, about what I was doing during the time of the Brexit decision and the US election, I probably wouldn’t include those weather elements in there, as they are quite heavy-handed. They are a bit obvious, and their lack of subtlety does not respect the audience enough to make up their own minds about what they should be feeling about the unfolding of these events. The fact remains however, that of these two world-changing events that we have all experienced this year, both of them were foreshadowed (in really amateurish fashion) to me through the metaphor of extreme weather.

history

Constructing A Narrative

I am the very definition of the elitist, ivory tower-dwelling, liberal idealist that was completely taken by surprise by both the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and the electing of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America. I understood the issues at hand, and I respected that there were legitimate concerns by the supporters of these two decisions that drove them to desperate measures, but my highly condescending and elitist view was that the angry, poor masses would come to their senses, see that they had given us a big fright, and finally do the right thing and listen to us smart, educated people on election day.

I went to bed on June 23rd and November 8th fully in the belief that my worldview would be upheld. It wasn’t, and I was stunned into disbelief when I awoke from both of these smug, elitist sleeps. Everyone was stunned, and immediately began searching for explanations. From my experience on the days of June 24th and November 9th 2016, I saw that what was unbelievable in the morning, can become obvious by the afternoon. Brexit and UKIP had empowered the forgotten parts of the UK outside London (and Scotland and Northern Ireland), while Donald Trump had (in association with Wikileaks) led a grassroots movement to end the capture of US democracy by the Clinton and Bush dynasties. The world was shocked by the Brexit result, but almost six months later we now see it as an inevitable conclusion to years and years of the British government neglecting their working class. We are still normalising ourselves to the idea of President Trump, but it will not be long until we see it absolutely ludicrous to think that Hillary could have beaten him in the election.

Except, when I went to bed on the nights that the votes in both of those polls were being counted, no one thought it was obvious at all. On June 23rd, I actually went to bed after Nigel Farage had conceded defeat in the referendum. I went to bed after seeing the most vocal Brexiteer admit that they had lost. The next time I saw him, he was smiling like the Chesire Cat and proclaiming that he always knew that Brexit would succeed. Over in the US, Donald Trump in the weeks (and hours) before the election was seen to have a 20% chance of winning. His campaign rhetoric had switched to issuing pre-emptive excuses for his defeat: conspiracies, lying women, voter fraud. It is widely known in US media that he planned to devote his time to his new TV network after the election. Even when he took to the stage on the morning of November 9th to deliver the body blow of news that he had officially won the US presidency, his victory speech was followed by the immediate musical cue of You Can’t Always Get What You Want, by the Rolling Stones. This is not a victory song, by any event of the imagination, and felt very out of place given the circumstances. I truly believe that this song was cued by the organisers of this election night party to follow his concession speech to his supporters. They were so shocked by the result that they forgot to change the playlist.

Making History

Hindsight is a marvelous thing. While the world is a dynamic, constantly changing flow of information, major events act as a pause button and allow the static, isolated analysis of a single event in time, concentrating solely on the event and what went before. That not even the central figures in both of these historical events we experienced this year had any idea until very late in the ballot counting process that they would spark major world events must surely make us ask questions about how history is constructed. Your children and grandchildren will read about both of these events, and will be able to explain to you in one sentence what the whole contemporary world did not realise until the event had already happened. They will tell you about the inevitable backlash of downtrodden working class Americans raging against globalisation. You will have forgotten by then that Donald Trump didn’t even believe that until he won Florida.

The thing about history is that it must be a narrative. It must be a linear story of how we got from Situation A to Situation B. You are living through a major period in history right now, and do you really think that it is a simple, linear story? Studying history in high school (I don’t call it high school, but I have a lot of foreign readers, so let it go, Irish people!), what intrigued me most was how underplayed the First World War was, compared to the Second. I am well aware of the reason for this, as the answer to what caused the First World War is a ten page essay, while the causes of the Second can be described in one surname. The origins of the First World War are complex, while its sequel was about good versus evil.

Future generations will have to study a chapter of a history book that gets from the end of the Cold War (also an absolute shock to everyone in 1989, but obvious to us now), through the War on Terror, via the Financial Crisis and make it all lead up to a swing to the political right in the world’s richest countries. It will take up maybe five pages of a history book, and it will make sense. It will make as much sense to them as Germany’s mistreatment at the Treaty of Versailles and subsequent currency inflation during the Great Depression leading to the Third Reich completely explained the rise of Nazism to us history students over the years. I doubt those people in 1930’s Germany saw it that way, but it is too late now, and their story has been explained.

In the modern world, history isn’t written by the winners, it’s written by those who can explain complex and unpredictable events in a simple way. A story has to be created to explain how and why something happened. There are no surprises when reading a history book, there are no twists. Everything is foreshadowed, and the conclusion is obvious, pages before the major events. Everything is connected, and leading inevitably to its conclusion. In doing this, a lot of information has to be jettisoned, and the information that is used to explain major events must be carefully selected. Analysis through hindsight clears away everything that does not directly rationalise an event, and leaves you with a clear, straight path from “Yes We Can!” to “Make America Great Again!”

In this way, the construction of history is not unlike the construction of a conspiracy theory. Both are vastly subjective and oversimplified explanations of complex forces, and both use extreme prejudice in selecting only evidence that support its claim. The writing of history is in itself an art form, making sense from isolated key events and attempting to explain them as if the world was just one big linear narrative. In the decades to come that I will be talking about these events in 2016, I will try to remember how shocked I was, how shocked everyone was, when they occured. I will also include the hackneyed scene-setting device of the thunder and snow. It just makes for a better story.