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.



Is Everything Actually Awesome?

The Gist: Through smartphones, we get some very sophisticated and powerful technology in the palm of our hands, often for free. But when was the last time you were actually impressed with any of this stuff?

As many of you know, I recently switched German-speaking cities. While I had been living in Vienna, Austria for over five years, in the past few weeks I have moved up north to Hamburg, Germany. If you don’t know your European geography too well, it’s a distance of not much less than 1000km. To put it in beer terms, I have swapped märzen for pilsner. While I am far too old to be moving so far north, it is hard not to get a bit excited about exploring a new city, particularly when I have experience living in a similar-sized German-speaking city already. So in my first weeks here, whenever I had free time, I grabbed a Hamburg StadtRad (CityBike) and just cycled around the streets, trying to get accustomed to the surroundings and the connections between districts. Often, I would be blissfully cycling around an area I’ve never been before, listening to music through my headphones, not having a clue where I was going. But then, every now and again, the music would stop momentarily, and was replaced by a woman telling me that up ahead I should turn left.

I had, of course, programmed my way home into Google Maps, pressed the big blue ‘directions’ button, placed my phone in my pocket, and trusted Google to do the rest. No map attached to my handlebars to give some context to what the woman was going to tell me, no checking street names and districts, just blind faith in the power of information technology. The first time I tried it, I have to say I didn’t trust it completely, and every few minutes would pull out my phone to see wherever this woman was taking me. After a while I realised she knew what she was doing, and started to trust her. Eventually, I forgot I was even using the service, and got caught up in whatever playlist I was listening to at the time, all the time looking around at the new neighbourhood I was passing through. Only when she briefly interrupted the playlist every few minutes would I remember that I was in fact delegating a lot of the work in this exploration endeavour to modern technology. It was so unobtrusive that I found it hard not to say ‘ok, thanks!’ whenever she gave me directions. It felt like I had someone watching me from above, and just giving me information I needed when I needed it, and nothing else. It felt like a videogame.


I’m writing this because I realised during that first journey with in-ear navigation that it was the first time I had been truly impressed with modern technology in a very long time. I found this interesting, because the bike I was riding wasn’t mine. It was a shared CityBike that I found and rented through an app on my phone. Also, the music I was listening to wasn’t actually on my phone, but streamed from the cloud using a service I can use to access it anywhere with an internet connection. I wasn’t too gobsmacked when I started using either of those services a few years ago, it was more of a : “but of course!” feeling when I first discovered both CityBikes and Google Play Music. It’s the same when any new hyped app is released: for example, Uber is useful, but it really doesn’t inspire much awe. That’s despite the fact that all of these apps and services I mention are only possible because of mass amounts of data aggregation, near-perfect flow models, continuously updated search-match models, and all of this happens before anything even reaches the ridiculously user-friendly interface that you use to interact with all of this information on your smartphone. All of this is amazing, and I would argue that all of these services improve the everyday life of anyone who uses them. The problem is that they improve the everyday life of everyone who uses them so incrementally, that we barely even notice it anymore.

There is unquestionably a sense of entitlement when it comes to new apps. When browsing the app store and I see an app that tells me when new episodes of my favourite TV shows are available to download, all I think is that someone should have thought of that years ago, and that it definitely is not worth €1.50 for the full version. Yet still I install the free version, and have my TV future mapped out months ahead without having to even think about googling when the next season of Peaky Blinders starts: It’s already in my Google calendar. This app made my life a little bit better, yet from the moment I discovered it, all I had to say was that it was an obvious innovation, and not worth the price of a Slovakian beer for the privilege of using it forever.

This sense of entitlement, I think, is borne out of just how subtly and how incrementally that information and communication technology has infiltrated our lives over the past decade. Most of us were first acclimatised to the power of information technology through a simple tool such as Facebook. Facebook is a social network, it doesn’t connect people with information, it connects people with other people, and specifically with people they know. It was originally a place where friends could connect and chat and share stupid stuff on the internet. No one was very impressed with the technological innovation of Facebook because it provided an intrinsically personal service: connections with friends. We focus more on our Facebook friends than we do on the actual service Facebook provides. Internet folk seem to get offended when they realise that Facebook actually exists. Everything Facebook (the organisation) does, be it renaming our walls or changing “being a fan of something” to “liking something”, we see as an intrusion into our online hangout world with our friends, rather than the platform itself aiming to improve (or possibly extract revenue). We don’t really see it as advanced technology, we see it as interesting stuff our friends might think we would like. Anything that reminds us otherwise, we react badly to.

Despite all this, through Facebook we became accustomed to things being connected with other things. We learned not to make our posts visible to friends of friends, since this could amount to tens of thousands of people. Through this, words like viral and exponential began to be understood by the general public, and the interconnections in our world, and the power of the internet to aggregate and connect almost anything, became mainstream knowledge, internalised by anyone who has used the internet in the past decade. We aren’t awe-inspired by new apps like Uber simply because all they do is connect people with other people, and we have been using services like this for years. And yet, when you take a step back and look at what it does, even Uber is amazing technology, something you wouldn’t believe if you saw it in a 90’s sci-fi movie. It’s something that could have been in The Fifth Element, yet to us it is just a taxi competitor.

My Google-guided bike rides in Hamburg have given me a renewed appreciation for the technology we all take for granted in our lives these days. I (and not many other people) have not had a good word to say about Facebook for many years. Yet it was this time of year ten years ago, early spring 2006, that I first joined Facebook, and I can honestly say that it has improved my life a lot more than I could ever really give it credit for. I have moved around a lot in the past ten years: Hamburg is my sixth country in the time period. I have met people in all the countries and places I have been, and the only reason I have been able to remain in contact with them is through Facebook. Friendships that could have just been chance one-off meetings have developed into lifelong friendships, simply due to connecting on Facebook. My best friends are scattered throughout the world, and our main method of communication is through Facebook, even if it’s just a like or a comment every now and again between meet-ups. These friendships would have withered and died in an age before Facebook, and for this I have to give Facebook some retroactive credit for being one of the greatest innovations of our time. Like my Google-guided bike rides, its power is its lack of intrusiveness, just letting you get on with whatever you need right now. It is a ridiculously powerful tool, and if used correctly, over many years, the incremental benefits add up.. Even though anyone could have thought of the idea…..