Interview. Sociologist Tiziana Terranova, among the most prominent female researchers on digital culture, spoke with us about the roots of Italian protests against Uber.

‘Uber is a platform of pain’

The explosive force of Uber was partially dampened by a ruling that declared illegal a platform that allows anyone to become a taxi driver with their own cars. In Italy, Uberpop was declared illegal three years ago, as it was in other European countries.

We spoke with Tiziana Terranova, professor of sociology at the Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale,” who is among the most popular scholars of digital culture internationally. We explored the reasons that led to taxi driver protests against the so-called Lanzillotta amendment, which partially opened up the regulations on private car hires.

Are the protests about fear of competition from Uber Black, or is there something deeper?

They feel that Uber represents a new model for governing people’s lives that, in one way or another, wants to become hegemonic.

Which model is that?

That of labor logistics management through digital platforms. Like in schools in Italy.

There are also digital platforms in education?

The Ministry of Education, Universities and Research is using platforms at all levels: to place the teacher workforce in primary and secondary schools, to assess university research and to accredit university courses. Now everything in public education is done through these platforms.

What are the reasons that prompted the government to adopt this technology of control and government?

To centralize a new type of control over people. It’s an automatic control. At the top there doesn’t seem to be a boss in flesh and blood. There is an algorithm or an automaton that decides on conflicts, on evaluations and the organization of work-life balance.

What happens when the boss is an algorithm?

First, the boss is not human. And this gives the employee the feeling of being able to use a platform at their own will. One feels, even though the work is precarious, they’re able to control it.

And are they?

Not quite. This model comes from a culture that asks the technologies developed by Silicon Valley companies to automate the labor market and, in general, all markets where goods and services are moving. They have created a system that tries to disintermediate relationships and manage large work masses with minimal investment.

In this framework, what is the role of the algorithm?

In the case of Uber, just like Airbnb and other popular applications, the algorithm determines the valuation of the services and their classification. In concrete terms, the algorithm manages rates and makes sure they are lower than those of taxis or traditional services. Doing so establishes the best price to enter the market.

From management’s point of view, how are they involved in the digital platform?

These platforms are completely centralized. They may decide at the discretion of their owners to “disconnect” someone from the system. The first to be eliminated are the strikers or those demanding rights. It is completely arbitrary and automatic. There is no limit.

The algorithm also decides the fees?

Establishes the competitive rate respective to traffic and to the market. The race is between those who provide a more convenient service. Uber’s drivers are also a client of the platform. Drivers are the ones paying a portion to the platform for the service of reaching their customers. It’s as though the passenger and the driver are both clients of the same platform.

Facebook also offers a platform.

Uber is a platform of pain, and Facebook is a platform of pleasure. It’s elegant, smooth and is linked to its own mechanisms. It doesn’t have a visible head, but an automaton as a boss with these pros and cons.

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