Sustaining hierarchy – Uber isn’t sharing

Francesca Pick & Julia Dreher
May 5, 2015
"UBER Vietnam" by Rice Creative is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

It’s been a long night, you’re at a pub, and you want nothing more  than to get home quickly. Finding a cab this late at night in London is  nearly impossible, but luckily you have the Uber app on your phone and  can order a car right to the pub’s doorstep without leaving the comfort  of your seat. You quickly choose between Uber Black or Uber X (the  cheaper version of the Uber black car service that runs with “drivers  like you and me”), tap the “request car” button, and you’re ready to go.  Two minutes later a black Renault driven by a young man in his 30s  pulls up. You will not even have to talk with him to pay the bill  because the app takes care of that for you.

Uber, the on-demand taxi app, has been a hot topic in the media over the past months. From the regulatory issues and bans the company has recently faced in various European cities to growing criticisms of its aggressive expansion strategies and sales tactics, to protests being staged by its drivers, Uber is capturing the public’s attention. Interestingly, The Guardian, Time, Salon, der Spiegel and  many other prominent media sources participating in the discussion  surrounding Uber have been describing the company as one of the key  representatives of the so-called “sharing economy.” This is an  unfortunate misnomer.

The sharing economy is a relatively recent phenomenon that experts  and academics are still trying to articulate. The term is intended to  capture new, more collaborative forms of creation, production,  distribution, trade and consumption of goods and services that are being  enabled by new technological platforms. By focusing on Uber as the  representative of “the sharing economy,” we risk confusing the public’s  understanding of the sharing economy and overlooking many revolutionary  enterprises that better exemplify an ethos of actual sharing.

Let’s start with the basics: one of the underlying tenets of the  sharing economy is that technology should enable us to use our resources  more efficiently by replacing the ownership of goods with access. As  Rachel Botsman describes in her 2010 book What’s mine is yours, new apps and online platforms can unlock the “idling capacity” of houses, cars and utilities by matching people’s haves with other people’s wants.  Such technologies, she argues, will help reduce overall consumption and  represent an important step towards more sustainable lifestyles.

Ride-sharing is a good example of a ‘true’ sharing economy: people  driving from A to B can harness the “idling capacity” of their cars by  filling their seats and splitting the cost of gas with travellers going  to the same destination. Uber and its competitors such as Lyft or Wundercar  are particularly fond of describing themselves as real-time or  on-demand ride-sharing apps. According to Wundercar’s website, the app  helps you to “spontaneously find someone to give you a lift.” Likewise,  Lyft drivers are described as “your friend with a car”.

Referring to these apps as “ride-sharing” services, however, is  deceiving. Their drivers don’t happen to be riding through town and  spontaneously decide to give somebody a ride. They are semi-professional  or private individuals looking to top up their paychecks, working as  informal taxi drivers. Since they are on the road because of the  app, we cannot speak of “idling capacity” here. Nothing is actually  being shared. For this reason, the French government recently issued  Uber a €100 000 fine for mis-labeling themselves a “car-sharing” service  when in fact they are a private transportation company.

But the absence of any real sense of sharing runs deeper. As a brand,  Uber promotes a lifestyle that is hardly egalitarian, communitarian or  conservationist: their website features images of young, well-dressed,  successful-looking people that invoke an air of luxury, materialism and  elitism. What’s more, recent stories in the media document Uber’s  “workers’” lack of rights and  the company’s unscrupulous sales tactics. At the end of the day, Uber,  for all its hype, is hardly a departure from the individualism and  precariousness of other capitalist enterprises.

There is no doubt that Uber is disrupting an industry that is  dominated by cartels and local monopolies. Nor is there any question  that it is offering an impeccable service for which there is a large  market. In this, Uber at least opens the door to begin imagining a  different configuration of urban transportation services. But Uber is  still perfectly in line with our current economic system. This is both  its strength and weakness. The fact that it is only marginally different  from that which already exists makes it much easier for it to be  adopted by the mainstream. But this robs it of any ability to remedy the  economic, social and environmental problems that our current system  faces. As recent criticisms have pointed out, Uber is in fact  exacerbating many of those same problems.

So if companies like Uber provide a misleading and negative image of  “the sharing economy,” what might the true sharing economy look like?

The real sharing

Platforms like Uber are built on top of venture-capital-backed,  hierarchically structured organizations. These platforms may enable  people to share their resources, skills, and time, as well as to finance  and produce their goods in mildly more collaborative ways. However, at  the end of the day, they facilitate little more than a transactional  form of “sharing” not much different than that of conventional  capitalist exchange. While the pretense of “sharing” colors the front  end of the services they offer, rarely does an ethos of collaboration  permeate their actual organizational structure.

Uber is a classical Weberian hierarchy, based on a vertical, linear understanding of superiority and subordination.[1]  The higher one climbs up the ladder, the more influence and power one  gains. At the bottom of the company are the drivers who lack employment  protection, have no official wage, and no say over their rights. Above  the drivers are the founders and management who set the rules and aims  of the organization and impose their decisions on the drivers. Above  them are the shareholders who provide capital for the organization and  force it to maximize the values of the shares through increased profits.[2]  With profit-maximisation as their ultimate, operative logic, companies  like Uber, Lyft, and many others claiming to be a part of the sharing  economy invariably favor efficiency over social impact, output over  outcome.[3]  Such organizations put more emphasis on the question of “how” they can  produce something (i.e. to maximize profit) instead of “what” they are  producing (i.e. the quality of their product and its social and  environmental impact).

Instead of transforming only the “front end” of the transactions and  services that they offer, companies can implement the principles of  sharing and collaboration in the “back end” of their enterprises. They  can structure themselves in ways that distributes power and profit in  less-hierarchical ways. Companies that are fully  collaborative—that is, organizations that are collaborative at both  front and back ends—better exemplify the ‘true’ sharing economy. Such  companies are characterized by a heterarchical organizational structure.

“Heterarchy” has long been used to describe non-hierarchical or networked  forms of organisation marked by flexible, horizontal structures that  create greater opportunities for cooperation among actors within them.  It fosters the emergence of diverse social relations. Different actors  can communicate on the same level in such a way that enables anyone to  take on greater or lesser responsibility according to their differing  degrees of motivation, expertise, etc. The creation of such horizontal,  flexible cross-connections leads to the recombination and creation of  knowledge and often results in increased innovation and increased  resilience. Unlike hierarchies, where encounters are foreseeable due to  rigid and defined structures, heterarchies enable the emergence of and  are able to cope with complexity and contingent, non-planned events.

The term heterarchy was first coined by Warren McCulloch  in 1945 as a way to describe the general modeling of networks in  relation to his work on central nervous systems and cybernetics.  Heterarchies promote the emergence of rhizomatic structures as described  by the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri. In a  rhizomatic network structure, a higher number of diverse relations are  enabled through the possibility of complex interconnections that go  beyond the hierarchical modalities of superiority and  subordination. “The rhizome is a system of shortcuts and detours and is a  place for ‘unforeseen encounters’. Within the rhizome, linear causality  is replaced by a chain of contingencies.”

Neal Gorenflo, founder of Shareable,  the non-profit news hub on the sharing economy, points to the fact that  heterarchical organizations encourage and embrace a kind of sharing  that is transformational rather than the merely transactional.  For Gorenflo, such heterarchical organizations need not neglect  considerations of output and efficiency, but in the process they  prioritize distributing power relations and creating social impact.

A particularly good example of a heterarchical organization is OuiShare.  OuiShare is an international community, a think-and-do-tank whose  mission is to build and nurture a collaborative society. OuiShare’s main  activities are community building, incubating projects and offering  support to individuals and organizations through professional services  and education. Examples of OuiShare projects include OuiShare Fest, a 3-day festival about the Collaborative Economy; POC21, a 5 week accelerator program for the development of open source, sustainable products; and Sharitories, a tool kit for cities and regions wishing to implement collaborative programs such as bike and car-sharing schemes.

The OuiShare community has a core team that consists of a several  dozen people who run the organization on a daily basis, but the whole  network is comprised of over 1000 volunteer ‘members’ whose  participation within OuiShare is based mainly on their own ostensibly  altruistic motives. The most important group of highly engaged members  are called ‘Connectors’; they serve as highly active nodes in the  network who animate and coordinate local communities and projects. As a “do-cracy”,  OuiShare allows anyone with a strong interest and high motivation to  take on greater responsibility and participate in decision-making  processes or lead projects. Positions with high responsibilities are not  static but change over time. This flexible structure enables OuiShare  to open up a wider range of possibilities for participation within the  network. Control and decision making processes are dealt with in a  collaborative way, enabling the strengthening and building of a commons  and social capital, fostering communities, relationships and developing  resilience.

Some critics have argued that the sharing economy can only ever be  parasitic to capitalism because those who do not already have private  property to share are by default excluded from it.[4] Such arguments are premised on a narrow understanding of “sharing” limited to the direct exchange of goods or services of equal value. Platforms like Couchsurfing  call into question such criticisms and allow us to think about sharing  in a broader sense. Couchsurfing is the perfect example of a rhizomatic  structure that allows users to move beyond a traditional, transactional  mode of sharing. On Couchsurfing you can “surf” a couch even if you  don’t have one to offer. If you can’t host, you might still offer your  time to show someone around who is visiting your town. Collaboration is  based on a much broader sense of exchange, tied more to notions of  redistribution. Those who can offer something, offer it.  Those who are  in need can accept that offer but that doesn’t mean that they are  obliged to give back something of the same value to the same person.  Collaboration is distributed across the network and follows a rather  circular logic. If you don’t have the same goods to offer back, you  might offer something else to someone else. Eventually what goes around  comes around and everyone is satisfied. This circular logic is essential  to rhizomatic structures. Deleuze and Guatarri describe the network as a  system of shortcuts and detours, which is what we can observe with  Couchsurfing: rather than a “straight and direct” exchange of goods of  the same value, we can see horizontal interactions between different  participants of the network.

Numerous other examples of heterarchical organizations abound. CoWheels Car Club  is a car sharing platform in the UK that runs as a not-for-profit  social enterprise, where all surplus generated is reinvested back into  the organisation to help fulfill its social mission of reducing car  ownership and its negative effects on the environment. An example that  takes collaboration one step further is Loconomics,  a local peer-to-peer service marketplace from San Francisco, which is  cooperatively owned by the freelancers who provide the services on the  platform. A similar model is implemented by Guerrilla Translation, a P2P translation collective and cooperative from Spain that offers the same services as a translation agency.

Fairmondo, a German startup, offers  a slightly different approach to participating in “the sharing  economy”. Fairmondo is an Amazon-like online marketplace, owned and  governed by its users, who are also its shareholders. An even more  extreme example of such a distributed marketplace is the decentralized transportation system known  as La Zooz. La Zooz eliminates ownership of the platform altogether by  using an algorithm that runs by itself on the servers of each individual  participant of the network.  By running on the “Blockchain” (the  technology underlying Bitcoin), La Zooz is able to operate as a  decentralized, autonomous organization.


Many of the best-known platforms currently associated with the  sharing economy, such as Uber, are only transforming one part of the  equation. In so doing, they perpetuate centralized, hierarchical,  capitalist systems that stymie any kind of fundamental societal  transformation. It’s true that such marketplaces have been crucial for  opening doors and spreading the concept of the sharing economy to the  mainstream. But collaboration can mean a lot more than simply offering a  platform for transactional sharing. As companies like Uber come under  increasing fire from the media, we may be tempted to write off the  concept of the “sharing economy” altogether. Here though, it is  important to look to the countless projects that truly exemplify an  ethos of sharing and collaboration to be reminded of the exciting  potential of this movement.

When evaluating platforms claiming to be a part of the “sharing  economy”, it is important to look at why they were set up, how they are  organized, and who they are intended to benefit. Those that implement a  logic of collaboration, sharing and distributed power at each of these  levels, stand to offer a compelling vehicle for change and force us to  take seriously the transformational power of the ‘true’ sharing economy.


[1] For Max Weber’s Theory Of Bureaucracy And Hierarchy, See His Ground-breaking Work “Economy And Society” (1922)

[2] For A More In Depth Analysis Of Uber’s Organizational Structure, See Janelle Orsi

[3] For A Deeper Understanding Of The Difference Between Output And Outcome Of Organizations See Patrice Duran’s “Légitimité, Droit Et Action Publique”

[4] See For Example Der Spiegel’s “Kalifornischer Kapitalismus”Or Sebastian Olma’s “Never Mind The Sharing Economy: Here’s Platform Capitalism”

All by
Francesca Pick & Julia Dreher