The Uber flotation and the power of imagined futures

Entrepreneurial TV shows like The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den are littered with awful clichés. These apparent statements of common sense float about, ready to be called into action to rebuke those who don’t show quite enough acumen. One of those clichés, “revenues are vanity, profit is sanity”, came to mind with the news that Uber was seeking a valuation of $91.5bn in its flotation. Disrupting the expectations embodied in that cliché, Uber’s valuation arrives despite it never having reported an annual profit. It will be the largest tech flotation since Facebook.

The fact that the old clichés no longer quite ring true might indicate that something is changing. The future is becoming much more significant to how value is measured. Futures have always been a part of markets and valuations, yet these tech companies, now some of the biggest commercial organisations in the world, seem to have found a way to make the future even more telling. They have managed to find a way to wrap the future up in the present – confidently demarcating paths that we are yet to tread.

As an organisation Uber seems centrally to provide only a brand, some tech infrastructure for users to populate, market share management and some marketing. It is not so much the assets or balance sheets that this or the other tech companies hold which matter – what is really important is the future. These companies are very good at creating a vision of the profits that are yet to come. In fact, it is in the projected promises of times-yet-to-come where the big tech companies are at their most powerful. A significant part of what they do is imagine and attempt to engineer particular futures. This can include the promises about what can be achieved with data through to the impressions generated of the capability to handle the fluctuations and disruptions of the market. These promises and projections are central to the price achieved in the present. The question then, as more tech companies join the piles of flotations- with Slack and Pinterest among others coming soon – is what happens if all those imagined futures never materialise. There seems to be a heightened fragility in these markets with a lot of uncertainty built in. The future may never arrive, but it is already having consequences in the present.

If the bubble were to burst, its impact is likely to be significant and unevenly distributed – with, again, those most vulnerable the most likely to be hurt. Let us side-step that particular issue for the moment. What I’d like to point at instead is the battle over futures. The imagined futures that the tech companies peddle, in which they will mine our data and our behaviour for economic returns, are often premised upon the combined ideals of convenience, personalisation and ever greater connectivity.

These platforms, devices and apps are presented as moving us toward a perfectible future in which everything is seamless and, in their terms, more ‘social’. Alongside this future of ultra-convenience and interconnection, a façade that is used to push us in certain directions, is an economic vision based upon precarity, insecurity and heightened marketisation (and the dream of market domination on the part of the winners). In short, these powerful tech companies are imagining a social and economic world with particular values and ideals embedded within it. Those who might wish to rebalance the economy and move towards more progressive and just ends will need to tackle these visions of the future to prevent those values and ideals from being coded ever further into our the material structures within which we live.   

Envisioning different futures to those projected by the increasingly powerful tech companies is not an easy task. They have insinuated themselves into our everyday lives and have come to dominate the social agenda in a number of key ways. The allure of convenience and personalised connectivity is hard to undermine, and so then will be the version of work, consumption and economics to which these visions act as a glossy veneer. This will need to be tackled on two fronts. First, we will need to find ways of looking beyond this facade of an ever more tailored, immediate and on-demand tech-environment. That will need to be the starting point for exploring alternative visions of the role of technology in social life. We will need to challenge the ideals of Silicon Valley and provide alternative visions of the future – this might still be tech centred and sophisticated in its interfaces but it need not adhere to the specific vision currently being peddled by the tech companies. Alongside this, an alternative economic future will also need to be created, one that detaches tech developments and applications from those types of work, consumption and interaction which we are now expected to desire. One cannot work without the other.

A new type of economy, a radical move towards something different, will not work without an attempt to present new visions of ‘the social’. Tech companies have a huge amount invested in imagined futures, it is often where their value lies, and so any project that seeks a different world will need to also bring out the tensions in those futures and to actively offer some compelling alternatives. How data are used, how algorithmic models are deployed, how AI systems decide, how value is extracted – these will all be important. If the future is just accepted without challenge then the tech companies will dictate its terms. Even if their visions turn out to be wrong (which is likely to be the case), their embedded values and ideals will still be steering where things go. We can’t leave the future to be shaped and envisioned by those who seek primarily to monetise it. After all, it is not only companies like Uber that have an investment in the future.