12 Dec 2015

Uber is Amazingly Advanced Digital Infrastructure

I took an Uber home from a party last night. Uber is amazingly advanced digital infrastructure. It creates order out of chaos. Individual cab drivers are rude and unreliable and cheat, but Uber makes them behave. If I book a taxi by myself, I’ll probably get a crappy car, but with Uber, I can be sure I’ll get a good car.

Another way Uber creates order out of chaos is that it on my trip last night, it worked despite the network being unreliable and flaking out in the middle of my trip. Uber is providing a reliable service on top of an unreliable network. Again, this is impressive. As a 20th century analogy, can a metro run reliably if the power keeps getting cut every now and then? Systems that work reliably despite running on top of an unreliable lower layer are impressive, for the same reason TCP is impressive.

Payment is also easier with Uber. It’s amazing to avail of a service and walk out without explicitly paying. It happens automatically, deducting from my Paytm wallet. No need to exchange cash, worry about not having change, or enter your card, key in a PIN, pick up your receipt, and so on. Payment is seamless. Just exit the car when you arrive at your destination.

Uber is also global — I’ve taken Uber rides in the US, in Mexico, and Bangkok. It’s a trusted service. Uber raises the question: Why shouldn’t services be global? Just as I use Gmail no matter where in the world I live or visit, why shouldn’t I use the same cab service wherever I go [1]?

Traditionally, if you wanted to set up a large-scale operation, you required a lot of physical infrastructure — huge taxi stands, call centers, taxi dispatchers, offices, regulations, and so on. But Uber does it mostly with an app. It’s amazing to have a service that picks up a million people every day with little physical infrastructure.

Not only that, Uber is infrastructure by itself, just as a metro or a bus service is infrastructure. You can use it to go anywhere. It can be used for deliveries. It’s new, exciting kind of digital infrastructure, which doesn’t have an obvious physical presence, like metros have tracks.

[1] Bitcoin asks the same question about payments and currency.

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