Among the many shocking details that were released in the Uber files – a series of over 100,000 internal documents leaked to the Guardian detailing how Uber rose to global dominance by breaking laws, capitalising on violence against its drivers, and making use of ethically dubious support from several of the world’s most powerful politicians – some of the most astounding came from Uber’s founder and chief executive at the time, Travis Kalanick.
The leak of text messages, emails and company documents exposes countless instances of questionable tactics employed by Kalanick and other executives during his time at Uber (Kalanick left the company in 2017; the leaked documents span 2013-17). The files reveal not only Kalanick’s breathtaking callousness towards his workers, but also the magnitude of his ego. For example, when Kalanick floated the idea that Uber drivers counter-protest a strike by taxi drivers in France, and other employees raised concerns that this could provoke violence against drivers, Kalanick responded: “I think it’s worth it… Violence guarantee[s] success”.
Kalanick’s spokeswoman insisted in a statement to the Guardian that he “never suggested that Uber should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety”.
The documents also show how Kalanick ordered the use of a “kill switch”, which kept law enforcement from accessing company files during searches of its offices, which the company ceased practising after his departure. And texts reveal how, when Joe Biden, the US vice-president at the time, was late to meet Kalanick at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Kalanick messaged a colleague: “I’ve had my people let him know that every minute late he is, is one less minute he will have with me.”
The spokeswoman added that the kill switch was not used to “obstruct justice” and that Uber’s expansion initiatives were conducted “under the direct oversight and with the full approval of Uber’s robust legal, policy and compliance groups”.
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Kalanick’s arrogance, and the indifference shown towards the people who powered his company, may strike some as shocking. Yet behaviour such as Kalanick’s is the natural result of a tech culture that tells CEOs their unique combination of success, perceived genius and inordinate wealth means that they are – and deserve to be – completely untouchable.
The leaked Uber files offer unprecedented access to damning direct communications between top executives. But Kalanick’s messages echo an attitude we’ve come to know all too well, exhibited by many other famous Big Tech CEOs. Amazon drivers struggle with insecure contracts and sometimes make less than minimum wage while Jeff Bezos watches his wealth expand and takes regular trips into space; Mark Zuckerberg responds to the damning Facebook Papers, which showed how much Facebook knew about misinformation on its sites, by launching the virtual reality vanity project that is the Metaverse. The men helming the world’s biggest tech companies have a staggering indifference to how decisions that benefit themselves are often at the direct expense of others. This god complex appears to lead these men to believe that they aren’t just above the law, but that they have managed to game the system thanks only to their great intelligence. (It is eerily well-timed that this story has broken as Elon Musk, the Tesla CEO, mocks a pending lawsuit from Twitter after pulling out of his deal to buy it, which seemed like it could have been a joke in the first place.)
While whole diagnostic textbooks could be written about the psyche of Silicon Valley, the real problem is that this cocktail of hubris and flagrant disregard appears to actually work. Uber became one of the most successful companies in the world during Kalanick’s years as CEO, and he became a billionaire. The same could be said of Zuckerberg post-Cambridge Analytica scandal; Bezos despite the ongoing controversy over Amazon’s working conditions; Musk in spite of dozens of things. Kalanick’s wealth and fame seem to have granted him a free pass, aided by powerful men in governments who were more than happy to smooth over the moral cracks in Uber’s sleek, 21st century branding. As always, low-paid workers were the collateral damage.
Perhaps, during the 2010s tech boom, we should have seen the danger of allowing so much power to become concentrated in these enormous egos. In 2014, while Uber was surging in popularity in most major American cities, the journalist Alyson Shontell wrote that while researching for her profile of Kalanick in Business Insider, one word “came up again and again in interviews, ‘an asshole.’ Or as one entrepreneur who has worked with him puts it, ‘Travis is ego personified.’” The magical, futuristic, optimistic aura that tech CEOs cultivate has let them get away with more than we will probably ever find out. The question now is what we should demand of regulators, governments and politicians to prevent the moguls’ deeply held belief in their own power from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
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