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Uber is Not Good or Bad -- It's Inevitable

12/23/2015 11:25 EST | Updated 12/23/2016 05:12 EST
Martin Dimitrov via Getty Images
Woman in winter clothing texting in an urban scene.

The debate over Uber in Canada has shifted into high gear amid the launch of a new shuttle service in Toronto and more intense protests by taxi drivers. The company challenges many people's established political beliefs.

Some liberals loathe how it skirts regulation and threatens taxi workers' livelihoods, while other progressives love how it challenges the corrupt cab monopoly. Some conservatives applaud Uber's "creative disruption" while others claim it cheats the honest, hard-working driver. Many others, like me, fall somewhere in the middle.

I'm a progressive. I was raised by a mother who worked for unions, and I often report stories on income inequality. I have also been using the evil Uber for more than a year. While the company may put taxi drivers, the majority of whom are immigrants, out of work, I continue to click on the app. And I'm not alone.

I took an informal poll on Facebook and 54 per cent of my peers, most of whom are also liberal millennials, said they use Uber despite feeling conflicted about the service. My study is in no way scientific, but it shows that in addition to those who love or loathe Uber, there's a third category of users.

We don't think Uber is definitely good or bad, but we do know its existence is inevitable.

For the past few decades "disruptive" technology companies such as YouTube, Craigslist, eBay, Uber and Airbnb have cannibalized their corporate forebears. Innumerable industries -- music, journalism, film, retail, postal work, hospitality -- have been forced to adapt. Sure, there are hipsters who still buy records and yuppies who shell out for artisanal handmade products, but no sector as a whole has managed to thrive by continuing to do things the analog way.

When a technology makes something cheaper and easier for consumers, it develops a bedbug-like resilience. You can thank capitalism for that. Many of us forget our ideals when we walk down store aisles. We know we really shouldn't buy clothes made by small children in slavish factories -- but "Oh my God, three shirts for $20.99?"

Who we are as citizens and consumers doesn't often align; the latter often prizes price and convenience over ethics. Research from the University of Sydney found that consumers who tout themselves as socially-conscious abandoned their moral compasses in favour of more convenient services and products.

We obviously shouldn't accept every instance of unfair treatment, but unlike widespread discrimination based on gender and race, it's impossible to see Uber as only bad. Yes, "creative disruption" is Silicon Valley speak for "a bunch of workers are going to lose their jobs." But often, over time, technological change can improve outdated industries.

Thanks to blogs and social media, publications realized it wasn't just old white men who could write. And though digital newsrooms often rely on young people paid low wages, many have now formed unions. In the entertainment industry, anyone with a MacBook and some talent now has a shot at fame, and Apple managed to make downloadable music more fair to artists through affordable and convenient iTunes purchases.

Already, the taxi industry is getting a much-needed kick in the bumper. In November, the City of Toronto dropped flat taxi fees by a dollar and Uber has started to dismantle the corrupt system of taxi licenses by driving down their value. On Monday, Canada's taxi industry dragged itself into the 21st century with the launch of an Uber-like app called The Ride.

Yes, Uber should be better regulated and fairly compensate its employees, but the good news is the service is beginning to evolve. On Monday, Seattle passed legislation that allows Uber drivers to unionize, and a similar bill could be introduced in California, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In the short-term, Uber will wreak havoc on individual lives. In the longer term, I hope it improves the taxi industry as a whole. In the meantime, you can find me taking morally ambiguous but affordable rides.

*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen