Saturday, September 10, 2022

Greetings From Williams, Arizona---Book Review: "Super Pumped---The Battle For Uber" By Mike Isaac

Since leaving Seattle on August 13th, I have driven nearly six thousand miles plying the many interesting roads taking me first to Ohio, and now finding myself heading back west on I-40 (old Route 66), where on September 13th I will be stopping at the Fresno, California airport to pick up that famous personage, "she-who-can't be-named," where we are then off to someplace called Mono Hot Springs and peace and quiet in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  And in between all these miles I have been able to get some necessary reading in, finally reading what is the 2019 more-or-less biography of the ex- Uber CEO and Founder, Travis Kalanick, Issac's book a slightly myopic examination of a subject broader than the irascible Kalanick.  

Sometime during the next month or so I'll provide a condensed version of my travels across two/thirds of America, as some of my readers appear to be as interested in my wanderings as they are about all things taxi.  The Ohio river is one big drink of flowing water!  And southern Missouri just above the Arkansas border is a wonderful blend of green rolling hills and verdant deciduous forest, the Mark Twain National Forest encompassing much of that area, Route 9 taking me through and past all that delightful country and into northern Arkansas.  

A Review: "Super Pumped---The Battle for Uber" by Mike Isaac,  W.W Norton & Company, 2019  

For those who are interested in learning the genesis and rise of Uber, this book is for you, a smoothly written account by a New York Times reporter whose primary focus was Uber and what it was doing.  If only I had known much of this narrative before Uber came calling at Seattle's door in 2013/2014, my response would have been much stronger and better informed.  The title of the book comes from 14 bullet points Kalanick presented at a 2015 Las Vegas Uber convention, "Super Pumped" being number twelve in that long list of what he saw as "Uber values" conquering the known world. "Pumped" is a term adopted by the tech world in Silicon Valley, something emphasizing one's energy for your project.  That Uber's "energy" spiraled out of control is also part of Isaac's story.

The car hailing concept originated not with Kalanick but with Garret Camp, a newly minted 75 million dollar tech millionaire who was irritated that he had trouble getting a cab late at night in San Francisco.  Being who he was, and having absolutely no understanding of the taxi industry, he thought that an app-based ride hailing service would be the answer.  Relaying this to his fellow tech millionaire (22 million dollars) Travis Kalanick, the rest is history of how and why they decided to take on the evil, uncaring taxicabs, bent upon a destructive and arrogant campaign to overwhelm and conquer the taxi-like transportation world. 

Much of the book then is about how Uber did that, raising money from people and companies whose primary purpose was only to make money regardless of any and all consequences, and how their ruthless CEO battered anyone who got in his way.  While that part of the book is comprehensive, much of the story is left out, as the recently released "Uber Files" have made clear, Isaac's book half of the story, if even that much.  One big criticism I have is, that in total print, Isaac wrote less than a full page about "Big Taxi" and why, from Uber's standpoint, it needed to be destroyed.  As I personally know, that kind of mythological world did not exist in Seattle.  Far from it, as the local industry was forever victimized by City, County and State governments.  

In short, Isaac knows "shit" about the American cab industry, this serious shortcoming weakening his overall narrative.  While clearly a great researcher, he shortchanges the reader by not fully understanding the territory he entered.  Yes, he does make brief references to other related issues, like how Uber and car leasing companies trapped immigrant drivers into catastrophic financial deals, but Isaac not going far enough in dealing with this and other examples of a company completely out-of-control.  Did Kalanick care about what happened to the very people making Uber successful?  No, not at all.

Despite its deficiencies, I  strongly recommend that all taxi industry related folks and interested parties read the book.  You will be better informed having done it.  And Travis Kalanick is once again in the news, raising money for his newest tech adventure.  All I can say is that there is something seriously wrong with the guy.  He can't stop himself even though he now has over 5 billion dollars in the bank.  He doesn't seem to know how to stop and that again is the Uber story.  Will it ever stop tormenting the world?  That history is yet to be written.  Stay tuned.

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