Check out a copy of my entry below:
THE PEER-TO-PEER SOCIAL CONTRACT
How Aristotle’s Philosophy of Friendship Can Rescue the Platform Economy from Moral Meltdown
By Michael Motala
What do you suppose Travis Kalanick is doing in his spare time these days? Perhaps, like you, he is picking up a book on business ethics, reflecting on his meteoric rise, and spectacular fall, from the most notorious and highly-valued start-up of the past decade. Uber’s former chief executive, and the company he led and created, have been fodder for the business press for years.
During Uber’s rapid expansion, as the firm went from an amateur start-up to a global player, Kalanick devised what he called a “philosophy of work” — a highly individualistic vision of meritocracy that became Uber’s corporate ethos. Kalanick’s values included “customer obsession”, “make magic”, “super-pumped”, “meritocracy and toe-stepping”, and “let builders build.”
As Brad Stone writes in The Upstarts, the “values of Uber’s founder became Uber’s values.” They were emblematic of Ayn Rand’s objectivist libertarian philosophy. Kalanick’s Twitter avatar, after all, had long been the cover of Rand’s magnum opus The Fountainhead.
Since its inception, the digital taxi brokerage has captured as much as 40 per cent of on-demand short distance travel market share in leading global centres like London, San Francisco, and New York. Despite Uber’s failure in the Chinese market and regulatory injunctions in cities around the world, revenues went from $6.5bn in 2016 to $20bn a year later. Emblematic of Silicon Valley’s cheating culture, instead of abiding by the rules, Uber’s rapid entrance into municipal markets has proceeded on the basis of a fait accompli.
Approaching a private valuation of $70bn dollars in late 2017, as the first-mover and dominant player in the global urban transport market, Uber had surpassed its rivals. Even with an adjusted net loss of $2.8bn, investors were not deterred. The firm was well on its way to an initial public offering in 2018, securing Kalanick’s place in the pantheon of Silicon Valley titans.
So what went awry?
Kalanick’s professional downfall, and Uber’s fall from grace, were not the culmination of the company’s legal and regulatory fracas. All it took was a blog post, which exposed in microcosm Silicon Valley’s toxic and misogynistic cheating culture. In February 2017, Susan J Fowler, a former Uber engineer, aired allegations of sexual harassment, rampant misogyny, and gender discrimination that ultimately forced her to find another job.
When Fowler’s allegations went viral, they precipitated a spate of public relations disasters including the #deleteUber campaign. A report by former US attorney-general Eric Holder later commissioned by the company’s board then put Uber’s corporate culture in the cross-hairs.
Following his mother’s untimely death in a boating accident, Kalanick took a leave of absence from the company. He was then pushed out of his executive role by a bloc of unhappy investors. Shareholder litigation ensued. What was once perceived as an indomitable titan of the platform economy was soon rendered leaderless and left in disarray.
In today’s platform economy, consisting of upstarts like Uber, Airbnb, Google, Amazon, and Facebook, it is clear that character, integrity, and corporate culture still matter to the consuming public — despite the fact that society has given Silicon Valley arbitrageurs a free pass because of the consumer benefits.
Postulating business ethics, therefore, is not strictly a question of academic concern — it is apparent that ethical risk can and does threaten the bottom line, underscoring the need for a new approach to the peer-to-peer economy for forward-looking businesspeople.
More important, failing to address emerging ethical issues pervading the rapidly growing peer-to-peer economy — ranging from privacy, to cyber security, Russian election tampering, discrimination, tax, regulatory arbitrage and poor leadership — risks de-legitimising the modern corporation as an institution deserving public imprimatur.
Traditional ethical theories have failed to guide Silicon Valley’s invisible hand.
Since Adam Smith pioneered the modern discipline of economics, homo economicus — the economic man — has occupied a central place in economic theory and corporate philosophy.
Homo economicus is emotionless. He is governed by rational self-interest, and is motivated by the forces of pure competition. Homo economicus exists in an atomistic social world. He does not belong to a community. He has no friends. Not only is the current literature biased by individualism — its underlying philosophy ignores female perspectives in the workplace.
Yet we know relationships are central to our everyday lives. They condition the way we develop, think, feel and grow. We are fundamentally interdependent. We belong to communities. Relationships are a hallmark of peer-to-peer exchange, and their authenticity has been a key to the sector’s remarkable growth despite emerging in the depths of the global economic slowdown.
The current management debate forecloses the possibility of a much-needed integrative, realistic, and feminist approach to contemporary ethics in the peer-to-peer context. Given the conceptual gaps, how are we to make moral sense of our new networked digital reality?
It turns out Aristotle’s oft-ignored philosophy of friendship has many of the answers. Enduring questions about the nature of human friendship provide a template for a new social contract concerning data, human relations, and transactions.
Peer-to-peer exchange involves millions of consumers, and it entails new social responsibilities. To understand these responsibilities, Aristotle encourages us to view companies as communities. Within these communities, the ancient philosopher asks us to strive for excellence, integrity, good character and reasoned decision-making so we can achieve communal moral and intellectual virtues.
Reinterpreting Aristotle’s philosophy of friendship, in particular, provides us with a comprehensive map for understanding the web of moral contracts that characterise the networked peer-to-peer economy.
Examining 14 case studies from 2007 to 2017 at five major tech companies, my book will make the case that the gradual creep of social technology companies into our everyday lives threatens unwanted cumulative effects on the fabric of society — that is, unless we as a digital community adopt an updated moral outlook called peer-to-peer ethics and put it into practice.
My book proposes a peer-to-peer social contract that will rescue the platform economy from moral meltdown.
Michael Motala is a freelance writer and Joseph-Armand Bombardier Doctoral Fellow studying at the University of Toronto.
I am absolutely thrilled to announce I am now represented by the premier literary agency Janklow & Nesbit Associates in New York. Representing authors like Fareed Zakaria, Chelsea Manning, Winston Churchill, Barbara Walters, Michael Moore, Carrie Fisher, and many others, I am beyond thrilled to launch the next stage of my writing career under their auspices. It has been a whirlwind week since the FT Book Awards, and I am so grateful to the Financial Times and their Management Editor Andrew Hill for opening the door to this amazing opportunity. Any queries regarding publishing and speaking engagements must now be forwarded directly to the agency. For more information and details, please visit janklowandnesbit.com and michaelmotala.com.
Check out this excellent podcast by the Financial Times on how to publish a business book. I am featured in the Q&A section, along with the two other finalists.