On being a cash & data rich bastard: why Uber isn’t disruptive

Alastair Somerville
3 min readFeb 24, 2017


The two huge scandals about Uber this week (Susan Fowler and Waymo) both show that the company has serious ethical problems. That it is has them is not surprising. The company follows in a long line of US companies that are complete bastards.

More interesting is how it’s huge amounts of cash and data that enable such behaviour.

There is one ur-myth for this corporate problem

The Ford Pinto

The Ford Pinto is infamous for its exploding fuel tank problem.

The scandal is not in the engineering. It was bad, but like all engineering, it could be fixed.

The scandal lay in the cost/benefit calculations of the Ford Motor Company.

They knew of the problem but had judged it cheaper to keep paying out for accidental death and injuries (also remember death is better than injury in these terms – it pays out less over time) than fix the engineering problem.

Ford, after World War 2, had been turned around by ‘Whiz Kids’ like Robert McNamara. Men who had worked on statistical analysis of mass bombing raids. Men who calculated death, cost and benefit using as much data as they could collect.

Data coupled with cash to eliminate any need for ethics.

Oh no, Otto

The news today on Otto stealing Waymo’s self-driving technology could explain why Uber paid so much, so quickly for the startup.

As, IP lawyer, Mark Terry says in The Guardian:

“Their R&D has really jumped forward many steps. They gained a huge advantage. I would not be surprised if they had done a cost-benefit analysis beforehand.”

Now business taking calculated risks is not a problem. That is rather the point of business.

However, businesses with enough data to calculate that risk and enough cash to pay out at the maximum calculated cost are.

Uber knows it can afford whatever punitive damages the court system pays out in so many years time.

It can be a complete bastard today.

The ways in which it understands the world are in terms of powerful irresponsibility. Its lack of ethics is completely balanced by having enough money to pay lawyers and more than enough money to pay off whatever figure jurors imagine is a huge number in punitive damages.

Nothing new in this disruption

There’s nothing new about Uber here.

Its attempts to disrupt urban transport regulation are mirrored in the early auto industry's lobbying for Jaywalking laws and reduced investment in public transport.

Its failure to act on its toxic employment practices mirrors that of the large investment banks. Be publicly contrite, investigate but never change.

Its underhanded technology grab from Waymo is mirrored in so many reverse-engineering and photocopied blueprint plots. Pay out later, take advantage today.

The news here is there is no news.

Uber is just another US company with too much money and too much data to care about ethics.

This is a feature not a failure.

What would be disruptive is a new form of data rich company that investors put huge amounts of cash into that wasn’t a complete bastard.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX