Freedom and Choice in the 'Uberised' World In Which We Live

All the best ideas usually start with a conversation. I can pinpoint the start of REMOTE, a piece of interactive theatre by Coney, as a couple of beers with James Bridle. James is an incredibly smart thinker: an artist, hacker and writer making tangible the pervasive systems of technology we’re all now living inside. His own work includes Citizen Ex, Drone Shadows, and Render Ghosts. He switched me onto the human consequences of the digital world we’re living in.

As a maker of interactive theatre, game-theatre, playing theatre, whatever you call it… I’m starting from the question of who are the people in the room, the audience and the performers, to work out how they may interact over the course of the show. But also modelling the real world systems we’re examining in terms of the interrelations of people. The only smart insight I have about digital technology is that it’s driven by human needs: start with the people and their experience.

So thinking about the experience of sitting here with my smartphone… I feel like I am by myself, very much the individual. Not just because the experience of being on my phone disconnects me from the present moment of whichever real place I am in.

I make choices, usually driven by the facility to get things more immediately, more conveniently, more cheaply, more comprehensively than I could otherwise. Whether that’s a shiny new toy from Amazon, a piece of information from Google, a ride from Uber, an obscure track from Bandcamp.

This heightens my own personal sense of agency and freedom. But I’m of course one of a vast crowd of people like me making similar choices inside the global system of the internet. We can’t see the rest of the crowd, so we can’t feel the scale of the choices we’re making, and we can’t influence each other directly as we make those choices. And the system keeps changing itself, how the world is presented back to us through our devices, as a result of the choices people like us are making. And not taking part is irrelevant; the system keeps turning because there are always more people like us making choices which will then affect our worldview.

The echo-chamber of social media, where we tend only to hear the world views of people like us, is reinforced by the choices we make to follow people like us. One practical tip I’ve taken from the digital journalist Aleks Krotoski is to follow at least three people whose worldview is significantly differently to your own. Even Donald Trump.

The interaction design for REMOTE is a metaphor for all this. You have not a device but a card. The piece presents you with a series of choices: some of which have obvious influence on what happens next, some surprising, some you’ll be uncertain if they have any impact but hopefully that feeling continues to niggle at you. Most of these choices are binary, with two options. You raise your card for the first option, but if you do nothing, it’s the second option. The default choices sometimes reflect a hidden agenda.

 the sharing economy is still capitalism

Since REMOTE started development a couple of years ago, networked companies like Uber, AirBnB and even TaskRabbit have taken greater hold in the UK. In the world of the play, REMOTE is a company like all these internets, whose catchphrase is ‘we are here to help you be more like people like you’.

In the performance two actors narrate a story from devices, reading scripts composed live for them by algorithms by the choices you make (in reality, two actors deftly navigating a monster of a pdf with nesting and branching interactive pathways). They are like call-centre operatives, or actors as if the fulfilment centre workers of Amazon. The gag is that while they appear to be in the theatre with you, actually they are thousands of miles away. Like we’re playing a huge skype call. We are REMOTE.

You the audience collectively play a woman who is herself an employee of REMOTE, in three short stories each rewritten to take place in the town we’re in, at different points in the future. The choices you make are the choices she makes: she is people like you. There’s a sting in the tale though… (spoilers).

Uber has the stickiest name of all the sharing economy, so I tend to conjure us ‘living in an Uberised’ world. All these companies are built on a brand of personal freedom - whether as customer - to get the fastest car, the cheapest room - or as a seller - to make a living free of the typical obligations of a job. In What’s Yours Is Mine, Tom Slee points out that while the cover stories for the sharing economy are often of celebrating individual freedom and connecting to people outside the machine - perhaps renting a room on AirBnB, you’re sharing the home of a kooky creative who’ll be more of a friend than a landlord - the reality is increasingly different. I was up in Bradford recently developing REMOTE, and visiting a friend staying in an AirBnB house, which was one of five adjoining houses all owned by the same landlord, all rented via AirBnb to avoid the regulations that come from tenancy and make more money. Because the sharing economy is still capitalism.

I had a couple of brilliant conversations with drivers of a Bradford taxi firm, slamming Uber for being the creation of programmers and venture capitalists, a system removed from the real needs of taxi drivers and passengers. They were busy developing their own.

Tassos Stevens is the founder of Coney. His latest work, REMOTE, runs at Camden People’s Theatre until 30 April.


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