Welcome to our new, dystopian overlords. The Uberization of everything and disenfranchisement of many

We often hold up Uber as an example of digital disruption and the creation of greater efficinecy. A panel at Dreamforce raised some questions about the end result of that efficiency.

Salesforces annual conference Dreamforce is always a microcosm of the technology industry. On day one of the event, we had a fireside chat with Marc Benioff and Travis Kalanick, the CEOs of Salesforce and Uber, respectively. In the fireside, Benioff pitched mainly softball questions to Kalanick, with the odd contentious one thrown in for good measure. (Disclosure: Salesforce covered my travel and expenses to attend the event.)

One slightly uncomfortable question for Kalanick was when Benioff reflected on recent bad press that Amazon has gotten for the way it treats its employees. Benioff asked Kalanick for his views on the issue and how to know if Uber had a heart. Kalanick, who has been described as both a "jerk" and "ego personified", fumbled. After an uncomfortable pause, Kalanick made a throwaway comment about the fact this his own heart was beating. His response, that Amazon has tens of thousands of people coming to work each day, so it must be doing something right, showed a surprising lack of awareness.

Kalanick went on to extol the virtues of companies like his own, saying that workers during the industrial revolution worked 80 hours a week, but now employees only work 40 hours a week. There was a palpable drawing-in of breath from attendees, at least in the press section. The reality is that most workers, and certainly the staggers at Uber headquarters, work significantly more than 40 hours per week. And those workers who do manage to limit themselves to 40 hours, likely do so because of labor laws, rather than any benefit of technology.

Perhaps the most bizarre moment was when Benioff told Kalanick that in [Benioff's] view, Kalanick was a man with deep empathy. It was a weird moment; all that we know of Kalanick indicates that he is an amazing visionary, but one who has a real lack of empathy. Was Benioff blowing smoke, or was it an example of just how out of touch the Silicon Valley world is?

I was ruminating about the Kalanick/Benioff love-in while sitting in another session, a Salesforce-organized discussion with some of its more forward-looking people. On the panel were Adam Bosworth, EVP at Saleforce, Gary Flake,  CTO of search at Salesforce, and Leslie Fine, VP of data and analytics at Salesforce. Jointly they talked about artificial intelligence, machine learning and the longer-term impacts of these technology changes.

Fine's perspective was that Uber, as an example of these technologies in action, is delivering awesome outcomes to its on-demand workers. She spoke about drivers who are able to supplement their primary income by driving for Uber, and can therefore provide for a birthday and other special occasions. Bosworth, however, wasn't quite so positive. Perhaps as a result of the fact that he grew up "on the other side of the tracks" and has been deeply exposed to more of the spectrum of life, Bosworth expressed concern about the impacts of these changes.

"I'm not sure we have substitution jobs for those displaced by digital disruption." commented Bosworth, "I take Uber twice a day and have had many drivers tell me that their wages are going down and getting perilously close to being below a living wage."

As is my usual modus operandi, I couldn't constrain myself and let loose a barrage of tweets, and a few questions to the panel. It struck me that everyone in the room is part of an economic and technology elite and, as such is blessed with the knowledge of how to leverage these changes for their own benefits. Talking about the promise of technology change with this group is fine in the abstract, but it omits two things: firstly the inclusion of the views of those who are likely to bear the brunt of the deleterious impacts of these changes and secondly, and more broadly, a discussion about whether these changes should be moderated because of humanistic or policy reasons.

More specifically, all of these efficiencies that the application of technologies such as machine learning and A.I. can drive will, eventually, mean that many existing roles will cease to exist. In her talk, Fine mentioned using Uber for transportation (and bear in mind that Kalanick has gone on record saying that he's looking forward to replacing Uber drivers with driverless cars), a robotic vacuum for cleaning and other similar services. All of these services are replacing the need for human beings to do something. And that is where the debate starts.

Simply put, is it preferable to have a degree of inefficiency in the system that allows for those who can't be graphic designers or computer engineers to still do something worthwhile. Or alternatively, should we make everything as efficient as possible without a thought about the human consequences.

The way I see it, Uber is the idea of natural attrition taken to its ultimate end -- those whose skills or affinity means that they are ideally suited to being a taxi driver, for example, will simply cease to have a role. I'm not saying we should shy away from that end state, but I am strongly advocating that we include those who we so flippantly regard as baggage when having our discussions and making our decisions about the world ahead.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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