A man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimension.

When I step into the car, I’m greeted by a string of pumpkin-shaped lights circling the inside roof. The driver—Jeff—has a shaved head, and tattoos visible in the orange glow.

Not exactly a ride everyone would accept. Well, not before Uber anyway.

Jeff is a five-star driver, and his license is stored somewhere in a server. The company knows who he is and where he lives, and his car is tracked every second of every ride.

When the media talks about Uber, it’s all about their status as a “unicorn”—a company worth more than $1 billion—the easy app and the cheap rides. They tend to forget that the sharing economy is more than price and product.

You can take a ride from a tattooed dude in the middle of the night with more confidence than any time in history. (His Halloween décor is just a bonus.)

As with everything, there is—of course—a dark side. Privacy, tracking, and surveillance are giving senators a headache. Even so, the market will never go back to the old ways.

The reason is not Uber. In fact, this is not a post in favor of Uber. It’s not against Uber. It’s not about Uber at all. This is a post about a person—Jeff—and his receipt to live in our digital age. Jeff’s world is our world, he’s just adapting in a different way.

Taxi drivers have always been a great source of knowledge and fascinating stories to me. I have been traveling long before the advent of Uber—40 plus countries and counting—and cabs are second only to street food vendors to understand the local environment.

If it’s interesting to talk to taxi drivers everywhere, there’s no better place to chat with an Uber driver than in Silicon Valley. Here you can find countless programmers and high-paid salaries driving a cab for a few dollars per hour.

Quoting an old movie—Every time a startup fails a driver gets his wings. They don’t want to get a “normal” job. They want to live free until the next Big Thing.

Jeff—in a way—is no exception. He’s a photographer and can make $300 in one session. But getting customers can be irregular. So Jeff drives for Uber with his entire photography kit in the back trunk, waiting for a call.

“Uber is great to pay the bills”—he admits.

Today he’d been on the road for less than three hours. While we’re chatting, he gets a message on his second iPhone (the first is exclusively for Uber).

“Looks like you’re my last ride for the day”—Jeff says. A customer just booked a photo shoot in one hour.

In 10 minutes, we’ll reach my destination in Palo Alto. With one tap of his iPhone, Jeff will switch his career from driver to photographer. He’ll switch back to driver in the evening—if he doesn’t have a date with his girlfriend—or tomorrow morning. One tap is all it takes.

Welcome to Life in the Time of Uber.

Zipcar - Future Cities Book
Zipcar, another example of alternative transporation

Read another FREE chapter

Guo Bai (Smart Cities China) »

Or get the book today