Fun Conversation

October 18th 2017
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@elliotElliot Lepers

A totally subjective and inaccurate sociology of Lyft in San Francisco, or why we urgently need to rethink the added value of technology.

Last month, I had the chance to spend a few days in San Francisco. It’s a big city and the public transportation is not very reliable or easy to use, so I ended up using Lyft quite frequently, along the bike. In order to keep it as cheap as possible, I only used the Lyft Line option, which allows to share the trips with other users. Each trip would then cost around 4$, which is very competitive.

I have to say by the way that the AI behind this feature is quite blazing, as it has to calculate every potential itinerary for every user looking for a ride, in order to find overlaps between different users.

At first, I was quite surprised because as I entered the car and found each time another dude already installed, I was never able to launch a conversation. They would stay desperately focused on their phone, paying no attention at all at the two human beings –the driver and I– surrounding them. One could think it’s mostly due to some relational handicap or expression of stress in a town where technology is overwhelming. When I would finally find myself alone with a driver, I asked if that was usual. The answer was categorical : customers, especially when they are men, especially when they are white, don’t talk. Point blank.

At that point, you need to have in mind that amongst the 12 drivers I met, none was white. 7 were Hispanic, 3 were Asian and 3 were Arabic. I had to admit that what I had been testifying was plain old social and racial segregation. In the most expansive city in the world, where people are wiling to pay 2500$ a month for a room, it might not be surprising. But in the city of coolness where most of our actual society standards are defined, specifically for relationships, it’s frightening.

One day at a time

When you finish a ride with Lyft, you are prompted with a screen to rate the driver, between 1 and 5 stars. After that, you can tip the driver, and chose compliments : cool music, clean car, fun conversation…

I want to tell you about Clever. We spent 29 minutes and 17 seconds together, according to my ride history. Clever is from Costa Rica. He used to live in the city, aka the center of San Francisco, but recently he had to move away. His daughter was diagnosed with ALS. A degenerative disease that tends to make your muscles unusable. It can happen to anyone, as studies show we might all carry the virus. But it has to be triggered, and scientists explain it could be caused by a huge charge of stress. Clever’s daughter had a moto accident while on vacation, and even though she was not injured, her nightmare began. Grasping became more and more difficult. She now can only move in a wheelchair. Soon, she won’t be able to swallow anymore as her throat muscles are getting paralyzed, and she will get surgery to create a hole to be feed mechanically. Eventually, she will stop breathing.

Going through this story, Clever was both very moving and concerned and at the same time very technical and cold. He explained to me how his daughter had to accept to become dependent to her parents again, the technics they invented to clean her, etc. “One day at a time”, as he said. I was stunned by his calm and determination. This man might lose his single daughter in the coming months, yet he is an example of wiseness and humility.

Tech is having an issue with emotions

So, what should I have said to the Lyft poll asking me if the conversation was fun? It may have been one of the least fun conversation I have ever had. Yet, it’s the best conversation I had with a Lyft driver.

Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans
— John Lennon

I don’t really care if the music pleases me or if the car is clean. But I do care if I meet someone that moves me. Why would technology only encourage positive feelings and demonstration of happiness? Facebook already answered this question by allowing different kind of reactions to posts than the original like. We can now express love, laugh, surprise, sadness and anger.

I try to imagine how knowing that a driver has fun conversation can be useful to Lyft. Will he be confronted during his monthly interview? “Well, we have identified that you are being 30% less complimented than the average driver for your fun conversation. Here is a book of jokes, we will check next time if you have been able to learn them all”.

The real issue is that tech companies try to pretend they are providing experiences more than services. It’s even something you now can buy on Airbnb : “Fish market with Andrew”, “Californian cooking with Suzanne”, “Photo lesson at The Golden Gate”.

Seriously, 90$ to have some guy pretending to be my friend and doing some random casual activity with me? That used to have a name, paying someone to pretend you two are having a special relationship.

But remembering these car mates I traveled with, stuck to their screens, I am thinking : are we really looking for more than just services? More than that, are experiences something one can buy?

Ironically, the quest for authenticity has made us surrounded by fake. It’s time we start to trust humans and it’s time we create technologies designed to disappear before human relationships. This is where the true authenticity stands. And it might involve some not so funny conversations.

Elliot Lepers



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