Judy Chen

@judytzchen

Thinking of Uber as Physical Infrastructure

Revelations at Boston Logan Airport

Upon arriving at Boston Logan Airport, I decide to order an Uber to get home. Returning from Chicago on a late Monday evening, the Silver Line seemed like a bother if the Uber ride is just a tap away — but, is it always? Getting off my plane at Terminal B, I follow overhead signs indicating App Ride/TNC, which then lead me to Terminal C, where I exit and cross a lane of traffic to arrive at the limo lot where yet another big sign — along with a huddle of passengers and airport personnel — confirm where I am. It is here that I must order and wait for my Uber. It is here that I am made starkly aware of the infrastructure that is Uber and other ride-sharing services, as well as the infrastructure that Uber relies on and creates.

The pick-up area has a waiting area bordered by cylindrical structures to lean on. On the other side is a set of 15 or so parking spots where arrived cars wait for their passengers. The airport security personnel directs the traffic in a loud yell that could reach drivers inside their vehicles. As the cars are waved forth, around me, passengers are intently staring at their screens to see how far away their ride is, or eyeing the queue for their driver.

Beside me, two men are waiting impatiently. One is on the phone with his Uber diver and repeats, “You are here, by the white Honda?” There is no White Honda in sight. His friend asks, “Is he at the TNC place?” The man scans around intently, and the friend says with a whiff of frustration, “We could’ve just got a cab.” The two veer off, out of the pick-up area and into the general airport traffic.

The waiting area of passengers, queue of cars, designated parking spots, and barking traffic director: this is the infrastructure needed for Uber’s informational infrastructure — information of which drivers where and when will pick up which passengers where and when, Uber as the infrastructure that connects this information — to operate. It reveals an infrastructural dependency of something as seemingly intangible as Uber that seems to exist seamlessly in the cloud. After all, the idea behind Uber is convenience, specifically convenience that leverages existing infrastructure — the existing drivers with cars that hold empty seats, the roads that these cars already operate on, the mobile phone, high-speed data connection. However, here at the TNC spot it becomes apparent that Uber does not merely utilize existing infrastructure, but it actively demands of it. It is in this “breakdown” of how Uber is supposed to work that its infrastructure-ness becomes apparent and its infrastructural dependency is revealed.

The TNC spot — and all the signages leading passengers and drivers to it — poses a significant infrastructural demand. It is not a naturally existing fixture of the airport. Logan Airport was required to intentionally dedicate a space and staff to regulate the new flow of vehicles brought forth by ride-sharing apps. The convenience of Uber, initially unregulated here, became an inconvenience to the airport with an influx of unknown cars trying to identity unknown passengers and vice versa at any terminal exit — a breakdown. To manage the logistics, the pick-up spot becomes an physical infrastructural solution to the informational infrastructure of Uber. Thus Uber’s informational infrastructure builds further onto the installed base of airport traffic control and the existing limo lot. It also demands something new, that is, demands that the staff and the lot come together to create a specific pick-up spot that would not have existed otherwise.

Together, Uber and the TNC spot are a combined infrastructure that organizes digital information with the physical world. The embeddedness of ride-sharing apps in our mobility practices today are also embedding themselves into the physical, infrastructural design of space. The informational and the physical come together, conflict without regulation, and thus demand of another set of physical infrastructure for it to function. Together, it shows a infrastructural dependency that is typically obscured when using Uber “normally” in the city, thus making the invisible, visible. Uber, as much as it is a software service and a tech company, has reliances and consequences on the physical, tangible world, too — and we must not forget that.

This piece was originally written for Introduction to the Anthropology of Science and Technology taught by Nick Seaver at Tufts University and has been edited for Medium.

Thank you so much for reading + sharing your thoughts. You can find more of me on Instagram, at my poetry blog, and at my website. Want my articles in your inbox? — subscribe here.

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