Heres how to civilise Uber, and make the other death stars work for us too | Deborah Orr

If we want the tech behemoths to start behaving themselves we must tear our transfixed gaze from their exploits, and start using our brains instead

Pretty much everyone who has seen the 1990 sci-fi movie Total Recall remembers Johnny Cab, the sardonic robot taxi driver. A quarter of a century on, however, we all understand that there will be no need for the comfort of a humanoid skeuomorph to persuade people to leap into self-driving cars.

Likewise, pretty much everyone whohas seen Star Wars remembers theDeath Star, the sinister ball of military technology developed to destroy uncooperative planets. The crisis PRexpert Jeremy Robinson-Leon remarked the other day that the minicab company Uber has cultivated this reputation as the death star. Until they can really think about the root cause of the issues, they are going to have a difficult time changing the narrative.

Robinson-Leons comments followed the resignation from Uber of Rachel Whetstone, who was appointed two years ago as policy and communications vice-chair. Executive haemorrhage is by no means the companys only problem. Among many other difficulties is the legal action Googles parent company, Alphabet, is pursuing, following allegations that one of their former executives stole the research details of their self-driving technology arm, Waymo, and took them to Uber.

Its tempting simply to look on, paralysed with horrified wonder, as these global players fight over who getsto dominate the world. Most of ushave trouble comprehending this stuff, after all. The technology is opaque. Globalised business is queasilybaffling. Just figures like $70bn which is said to be the worth of Uber, the most successful startup the planet has ever known let alone $560bn, reportedly the worth of Alphabet, the biggest firm on Earth, are too enormous to contemplate.

All we know is that we like these companies services. Its free to Googlestuff, and we do it all the time. Our smartphones have become our brain extensions, saving us the effort ofriffling through our memory banks even when we know the information weseek is already lodged somewhere inour lo-tech heads. Likewise, whatever our misgivings about Uber, theres a point at which we feel like foolsfor standing in the rain, waiting to hail a black cab that never seems to come, justso we can pay a good chunk more for the privilege.

We leave the exhausting details to others and concentrate on what Robinson-Leon calls the narrative. Googles is good. Its considered to be a good employer. No such plaudits for Uber, whose head, Travis Kalanick, was filmed having a heated verbal exchange with one of the companys drivers.

Yet when it comes down to it, the defining difference between nice Alphabet and nasty Uber is that the former started something new while the latter took on all manner of long-standing chauffeuring services with the message that their old ways were redundant, and only self-serving neo-Luddites would resist. Uber, in short, seems dirty because it took on dirty work. Politicians still bang on about the robust wonders of competitive markets, when these guys know that competition is something you only take part in until you have won.

We know the robots are coming. We wonder if maybe well end up having sex with them. Yet the real problem is that the people who are making the future are the ones who know the details of the troubles that lie ahead. American professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Tom Mitchell warned recently in a paper published in Nature that companies like Uber and Alphabet have a much better grasp of what is likely to happen in the future to contingent workers than governments do. Without data on how artificial intelligence is affecting jobs, policymakers will fly blind into the next industrial revolution, is their warning.

This is wise counsel. It is not inevitable that the death stars will win its only tremendously likely, unless the narrative is wrested from their grasp. The rest of us must stop simply fretting and start thinking. We know these clever, nimble behemoths generate useful services. We know they generate wealth. We know they can deliver benefits, enhancing communication, education, creativity, entrepreneurship, entertainment, sociability all sorts of things that nourish human beings.

There is a huge opportunity for globaldeath stars to be transformed intocooperative companies. Such companies would work in the interests of all of their participants and pay dividends to them you could call these a citizens income. Instead of simply gazing open-mouthed at the power of those among us who operate the death stars, we need to decide what that power should be aiming to achieve.

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