A misunderstanding has funny mechanics: the person speaking and the person listening don’t associate the same signification to a word. It’s a very short, dense, instant and most often no one takes notice of it when it happens. Its effects can be devastating. We then speak of clearing up a misunderstanding to avoid a battle of words, since a misunderstanding reveals discrete distortions, but that have very concrete consequences. We can come to arms on a misunderstanding. Sometimes, a misunderstanding is a convenient instrument. In France, we well remember the incredible General de Gaulle who called out to the crowd in Algeria, in the midst of a civil war at the time, « I understand you! ». Everyone there believed they had been understood. A clever way of dividing the crowds, turning them against each other while waiting for the situation to rot. A fatal illustration of these moments when, in the first instants, we believe what we want to believe. We remember well Kennedy’s ever famous « Ich bin ein Berliner ». In a flash, it seemed that being a Berliner was a uniquely held title although the city was cut to pieces. There was someone in the world, in the time it took to speak the phrase, who incarnated Berlin. But what did he mean?
There is another way of fostering a misunderstanding: creating a word. Often, it’s a particularity of advertising slogans. It’s no coincidence that the president of the Publicis Group, Maurice Lévy, coined the term « uberized » in an interview with the Financial Times1 at the end of 2014: « Everyone is starting to worry about being ubered ». More precisely, Mr. Lévy was then speaking about a worry, a fear, identical to being beaten to the prize by something one never saw coming, because of the use of new technologies: to actually be in danger while left sleeping soundly on a soft and eternal bed of rent seeking. Obviously, we think of taxis. But many other services that can be simply and easily accessed with either a telephone or computer also spring to mind.
In actual fact, when the term crossed the Channel, it changed form, which is the sign of a successful misunderstanding (although it’s a bet that Mr. Lévy didn’t actually intend to create a ready-to-use misunderstanding): to be ubered, became to be uberized, before the adjectival form gave way – only partially through the effects of translation – to a noun: uberization. That’s where the trouble starts.
As Mr. Lévy uses it in his interview, it’s more akin to being « bought out », « absorbed », « grabbing market shares », etc. Mr. Lévy’s new word was not really anything new. But it opened a new perspective: what was a consideration to be taken into account by managers faced with competition, became everyone’s fear and a risk for all. From uberized to uberization, we went from a personal economic analysis (Mr. Lévy is a manager and he was addressing a journalist who had come to ask him about opinion as a manager) to a collective process.
To be uberized means that an entity comes at you and imposes its law. The three terms of Lacan’s logical time2 work here :
– The instant of seeing (l’instant de voir): Uber launches a new product and catches attention; taxis notice a loss in revenues. This is where Mr. Lévy’s remark falls.
– The time for understanding (le temps pour comprendre): taxis go on strike, discuss with Ministers and political representatives.
– The moment of concluding (le moment de conclure): the conclusions vary but they contribute to antagonism between the different economic groups, each with different constraints and divergent interests (breaking Uber or breaking the taxis). This is the most complicated moment. It allows everyone to make his or her own theory of the situation.
Lacan didn’t want to elaborate a process where each passage would be equivalent to the previous one, like going up steps one after the other, where each would be a copy of the latter and similar to the next. He spoke of a sophism, that is to say a process, fraught with hesitations, confounding waltzes and irrational processes. Lacan brings us to the point where the compass spins when it’s a question of the moment for concluding, that can lead us back to the two previous levels (the instant of seeing: is that what I saw?, or the time for understanding: did I really understand?), to take us down just as quickly, back up again even faster, again and again. It’s obscure. Well, it takes a little push to conclude.
Mr. Lévy opened a door and everybody fell through it. The collective presumption that comes away from his analysis becomes: whoever, what ever, whenever is concerned by uberization. The question of new technologies is henceforth a torment of the present times, whereas Mr. Lévy’s « being uberized » meant, in reality, that bosses can be too late if they don’t wake up in time.
The meaning of Mr. Lévy’s comment was therefore distorted in favor of a collective presumption (something Lacan pointed out as necessary to stimulate the moment for concluding): new technologies want to kill off all established workers. If a manager can be uberized by a business creator (the competition is identified, it’s a question of adapting), we speak –conversely- of the uberization of a professional field: there is no protection, the threat is generalized, there is no agent, and everyone is a victim. This generalization allows to condense the moment for concluding in time since it concentrates everyone’s most persistent fears.
This is how a taxi driver, annoyed by an endless traffic jam, came to tell me once that at was all the President’s fault for not having forbid the Internet. In reality, uberization, allows everyone to conclude according to what they fear. The most extreme conspiracy theories then become apparent. Social networking offers the fodder for the presumption of evil intention. Even while Internet is connecting everyone, it isolates each one who concocts his minute-made theory and feels reassured he/she is able to conclude on the situation. We are witnessing a ripple effect, like something going viral. Internal wars have a great future before them.
Translated by Julia Richards
1 https://next.ft.com/ radaronline.com/
2 J. Lacan, «Le temps logique et l’assertion de certitude anticipée», Écrits, Paris, Seuil, 1966, p. 210