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Uber's Quiet Mode Is Un-Australian

We never really caught taxis when I was a kid.

But back in primary school I read The Dinkum Aussie Dictionary, and learned that in contrast to Americans and Brits, true-blue Strayan blokes 'sit up the front to have a yarn with the driver'. Of all the dusty national stereotypes that could’ve stuck with me -- blue singlets, never not eating meat pies, casual racism -- that’s the egalitarian personality trait I’ve chosen to adopt.

I bloody love sitting up the front to have a yarn with the driver. It legitimately annoys me when they have an earbud in, so I can’t ask them if they’ve been busy tonight, or how long they’ve been behind the wheel, or what’s happening in the cricket, or what the difference between Uber and Ola is, or (if I’m in a cab) tell them how I’d never use Uber or Ola.

And so you can imagine my unmitigated rage to read that Uber have now rolled out the grossly named "Quiet Mode" in Australia. A feature of its Uber Comfort option, this mode lets you choose a conversation level without actually having to interact with the person -- the human being -- who is taking you to your destination, you fancy little lord. Wave your embroidered hankie from the back seat and they will be off, after checking their app to see whether you’d prefer them to spare the horses.

Even worse, people are actually out there celebrating the fact they will no longer have to engage in adult conversation. Enjoying the fact they can pay extra for this service instead of behaving like someone who exists within a society, and as such should have developed the ability to negotiate a conversational level instead of relying on an app to do all the work.

I’m wondering if the next rollout will have an option for “zero eye contact”.

Look at how happy these people are to be communicating. (Image: Getty)

Thanks in part to smartphones and social media, we are becoming more isolated, more lonely, more tribal. We are less connected to the world around us.

Think about the people you regularly interact with, face-to-face, in the flesh. If they’re not family members or legacy friends, they’re liable to be people who have broadly the same interests and life situation as you. They're the people in your social circle. They're your work colleagues.

Now think about how much time you spend with strangers. Or even neighbours. It's much less, I'd imagine, which means which means we’re less likely to be exposed, in person, to new ways of thinking or ideas.

And even if we have thousands of "friends" online, we’re still being algorithmically pushed into narrower and narrower channels, from the Discover Weekly playlist on Spotify to the People You May Know on Facebook. Our conceptual worlds are shrinking without us even realising.

I’m not a psychologist, but it feels like there is a real friendship developing here… (Image: Getty)

Despite my generic driver question list above, I’ve actually had some deep and interesting conversations with drivers over the years. When you’re in a new city, they’re often a great source of information on where to eat and which pubs to avoid unless you’re keen for a punch-up. Coming back from the airport after a holiday, they’ve perked me up out of my runny-nose grumps with long discussions on the relative merits of different Aussie cities (Adelaide scores surprisingly high with recent immigrants who have sampled various state capitals).

And on one memorable occasion, a few months ago, my driver exclaimed, “We are the same person!” after we spent the entire trip talking relationships, video games and how underrated the Blade series of films is.

Five stars for him, five stars for me.

What if Ryan Gosling was your Uber driver? Would you talk to him? (Image: FilmDistrict)

The hired car, then, is a core pillar of Australian culture. Here is a space where you can discuss politics, culture, sport or the weather (if you’re in Melbourne) with someone who may have nothing in common with you apart from the space you’re temporarily sharing. Here is a chance to learn something new from a stranger, to add a fresh perspective to your worldview, to make a meaningful real-world connection, to find out if they’ve done the MCG Tour yet because trust me it’s everything you’ve dreamed of.

(Studies also show that talking to strangers can make you a happier person -- or at the very least lift your mood, even on public transportation.)

And we’re throwing it away because we want to sit in the back seat like Americans and Brits, throwing money at a social interaction because we’re too haughty or bashful to actually ask another person for a quiet ride or if they’d mind turning down the temperature.

Shame on you, Uber. From now on I’ll be using Ola, as soon as someone explains the differences to me again.