Would you trust Uber and Google with your city streets?

Uber-branded taxis are now ubiquitous* in Leeds, having launched last November. I'm back in Leeds for a month - it was immediately striking that pretty much every taxi now has the large white Uber label, at least in the city centre. That's a pretty impressive transformation in just over six months.

It's a classic disruptive firm; one can imagine CEO Travis Kalanick has personal targets for how many local government authorities to annoy. It can certainly be spun as a nimble tech firm zipping around the tree-trunk legs of a geriatric industry. Predictably, there's been trouble. As well as various protests, some Uber drivers are getting organised to fight for a bigger slice of the profits. (If, as that article says, Uber are taking 20-25% per ride, there isn't a lot of head-room for wages to increase - Uber's dirt cheap fares would have to rise.)

Uber have placed themselves between drivers and customers in a way that reminds me of the weirdness of Apple's app store. In a world where anyone can dump code on their blog and anyone can downoad it, Apple have thrived by creating a portal and sitting as gatekeeper. They take around 30% of every single app sale - and, for developers, this has actually worked out great. They get access to a huge market while getting to code on a single, predictable platform. Small niggles about the political implications of that control might buzz about irritatingly but cause no serious discomfort.

Equally, existing tech could - in theory - link customers and taxi drivers without the need for such a powerful intermediary. The possibility of open-standards platforms transitioning us to the next level of transport has excited many people. Harvey Miller's work, for instance (and this great presentation) sees hope for a "transportation polyculture" where smart-city tech opens up a world of collaborative/co-operative transport. In this world, the kind of fluid, efficient city roads that Uber talk about, where ride-sharing is easy and prevalent, come about via open source principles entirely at odds with Uber's - though such a world would perhaps be just as disruptive to existing taxi firms.

Two radically different internet myths are at the heart of this difference. In one founding myth (as the Economist says) the Net is "the spontaneous result of co-operation by growing numbers of people acting outside the control of the governments and big companies" - a "libertarian paradise" promising a level of openness, connectedness and democracy never before possible. That story is still being told.

But then this other story appears.

It's not the one about the dead hand of gummint stomping on a libertarian-socialist-cyber-utopia. It's a tale of monoliths standing impenetrable guard between both sides of entire global realms - and all sides being more or less content with their lot. If this were happening in meatworld, there'd be rioting. Want to set up a local grocery store? Well, you can't. You can grow produce, but it must be posted to a centralised distribution centre, owned by The Global Greengrocer Company and - after being sold in their own store and taking 30% of the revenue - they'll send you some cash.

This scenario is plainly insane - and would actually be impossible in a physical open market. You'd need some form of vegetable-based dictatorship. The difference is you could, of course, set up shop on the internet with your programs for next to nothing - it's just that the net has given birth to this new kind of market structure that would turn your efforts to gas. By removing so many meatworld barriers to trade, especially I suspect geographical ones, we see the natural emergence of single-firm gatekeepers that smell ever-so-slightly like protection rackets even while they manage to technically avoid looking like them.

As with the happy app store developers, though, it's not obvious that anyone is worse off for it - at least yet. Mundane gripes about the standard dangers of monopoly never to seem to get traction - possibly because we're all just too taken with the toys we get. Though the Economist article above argues they can't be monopolies while other options exist, I don't think the dangers are of the same type.

Uber's strong presence in meatworld makes this all rather more tangible. One might say, "their rise has not been smooth, they have competitors and taxi drivers might yet find ways to use the internet that serve them better." True, and we might yet come up with an open source Facebook where everyone keeps their own data wherever they like, with some platform allowing it to be commonly shared while privately secure. Is that likely while Facebook remains so convenient to use, and already has us all locked in? In the meantime, it has grown large enough to start its own internet enclosures, in-house satellites and all. (Update: example of an academic attempt at an open ride share platform.)

It's not just market power that's at issue, then - it's straightforward power. Kalanick says, "our belief is that if a driver meets all the criteria for safety, insurance and quality, and she wants to make a living driving people around, why can't she?" Well, one reason may be that Uber will eventually replace her with a driverless car. They've just nabbed a great wodge of robotics researchers from Carnegie Mellon to this end. Others - most noisily, Google - have been working on this too, and the implications for taxis have been clear for a while. But there's something slightly cannabilistic about building your research budget to supersede taxi drivers from the drivers themselves. Just a little bit making-dig-own-grave-while-you-watch.

One of the biggest problems with driverless cars is simply how not to run people over. It's also very hard to solve - unless, that is, you shift your focus away from people. The roads we have at present didn't emerge spontaneously: they were shaped by the car industry working with governments. Some places are already plenty unfriendly to walkers and cyclists - what might a Google/Uber urban infrastructure look like? As with the General Motors streetcar conspiracy, there's no need to go the full Judge Doom - but companies the size of Google and Uber have enough clout to steer infrastructure choices in the coming years - on a global scale. If driverless cars don't work on existing roads because they're covered in pedestrians and cyclists, there's another option: just remove the pedestrians and cyclists.

Who knows - there may be amazing cities if we follow that route, with walking and cycling in clearly delineated, beautiful green corridors and efficient, driverless vehicles in their own barriered lanes, available at the flick of a smart watch. It's just, I'm not sure that's something I'd want to leave up to Uber or Google.

* Uberquitous, possibly. (Sorry.)