In October 2015, thousands of Uber employees took their seats at the Axis Theater in Las Vegas’ Planet Hollywood, where they were introduced to “Professor Kalanick”—Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, wearing a white lab coat and thick black glasses and standing in front of a rickety schoolhouse chalkboard on wheels. The employees were in Vegas for Uber’s “X to the x” retreat, celebrating the fact that the seemingly unstoppable ride-hailing juggernaut had hit $10 billion in revenue. (At the time, Uber was bleeding more than $2 billion annually on promos for drivers and riders in order to support said juggernaut.) The trip was mostly supposed to be a good time. Between the surprise Beyonce concert, open bars, prepaid Visa cards, and hotel rooms, Uber spent more than $25 million in cash on a week of partying, more than twice the company’s Series A funding round. But back at Planet Hollywood, the Professor wanted to get serious.Kalanick was obsessed with Amazon, idolized Jeff Bezos, and had carefully studied the tech giant’s 14 core principles, like Customer Obsession, Bias for Action, and Think Big. Standing on stage, Kalanick presented his flock, many of whom had spent the day drinking beers in poolside cabanas, with 14 of his own core principles. The house lights beamed down on green chalkboard to reveal what Kalanick called “Uber’s values”: Always Be Hustlin’, Champions Mindset/Winning, and, of course, Super Pumped.“The list read like Amazon’s corporate values run through a bro-speak translation engine,” the journalist Mike Isaac writes in Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber. The book, out this week, traces Kalanick’s trajectory from floundering startup founder to the envy of Silicon Valley to the epitome of tech evil, and with him a decade of excess and self-delusion. Isaac’s meticulously reported account still finds jaw-dropping new lows, like an executive in Thailand shoving a female employee’s face in a pile of cocaine or Kalanick writhing on the floor of a meeting room at the Le Meridien hotel in downtown San Francisco after Bloomberg published a leaked video of the CEO berating a driver.Kalanick was ousted from Uber in 2017, following a string of scandals around sexual harassment, surveillance of government officials, and privacy violations. Still, Super Pumped is an essential read, functioning, in a way, as a reverse translation engine—techspeak to plainspeak—to decode the industry’s dizzying ascent over the past decade, to the point where decisions made by a roomful of men on Market Street now have the power to change the face of a city or dictate wages and tips (or lack thereof) for millions of drivers.During Uber’s rise, portraits of Kalanick or Uber dutifully parroted the company’s rhetoric around empowering entrepreneurship for drivers, of connecting “bits and atoms.” But by this point, Uber’s growth tactics had run their course, freeing up Isaac to focus on impact, rather than rhetoric or emotional intent. And, stripped of the hype around self-driving cars and efficient algorithms, Uber looks less like a thoroughbred tech unicorn and more like a Wall Street boiler room Ponzi scheme.By breaking down the actual mechanics between “regulatory arbitrage” or “strike teams,” the book suggests that Uber’s business model was based on a simple, brutal calculus: raise money, spend like crazy on incentives, drop fares for drivers or increase prices, repeat. The formula did not work without exploiting drivers, a demographic Kalanick refers to internally, Isaac notes, as “supply.”But Super Pumped avoids the easy option of villainizing Kalanick. Many have pointed out that Uber’s rule-breaking was enabled by the culture of founder worship. Isaac pushes the argument forward, mapping Kalanick’s behavior to core tenets of the anti-government, pro-hustle tech doctrine, implying that Kalanick was radicalized by Silicon Valley’s core beliefs. Isaac’s portrayal of Kalanick, who was not interviewed for the book, makes it clear that, while the man was uniquely wired to seek total dominance and humiliate his enemies like “a master training a dog,” as one source told him, he had “absorbed the Silicon Valley maxim” that growth is good and founders should be worshipped before Uber even launched.Many of Uber’s employees seemed to share that value system. It was an environment where the risk prevention team might voluntarily figure out how to break Apple’s rules for the App Store or the fifth floor of Uber’s downtown headquarters may erupt in a round of cheers when someone who was sexually assaulted in an Uber “decided not to pursue litigation or if the evidence in a police report was not conclusive enough to prosecute,” Isaac writes.To explain how Kalanick commanded such blind devotion, Isaac gestures at the heady post-recession years, which coincided with Uber’s stupefying rise. “No one wanted to miss their shot at entering the next Google or Facebook on the ground floor,” he writes. “Recruiters knew exactly how to sell it, tweaking the FOMO of ambitious engineers.”Compared to the vividly rendered blow-by-blows of Kalanick’s power struggles with his investors, the passages of context are hand-wavy about the tech industry’s flip from utopianism to disillusionment. When Kalanick’s employees finally turn on him, it’s unclear whether it was out of genuine ethical crisis or because working for Uber now failed “the Bay Area cocktail party test.”However, the latest internet gold rush has stoked a particular flavor of FOMO, befitting an era where all of the power is monopolized by a handful of companies. This sense that growth is a zero-sum game is what motivated Kalanick’s push into China, which was costing Uber $40 million to $50 million a week in incentives, Issac reports. The digital frontier had an outer limit after all.Roughly a century ago, the finite nature of another frontier (the westward-moving, IRL version) also forced critics to reevaluate the stories we tell ourselves about American expansion. In his latest book, The End of the Myth, historian Greg Grandin describes changing attitudes toward “the frontier thesis”—which argued that uniquely American traits like independence and resourcefulness were shaped by the process of moving westward and dominating new territory. In the 1910s, critics “began to turn the thesis against itself,” using the same set of values to explain America’s failings rather than its virtues, Grandin writes. As an example of this shifting perspective, he points to a 1912 essay from Walter Weyl, an editor of The New Republic. “The open continent intoxicated the American,” Weyl wrote. “It created an individualism, self-confident, short-sighted, lawless, doomed in the end to defeat itself, as the boundless opportunism which gave it birth became at last circumscribed.”Uber’s future, too, now seems circumscribed. As of this writing, the company’s market capitalization is about $53 billion, nearly half of the value the company assumed it would fetch when it went public in May. In its latest SEC filing, Uber reported a $5 billion loss.There’s a temptation to read both Kalanick’s ouster and Uber’s descent back to Earth as a punishment for its corporate sins. For instance, the timing of Susan Fowler’s blog post about rampant sexual harassment inside Uber, which kicked off the series of crises, allowed some to claim Kalanick’s fate as a triumph for the #MeToo movement or a sign of genuine reckoning.By the end of Super Pumped, we are back in the land of techspeak. The book’s final chapters vacillate between buying (or at least repeating) the line that Uber’s investors had a crisis of conscience and suggesting that they acted largely to protect their investment when they staged a coup to wrest control of the company back from Kalanick. In fact, Isaac acknowledges, at least some of the bad press around Uber was due to a strategic campaign to manipulate tech journalists. “[T]here were a select few who wanted it to look as messy as it all really was,” he writes about sources who leaked him down-to-the-minute details about Kalanick’s resignation. “And they used me, an unwitting participant, to make that happen.”The question of potential consequences for any of the misdeeds detailed in the book is still up in the air, with open investigations into Uber’s overseas bribes and other growth-at-all-costs tactics. Last week, federal prosecutors charged ex-Uber and ex-Google executive Anthony Levandowski—the man Kalanick was counting on to kickstart Uber’s foray into self-driving cars—with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets from Google around self-driving car software that he allegedly tried to smuggle into Uber. These actions came to light largely because Google cofounder Larry Page wanted to send a message about stealing from Google. In The New Yorker, Charles Duhigg noted that “[tech] titans, apparently, have found a willing enforcer in the federal government.” If convicted, Levandowski faces a maximum sentence of 10 years, a much steeper price than anything Uber has had to endure for its labor practices or privacy violations. As if on cue, the criminal indictment underscores one of the clearest takeaways from Isaac’s fair-minded book: that Silicon Valley is most eager to mete out justice when one man threatens another man’s money.Further Reading‘Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary’ by Louis HymanAn essential guide to demystifying the sudden ubiquity of the gig economy and putting Uber in its proper historical context—as a company that took advantage of social changes already in place in order to make its labor practices seem inevitable.‘Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work’ by Alex RosenblatOver four years, Rosenblat interviewed drivers in 25 cities in the US and Canada to expose the way Uber “gamified” work using notifications and bait-and-switch tactics to keep drivers on the road.‘Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup’ by John CarreyrouA fast-paced, fascinating journey into the elaborate scams of Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, whose sense of manifest destiny rivals Kalanick’s.‘The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World’ by David KirkpatrickTo understand the religiosity behind the “cult of the founder,” read Kirkpatrick’s all-access pass to Facebook in its glory years, back when board member Peter Thiel was pitching the social network as the best hope to promote tolerance in a globalized world.‘Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future’ by Ashlee VanceVance brings both skepticism and awe to bear on the circuitous rise of Silicon Valley’s most uncensored founder—an inadvertent lesson in self-mythologizing.When you buy something using the retail links in our stories, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Read more about how this works.Nitasha Tiku is a senior writer for WIRED in San Francisco, covering people and power in Silicon Valley and the tech industry’s impact on politics and culture. Before coming to WIRED she worked as a senior writer for BuzzFeed News. Tiku received her bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and a… Read moreSenior WriterWIRED is where tomorrow is realized. It is the essential source of information and ideas that make sense of a world in constant transformation. The WIRED conversation illuminates how technology is changing every aspect of our lives—from culture to business, science to design. The breakthroughs and innovations that we uncover lead to new ways of thinking, new connections, and new industries.© 2019 Condé Nast. All rights reserved. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our User Agreement (updated 5/25/18) and Privacy Policy and Cookie Statement (updated 5/25/18) and Your California Privacy Rights. 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