From Also Sprach Zarathustra to Everybody’s Favorite Disruption Ride

From the Brand Historian’s Timeline: 2010

Whilst brands are special kinds of words that tend to have their meanings curated carefully by communication professionals, there are many more words in the dictionary whose meanings seem to have a life of their own. This is particularly true in the vocabulary of technology, where the digitization of the World has been responsible for some fascinating word-meaning migrations. Consider how nouns like troll and friend have been annexed by social media and given new connotations. And it’s on the posts of these same platforms that verbs like block, follow and like or even swipe and ping now mean very different thingsNote how such borrowings are often short and simple words and are sometimes imported from other languages. One such started off as a useful little word in German but has since made a very interesting drive into the heady World of San Francisco tech startups.

Über is a common preposition in German that crops up in many places and means overabove or across. The word also evolved as a power prefix, amplifying and generally making a thing besser als Normalfall, i.e. better than usual. In the 1880s, the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche gave the word a considerable push when he coined the term übermensch for a vision of super-humanity to which we should all aspire. This notion, of course, also inspired the Nazis to contemplate the idea of a master race. Today, Über has marched into English, losing its umlaut on the way, and now appears in various compounds such as Uber stylish, Uber nerd, Uber intellectual or Uber chef. In these, Uber describes someone or something which performs a lot besser than Normalfall. And it was probably this idea that prompted Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick, two tech entrepreneurs, to describe their new car-hailing platform as UberCab, which they founded in 2009 in San Francisco.

The launch of UberCab took place immediately after the financial crisis of 2008. Still, as Nick Srnicek commented in his thoughtful analysis, Platform Capitalism, it is exactly when a crisis hits that “capitalism tends to be restructured, new technology, new organizational forms, new models of exploitation, new types of job and new markets all emerge to create a new way of accumulating capital.” Reflecting this sense of opportunity in a crisis, the vision of UberCab was to explore how the idea of a taxi service could be brought into the digital World. With incredible speed, the brand, now just Uber, soon became the World’s largest taxi company and yet didn’t own any vehicles, as Tom Goodwin famously noted. Uber brilliantly exploited the potential from the volatile 2010s environment characterized by enhanced Internet speeds, significant smartphone ownership, torrents of data, cloud storage and a surprising openness to work in the insecurities of the gig economy.

Having established the master brand by 2015, Uber launched a series of successful derivatives, including Uber X, Uber Eats and even Uber Copters. Doing an Uber or Uberising became a familiar if lazy shorthand for every wannabee disruptor’s promise to digitally transform a sleepy old market. 

Thus did a tiny German preposition become a monster brand proposition, and in so doing, the shorthand for category disruption and digital transformation.

Music for the Sharing Economy, 2010:

Katy Perry California Gurls

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