Online Network Book ForumSeptember 21 2023

Disrupting DC: The Rise of Uber and the Fall of the City

Kafui Attoh
Katie Wells
M. R. Sauter
Hosted by Alexandra Mateescu

“If a city council person or a mayor get anything out of the book, I hope it’s that: Don’t put all your eggs in an Uber, Lyft, or Silicon Valley basket.”

“We didn’t want to write a hit piece on Uber, and we don’t think the book is. We think it’s a hit piece on all of us who turn to Uber as a common sense solution to the urban crisis…. One question that we want to leave readers with is: What would need to happen so that Uber doesn’t make as much sense as it does for so many people?”

– Kafui Attoh and Katie Wells

As a tech platform and a company, Uber has become emblematic of an economic shift toward precarious, low-wage gig work and declining labor standards, which has unfolded under the guise of innovation. But an overlooked dimension of Uber’s rise is how the company capitalized on deeper tensions at the heart of urban politics. In Disrupting DC: The Rise of Uber and the Fall of the City, authors Katie Wells, Kafui Attoh, and Declan Cullen tell the story of Uber as a political force, revealing how DC became a testing ground and eventual “playbook” for the company’s consolidation of power across the nation and the globe.

Through interviews with ridehail drivers, policymakers, Uber employees, and community organizers, the authors provide a critical analysis of key moments where Uber exploited political, cultural, and infrastructural vacuums to position itself as the “common sense” solution to complex issues of city governance. While promising to fix public transit, be a game-changer in data-driven urban policy, and solve racial discrimination in the city’s legacy taxi industry, Uber’s interventions were often more PR tactics than genuine solutions, and the company benefited from low expectations about what city politics can achieve. Disrupting DC shows how Uber’s emergence has diminished our capacity to envision what cities can be and what democratic politics can accomplish. The book offers a 360-degree view of an urban America in crisis, and a broader understanding of how tech companies have become powerful political actors. 

On September 21 for our Network Book Forum, co-authors Katie Wells and Kafui Ablode Attoh discussed their book with M.R. Sauter in a conversation moderated by Data & Society researcher Alexandra Mateescu.

About Data & Society 

Data & Society is an independent nonprofit research organization. We believe that empirical evidence should directly inform the development and governance of new technology. We study the social implications of data and automation, producing original research to ground informed, evidence-based public debate about emerging technology.


Katie J. Wells | @KatieJWells

Dr. Katie Wells is a geographer who studies urban change. She writes about how tech affects the way we live in cities, and especially how we govern them. She has a deep commitment to public outreach and sharing the findings of her scholarship about tech policy with diverse audiences. She has published findings on data surveillance, labor rights, and the politics of geo-fencing in academic journals such as Space and Polity and Antipode. She has discussed the real-time impacts of her research in 90+ media stories in The Washington Post, NPR, ABC National News, CBC News, Bloomberg’s CityLab, CNN, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others. Wells is an author of Disrupting DC: The Rise of Uber and the Fall of the City (Princeton University Press, August 2023). Currently, she’s a postdoctoral Fritz Fellow with Georgetown University’s new Tech & Society initiative and based in the Communication, Culture, and Technology Program. She’s also an affiliated fellow with the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation and the Georgetown Global Cities Initiative. A native of Canton, Ohio, she has lived in DC for 19 years. She received her PhD in Geography from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.


Kafui Attoh | @AttohKafui

Kafui Attoh is an associate professor of urban studies at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. His research interests are in the political economy of cities, the politics of public space and debates in and around the idea of the “right to the city.” He is the author of Rights in Transit: Public Transportation and the Right to the City in California’s East Bay (University of Georgia Press 2019) as well as numerous articles published in both academic and public venues.


M.R. Sauter | @OddLetters

M.R. Sauter is an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies. They are the author of The Coming Swarm: DDoS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet. They received their PhD from McGill University in 2020, and they hold a masters degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT. They have held research fellowships at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society, and New America.

Their work has been published in The Atlantic, the Journal of Communication, the Case Western Reserve Law Review, Real Life Mag, e-flux, New Media and Society, Ethnography Matters, HiLow Brow, io9, Vice, the National Post, the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Times, the American Behavioral Scientist, and the MIT Technology Review, and in collected volumes published by MIT Press and Peter Lang. They have frequently appeared as an expert on technology, culture, and politics on the CBC, NPR, TVO, the BBC, PRI, American Public Media, the Boston Globe, and other international outlets. Their research has been featured by Popular Mechanics, BoingBoing, Slate, Der Spiegel, and the Christian Science Monitor.

They are currently working on a book on the role of east coast financiers in the development of venture capital policy in the 1970s.





  1. M.R. Sauter, The Coming Swarm: DDOS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet, Bloomsbury Academic (2014)
  2. Zachary M Schrag, The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro, Johns Hopkins University Press (2014)
  3. Veena B. Dubal, Ruth Berins Collier, and Christopher L. Carter, “Disrupting Regulation, Regulating Disruption: The Politics of Uber in the United States,” Perspectives on Politics (2018)


Curation: Ireti Akinrinade

Production: Tunika Onnekikami

Web Support: Alessa Erawan

Design: Gloria Mendoza

Editorial: Eryn Loeb


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