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man above clouds


In German the word über is a common preposition and prefix meaning over or above, as well as meaning at times across, through, during, about, and among. The dots above the letter U in the original are called an umlaut and indicate a different pronunciation of that letter in German, which can also be indicated by writing the word as ueber, but the English adoption of the term is simply written uber.

Used as a prefix in English, uber creates a new version of the word it is added to that refers to a superior version of the original.  Effectively this superior version is in a class of its own, standing above and apart from all other competing versions, as in the word overlord.  The uber prefix can also imply super, superlative, and in slang can mean excessive or extreme or impressive.

The word is now becoming a noun in English, as you hear people say “I’ll take an uber,” meaning they will use a taxi service summoned via the app. Some drivers have even been heard referring to their casual driving employment as “ubering.” The rapid and aggressive expansion of the company has brought it into conflict with regulatory authorities and social norms in many countries and cities, as it runs ahead of, and sometimes around or outside of,  or even above, the law. Previously known as, they acquired the domain name for about $1m in 2010 precisely to avoid legal restrictions on them using the term cab without the required licence. Given the company’s interaction with large numbers of people and its ambition to replace human drivers with robots and deliver food and goods as well, ubering may become a sinister term or indeed be superseded by uberisation as human beings are progressively displaced and replaced.

The word has interesting and dark historical and political echoes in English and in German to this day. The nineteenth century German language philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche discussed an Ubermensch as a destination of human progress. Mensch means simply human being,  and Ubermensch is sometimes approximately translated into English as a Superman despite the cartoon shading that brings, and even the established alternative translation, Overman, is probably not sufficiently gender-neutral for today. Ubermensch was later employed by the Nazis to refer to their concept of a master race with rights to genocidal power over other lesser humans, for whom they invented the term Untermensch, since unter means beneath or below. As uber becomes more and more widespread in English, in future we might even find  Ubermensch rendered into English as Uberman or Uberbeing, or Uberoid.

“Deutschland über alles” is a familiar refrain from the German national anthem introduced in 1922, which after the Nazi era was limited to the third stanza. That change cut out the telling second line of the first stanza, “Über alles in der Welt,” which worryingly translates as above or over everything in the world.  Deutschland über alles as a  fascist phrase was echoed in the 1979 song California Uber Alles by a group called the Dead Kennedys, with the words describing a future fascist state masked in gentle sounding leftist rhetoric.  The song is strangely prophetic of the rise to power of today’s Silicon Valley capitalist elite with their rhetoric of freedom easing in their vast monopolies, spying and thought control systems sheltered under the sweet-sounding  concept of  people just sharing information. As so often, art foretells the future: a transnational totalitarianism achieved through solidarity of the digital billionairiate and the suicidal mass submission of the digital unterfolk.