One of the more familiar sounds of Dhaka — “Ai khali” (loosely translates into “Hey empty!”) — is also a ride hailing call from passengers out on the streets trying to catch the attention of rickshaw or autorickshaw drivers. Ebbing and flowing, these calls, to the gravitational pull of the work day, or weekends, holidays, supply and demand. An act similar to raising your arms to call a yellow cab in New York, each place generating collective tendencies, a habitus coalesced from everyday practice and need. “Ai khali” isn’t Dhaka culture any more than a raised arm is New York culture; it isn’t culture in that voyeuristic, slightly ordered understanding of the term. In an unkempt use of the word, something specific to a place but without design — at some point people started using it and others picked up, hence that organic familiarity — an attachment, “ai khali” is of Dhaka.
Like many other cities, the entry of Uber and other ridesharing apps are about to usurp this interaction in Dhaka, a piece of urban ephemera, with algorithm-driven, seemingly frictionless encounters between the ride and rider. Using this phrase to call attention to a driver has not always been a feature of Dhaka streets, nor is it universal and would-be passengers use other phrases and gestures too, but it is common enough to register as significant. With time “ai khali” could disappear just as it emerged, unheralded, but ridesharing apps resurface landscapes and encounters
in the monotony of an algorithm so these encounters, or at least their process, feels the same no matter where one is. New York isn’t obviously Dhaka, but in an algorithm imaginary many of these differences are attractive for disruption. For Dhaka, that disruption is replacing the messiness of hailing and bargaining with app-mediated interactions with drivers. But there is a cost to engineering away unpredictability of human relationships no matter how transient, whether in ride hailing or dating. Sold as convenience and data-driven matchmaking to reduce friction, these mediations may also as Frank Pasquale writes in “Two Narratives of Platform Capitalism” (2017) lead to customers experiencing “loss of agency when serendipitous or unpredictable options are effectively hidden or obscured.”