Bodega backlash shows how fed up people are with Silicon Valley's hype machine
Silicon Valley just invented a racist glorified vending machine designed to kill your friendly neighborhood convenience store.
That was the narrative to which start-up Bodega debuted on Wednesday, thanks in part to a well-played Fast Companyheadline.
Two ex-Googlers are out to disrupt the largely immigrant-run mom-and-pop corner stores that dot major cities with self-serve cases of food and sundries, the story goes. The company's goal is to spread thousands of these pantry boxes, which are unlocked and billed via thapp, around apartment lobbies, offices, gyms, and other central locations.
The startup even shamelessly co-opted the bodega name and their ubiquitous feline mascots for its own logo.
The Twitter-sphere quickly chose a side. Bodega became the latest symbol of everything that people have come to detest about Silicon Valley and its breathless innovation-worship culture. All the ingredients were there:
- An invention that's essentially a perfectly ordinary thing that already exists
- A plan to displace an existing industry with a business model reliant on fewer workers and/or regulations
- Gentrification and cultural commodification
- A jarring apparent disconnect with the sensibilities of ordinary people
The condemnation kept the company's name in Twitter's top trends for most of the day:
Bodega probably could've slipped by as just another innocuous, if flimsy, start-up proposition were it not for its ill-conceived branding. And the company tried to cop up to its tone-deafness with the obligatory Medium-post apology.
But the volume of complaints against it also speaks to the growing skepticism with which the public has come to treat start-ups, venture capitalists, and the tech scene in general.
Tech startups were once able to reflexively cast themselves as paragons of innovation, facing off with backward big businesses for the unqualified betterment of society. That implicit moral imperative helped insulate them from the criticisms that businesses might otherwise face.
But as the industry came to dominate the economy, a litany of public relations problems eroded that image.
People woke up to the exploitative working conditions central to the business model of companies like Uber and other on-demand startups. An endless march of sexual harassment and discrimination scandals solidified the archetype of the tech bro. The contrast between the industry's bottomless well of dumb apps and the lofty world-changing rhetoric (and ungodly profits) became a meme in pop culture.
All of these sentiments seem to have reached some kind of critical mass in the wake of the bitter and divisive presidential election. Perhaps the spark was a by-product of the race's lingering sense of populism, which painted the elite establishment as out of touch with the needs of ordinary people.
Startups bordering on self-parody like Juicero and the app company behind the Fyre Festival disaster were singled out for how evocatively they demonstrated tech culture's worst excesses. Late capitalism—a catch-all term for the absurdities of an overgrown market economy—has suddenly come into vogue.
Established companies no longer get a pass either. Uber, which once enjoyed overwhelming public support in its crusade against overpriced and outmoded taxis, faced a mass boycott for its association with Trump. New York taxi unions emerged as the heroes of that controversy.
Meanwhile, the new order of tech's industrial titans face more scrutiny than ever. Facebook and Google are under fire for their role in spreading misinformation during the election. Google drew the ire of the left when the media uncovered a sexist memo that had circulated within the company, then angered the right by firing the employee that authored it. Each of those controversies has fueled a growing current of political support for stricter antitrust policies to combat tech oligopolies.
None of that has much to do with a tiny and ultimately trivial startup like Bodega, but it's all contributed to the way people view tech as a whole.
And the sentiment isn't confined to any one section of the political spectrum either—an impressive feat in our polarized political climate. The right has come to dislike the tech industry's progressive rhetoric and what they see as a restrictive culture, while the left rails against their frequent failure to live up to those ideas.
It seems that if there's one thing we can all get behind as a country, it's bodega cats.