“Silicon Valley just invented a racist glorified vending machine designed to kill your friendly neighborhood convenience store.”
That was the narrative to which the startup 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 app, 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 less workers and/or regulations
☑️ Gentrification and cultural commodification
☑️ A jarring apparent disconnect with the sensibilities of ordinary people
The small startup had inadvertently tapped into mounting collective feelings of distrust towards the tech industry that seem to have reached a fever pitch in the wake of a populism-heavy election cycle.
The condemnation kept the company’s name in Twitter’s top trends throughout most of the day:
it’s blatant. they want the convenience of the bodega without having to interact with the people whose neighborhood they invaded.
— king crissle (@crissles) September 13, 2017
So many Silicon Valley startups are about dudes wanting to replicate mom: carpooling, laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, bodegas
— Clara Jeffery (@ClaraJeffery) September 13, 2017
Bodega probably could’ve slipped by as just another innocuous, if flimsy, startup 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 speak to the growing skepticism with which the public has come to treat startups, venture capitalists, and the tech scene in general.
Tech startups were once able to reflexively cast themselves as paragons of innovation, facing off with backwards big businesses for the unqualified betterment of society. That implicit moral imperative helped insulate them from the criticisms that businesses might otherwise face.
whole point of a startup narrative is “we’re the little guy going after big evil corp!” not “we’re here to kill your hispanic grandma”
— ಠ_ಠ (@MikeIsaac) September 13, 2017
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 formed 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.
The race to nominate a ‘startup person/company that’s an asshole’ every month is just a little bit unhealthy. Seems new this year, I think.
— Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) September 13, 2017
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 Donald 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 bipartisan 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 its 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.
I’m so glad that in these divided times we can all come together on Twitter to hate on these Bodega guys.
— Andre Plaut (@andreplaut) September 13, 2017