Silicon Valley often pisses the internet off, and this week is no exception. After last month's Google diversity memo scandal, and the Uber management hubbub that made waves this past June, it's no secret that the tech industry has plenty of issues with diversity, gender disparities, and broader political correctness. But the most recent outrage centers around two ex-Googlers who are attempting to render bodegas obsolete through glorified vending machines: users would download an app, find a Bodega box nearby (stocked with household essentials, food products, and the like), enter the box's number into the app, and take out the goods they want to purchase with cameras tracking the purchase and automatically charging the customer.
The Internet exploded with outrage, as it is wont to do.
Bodegas (or corner stores, convenience stores, or whatever else you might call them) are traditionally immigrant-owned small businesses. Many are interpreting the new Bodega concept as an affront to immigrants, small business owners, and communities everywhere, especially based on co-founder Paul McDonald's comment that "Eventually, centralized shopping locations won't be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you."
But critics should save their petty outrage because this idea is likely to fail on its own if it's not what the market wants.
A central part of naysayers' complaints has to do with the personal aspect of bodegas. They're places where you can establish a relationship with the owners and workers even amidst the chaos of a big city environment. When all else is daunting, you can rely on your trusty neighborhood bodega for conversation and breakfast sandwiches.
The creators of Bodega likely see their product as something that can replace the traditional corner store, or at least compete heavily with it, but traditional bodegas have a personal touch that the app creators have fully eradicated. As evidenced by the outrage, human interaction still matters to people. So this new business will likely fail on its own if it's not meeting that crucial need––no Twitter rage necessary. Or the more likely scenario is that stated preferences differ from actual preferences, and humans fear change and automation, but will ultimately use new fixtures like Bodega, as speed and convenience matter more to them than they want to think.
Regardless, it's foolish to act like this is yet another example of Silicon Valley failing politically. The entrepreneurs who made Bodega have taken this bad PR quite seriously, writing a Medium post to address misappropriation concerns: "Despite our best intentions and our admiration for traditional bodegas, we clearly hit a nerve this morning, we apologize. Rather than disrespect to traditional corner stores – or worse yet, a threat – we intended only admiration."
But this app will likely threaten bodega owners, even if it's not maliciously designed to target them, and no apology is needed. Startups, by their very nature, often threaten to replace existing companies, or create products and systems that render certain industries obsolete. Some succeed, some fail, but they're almost always experiments in what could make our lives easier, better, longer, or more connected.
And if consumers dislike this form of the traditional corner store, they should refuse to shop there. Point blank.
The assumption couched within all of this is that disruption and innovation are bad, and that old industries should never be threatened or replaced. This sentimental argument is appealing, but let's not assume that the impressive immigrant business owners who have run successful bodegas for decades won't use their hard-earned entrepreneurial skills to create more successful ventures. And let's not assume that human interaction is dead or dying – it's clear, from the fear we express towards automation, that we place a high premium on community even in our smartphone-infested world.
So stop dragging entrepreneurs through the mud when they're just doing their jobs. Vote for your preferences with your dollar, and the market will send your message for you better than an angry tweet ever could. And don't fear automation just because it's new and scary.
After all, it's us, the consumers, that gets to decide which industries fail and which survive.
Liz Wolfe (@lizzywol) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is managing editor at Young Voices.
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