With “Bodega,” Ex-Googlers Launch Attack on Beloved Feature of City Life

The "unmanned pantry boxes" use a cat for a logo, because why not honor the immigrant-run small businesses you seek to destroy?

Silicon Valley has coughed up some pretty bad ideas: the Juicero, Peepl, Yo. And tone-deafness has plagued startups and the gig economy, be it Lyft crowing about how a driver in labor kept picking up rides on her way to the hospital while maybe counting the seconds between her contractions, or dispatching an exec to a conference to harangue San Francisco because certain homeless people can be icky sometimes.

Now we’ve learned two former Googlers, Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan, want to create Bodega, a network of “unmanned pantry boxes” full of nonperishables and other things you randomly find yourself out of sometimes. Rather than go to the nearest corner store, you’d use an app to unlock the box under the watchful eye of a camera and pay by credit card. To really hammer home the point that this is about vanquishing small, largely immigrant-run businesses, they gave it the same name as the institution of city life that they wish to destroy. (In case you’ve ever thought “bodega” was a strange word,” it’s basically the Spanish cognate for “boutique.”)

And Bodega’s logo is a cat, because many brick-and-mortar bodegas keep them to kill rodents — often taking the risk that it’s better to be fined for having a cat on-site than shut down altogether for having vermin. They also have to deal with awful Yelpers over it.

The other unappealing part of this is the blithe dismissal of people’s reasons for patronizing their corner store. For what it’s worth, less than two weeks ago, I moved. I walked into the bodega diagonally opposite my building, where the guy behind the counter immediately marked me as a newbie and started chatting me up as I bought Tecate, kettle chips, and Pepperidge Farm cookies to take to the beach. Within five minutes, I learned all about his brother, who co-owns the market. (They look alike, I’m told, but the brother has less hair.)

You can’t replace that kind of pleasant human interaction, which sands down the rough edges of city living — or you shouldn’t want to. Corner stores are also politically active, too. Remember the mass walk-out of Yemeni bodega owners in response to Trump’s Muslim ban? And are McDonald and Rajan sure they want to kill of this Instagram account, brah?

Bodega is gross, of course. But let’s not be naive and think this is limited to a couple of clueless people with a slick pitch deck. It’s basically the entire direction that consumerism is heading in, not unlike Amazon killing bookstores — or even Walmart. (For what it’s worth, Walmart is pretty evil, but it’s also a gigantic employer in rural America, and for Walmart to shutter stores because tech-driven Amazon undercut it would mean grave harm to lots of low-income people.)

The premise of Bodega isn’t that you’re getting gouged by mom-and-pop shops that don’t purchase wholesale goods in bulk. It’s that face-to-face commerce is an inherently inefficient anachronism that must be swept away, irrespective of any collateral damage that might cause. It’s the elevation of markets over humans, taken to its logical conclusion.

Fast Company has a telling quote:

“The vision here is much bigger than the box itself,” McDonald says. “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.”

Oh, really? Given the furor with which some people greet AT&Ts boxes and other street furniture, I’d love to see these guys station 50 of these puppies — whose logo will almost certainly glow through the night, in some fashion — along every mile of Market Street. Did it really not occur to Bodega’s founders to consider the responses to Ford GoBike? Even if McDonald’s 100-foot figure is self-aggrandizing puffery off by a factor of 100, I’m pretty sure we’re only talking about the most affluent, urbanized parts of America, too. Too many tech conveniences equate the whole world with a very small slice of it, conceive of all the world’s unsolved problems as if everyone alive were a helpless man-baby, and operate accordingly.

But the reaction has been quite satisfying. After yesterday’s worldwide pile-on on Ted Cruz and this, I’m starting to enjoy Twitter a lot more.

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