Views My Own

Silicon Valley’s Hot New Startup Is a Vending Machine for the Rich

Buckle up for the latest disruption from the technovators at Silicon Valley.

by Eve Peyser
Sep 13 2017, 6:00pm


In big cities like New York or LA, there are a ton of little shops—sometimes called "bodegas" or "delis"—that sell late-night snacks, groceries, the occasional breakfast sandwich, beer, cigarettes, diapers, lotto tickets, tampons, and other miscellaneous items. They're often the only independent business on gentrifying blocks full of banks and chains. Lots of them are owned and run by immigrants; many have cats lurking in them somewhere.

Now imagine if you could fulfill your basic corner store needs without ever leaving the comfort of your home or having the burden of interacting with a human being. Imagine if there were a machine in the lobby of your apartment building that could dispense the items normally sold at a corner store, rendering the traditional marketplace a thing of the past, and bringing us even closer to turning into those humans from WALL-E. That's the idea for Bodega, a "concept" founded by two Google veterans that, as described by Fast Company, "sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store."

While Bodega's big idea might be understood by technophobes as a "vending machine," it is so much more than that. There's also an app that allows "you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you've picked up, automatically charging your credit card."

If you're like me, this "concept"—it's not quite developed enough to be called an actual business—has you burning with rage for two reasons. The first and less important one is that every goddamn day the tech geniuses of Silicon Valley invent something that has existed for a long time, like back in June when Lyft's new feature was basically a city bus. Today, we've been reintroduced to the vending machine. What mysteries will tomorrow hold? Uber, but for trains? LinkedIn, but for pets? A phone, but for making calls?

But the more troubling element of Bodega is that it wants to render its namesake obsolete. The men behind it have been testing it out with 30 of their machines in the Bay Area, but they want to expand to the point where there are "100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you." This is a vision that mirrors that of Seamless and Uber, apps that undeniably make life more convenient by reducing the need to interact with the people who cook your food and drive you places. The aim is to turn the world into a frictionless place where you never need to look up from your phone. If it's successful in supplanting real stores, Bodega will replace countermen and cashiers with more anonymous workers who have to stock these boxes, unless they decide to go with drones instead.

This sounds like hell to me. As much as I abuse the Seamless app, I like having to get my ass out of the house and interact with a human being in order to get a quart of milk or a pack of cigarettes. As a lifelong New Yorker, I know the joy of the bodega—befriending the store's cat, having the owner know your sandwich order before you even get to the deli counter, and indulging in local delicacies like the chopped cheese sandwich. The word "bodega" conjures up images of a friendly local market—which is probably why the Google bros appropriated it.

It goes unsaid in the Fast Company piece, but the places that Bodega's founders imagine their boxes appearing—gyms, dorms, offices presumably upscale apartment buildings—are not places bodega shoppers have access to. As Fernando Mateo, the spokesman for the Bodega Association of the United States, explained in a 2012 interview with TIME, "In Central and South America and the Caribbean, they have bodegas on every corner to serve the poor... New York City is basically the largest urban community in the world. Bodegas serve people who are used to that service in their native countries."

Even the interface of Bodega's makes it clear that these devices are not going to be for those people. For instance, you need a smartphone and a credit card just to open a Bodega—Fast Company doesn't say whether these things would take EBT cards, but it does not seem likely that they will.

The app Bodega will not replace actual bodegas, which serve communities in need. Instead, as Fast Company explains, it gives "brands a chance to put particular products in front of their target consumer. If a deodorant brand is going after young women, they might value making their product available at a dorm."

The last thing we need—especially young women—is more things marketed to us. The last thing the upper-middle class needs is another gadget that makes life marginally easier and more isolated from the outside world. But we get the tech we deserve.

Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.

Silicon Valley