On the fallacy of building technologies without cultural understanding.
Yesterday, my twitter timeline was consumed by a story from Fast Company about Bodega, a venture backed startup that put vending machine boxes in the lobbies of offices, apartment buildings, and other quasi-public spaces — thus eliminating the need (so they argued) for a real bodega, one staffed by humans and probably operated by immigrants. Bodegas are treasured institutions for many — they offer not just sundries and snacks, but also conversation, neighborhood news, and interactions.
In a rare moment of collectivity, my Twitter timeline filled up with not only disdain for this startup, disgust at the Silicon Valley mindset, but also an outpouring of love for real-life bodegas.
As someone who does not think that technology and humanity are inherently opposed, my thoughts turned quickly to how this concept could have been better executed. What do bodega owners know that engineers do not? How could these so-called innovators have brought the people they are accused of attempting to displace into the development of their product?
Speed and pressure in capitalism weigh us all down, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting something easy. I’ll admit, I’m as lazy as the next person, and will avail myself of conveniences where I can find them. As a grad student in Austin in the early-aughts, I lived next door to a mini-mart (semantically different than a Bodega but pretty much the same beast) that also had a taco truck. One month, I ate at that taco truck 23 times. (Freud called this “Repetition Compulsion”, I think of it as fond memory of my lost youth.)
What stood out most to me in the article was this bit, wherein the writer asked Bodega founder if he thought using the term Bodega, (and a cat in the logo), was offensive. His reply? “We did surveys in the Latin American community to understand if they felt the name was a misappropriation of that term or had negative connotations, and 97% said ‘no’. It’s a simple name and I think it works.”
This made me crack the fuck up. First, any notion of “the Latin American community” as a singular thing that can be found and surveyed is kind of hilarious. I’m a Cuban-American who grew up in Tejas and has lived my adult life in the Pacific Northwest. As an overeducated guera, I feel endlessly guilty about (what could be seen as hard won gains by generations of my family) my own white privilege and assimilation. So naturally, I send my kid to a Spanish immersion school, where her teacher is a Boricua hippie and she hangs out with Mexicanos, Columbianos, Peruvianos, and other kids who like her are more American than anything else and can check a couple of boxes on the race and ethnicity forms. If there is a singular Latin-American community, I’m certainly not a part of it. Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure that Bodegas are run by folks from around the world. (We Latinx can only really take credit for the name.)
Yet! as a social scientist and a lifelong lover of television, the hearing the terms “survey said!” bring to mind a particular form of data gathering that may be more entertaining than externally valid. That of television classic “Family Feud”, and obviously, its DF-produced Mexican counterpart “Cien Mexicanos Dijeron” (literally: 100 Mexicans Said).
My fave incarnation of Cien Mexicanos is its current one with Mexican TV icon Adrian “El Vitor” Uribe as the host, and I have to say that I strongly dislike Family Feud’s current host, Steve “Act Like a Lady” Harvey, who should have been fired from this prestigious job for making hateful racist comments about Asian Americans. However! I will gladly watch any incarnation of this show and idly fantasize about which of my nearest and dearest I would recruit to appear on it with me.
And, as far as inadvisable bullshit strategies for determining whether your product is offensive go, surveying a tv audience is not the worst (the worst is the most common in tech circles — asking your friends and coworkers.) Someone get El Vitor and Andreeson-Horowitz on the phone! I have an exciting proposal!
So, what have we learned in the past 36 hours? First, that you cannot ask strangers, point blank, without context “Is this culturally offensive to you” and expect a reliable answer. Second, that “disrupting” an industry without actually understanding it on a cultural level — when you blatantly attempt to displace a beloved cultural institution with a vending machine- is not helping anyone, except for maybe you and your investors. And third, that convenience always comes with tradeoffs, and those tradeoffs get magnified with scale.
Let’s make technology together with the people who will be impacted by it. Don’t ask if it’s offensive, ask them what works for them, then watch and listen.