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‘Bodega’ Shows Silicon Valley Hates Human Communities

Wealthy young millennials probably don't understand bodegas. Buzzy new startup Bodega, which aims to kill corner stores by replacing them with optimized vending machines, certainly does not. I doubt Bodega will be more than a flash in the pan, but its willful blindness to its potential social effects, once again, shows the worst of Silicon Valley.

Simply put, Silicon Valley disdains cities.

OpinionsI mean, we knew that already. The funded founders of Silicon Valley tend to be young, childless, rootless transplants, who've poured their time and passion into their business ideas and headed West, like so many others throughout history, to make it rich. Once they get there, they spend their time on campus at Google, Apple, or Facebook, not at the corner store. They hang out with other people like them, in carefully curated contexts that make them believe everyone is like them. And because they're coders and engineers, they love efficient systems.

Cities tend to be messy, with a lot of knock-on effects and ad-hoc aspects. Take the role of bodegas. Here in New York, bodegas are technically grocery stores, but the grocery-store aspect is their least interesting quality. They're fully staffed hubs of urban life. They're the safe spaces you can walk into, at night, when someone's following you on the street. They run cell phone lockers for kids at the high school down the block, which doesn't allow phones. One of them is my local UPS pick-up point. Another one is frequently full of tweens gossiping. They're also one of the remaining ways immigrants lift themselves up, generation by generation, as parents who work in bodegas pay the way for their kids to work in tech.

Bodega the startup, on the other hand, is a hotel honor bar which gets plonked into an apartment building so "centralized shopping locations won't be necessary," founder Paul McDonald told Fast Company. "Bodegas can't compete with this technology, because it is so much more expensive to have a brick-and-mortar store than a small machine," spokesman Frank Garcia told FC.

Silicon Valley has been "disrupting" things it didn't think were clean or efficient enough for awhile, without thought to the broader community effects. Usually, they're "disrupting" things in ways that would appeal to wealthy young millennial consumers and not to the poor, elderly, disabled, or its own employees. Take the Lyft Line shuttle, which cherry-picks public transit routes, in non-wheelchair-accessible vehicles, giving its workers considerably worse pay and benefits than city bus drivers.

They don't have to do things this way. When Citymapper wanted to start a bus service, it actually worked with Transport for London to integrate it into TfL's network, declaring itself to be part of the community, not better than the community.

Bodega's concept could be a good one if the founders and their funders weren't jerks. As this brilliant Twitter thread explains, there are millions of people in the US who live nowhere near walkable retail, who are mobility compromised and could really benefit from a selection of goods in or near their homes. Bodega placed in soulless exurban apartment complexes would hurt only CVS. But instead, these guys target a niche that's already filled.

One of the results of Silicon Valley-driven consolidation is that small businesses get stamped out by behemoths. Amazon killed a thousand bookstores, which paid taxes and had owners. Those owners bought things, invested in things, and sent their kids to college. Uber slaughters taxi companies. Bodega wants to clear-cut bodegas. The problem here isn't creative destruction: it's many being replaced by one, business being consolidated into fewer and fewer hands. Yes, Walmart and other big-box stores started the process, emptying out rural downtowns, but Bodega founder McDonald came from Google, a company that once said "don't be evil."

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If economic efficiency is the only goal, and low prices and high profits are the only measure, communities will crumble. As I said, with Walmart and its ilk, they were crumbling already. That's no reason to actively make the problem worse.

I don't fault the bushy-tailed creators of Bodega, not really. They're just individuals with an idea who live in their bubble. I fault the venture capitalists of Silicon Valley who handed them sacks of money, "including Josh Kopelman at First Round Capital, Kirsten Green at Forerunner Ventures, and Hunter Walk at Homebrew," according to FC. We've seen a tight group of private venture capitalists become the funding for our new public services and the structure of our communities, as our politicians sit paralyzed by social division, corruption, and a lack of the desire to invest in even basic services, like buried power lines to protect from storms.

But let's hope that outrage against Bodega, flooding across the internet today, will send its creators back to the drawing board to ask: how can we build up our communities, not shatter them? In a fragile American time, that's what we need. Don't rip out our cities' little hearts for a better venture investment return.

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Does Google’s Duplex violate two-party consent laws?

Google’s Duplex, which calls businesses on your behalf and imitates a real human, ums and ahs included, has sparked a bit of controversy among privacy advocates. Doesn’t Google recording a person’s voice and sending it to a data center for analysis violate two-party consent law, which requires everyone in a conversation to agree to being recorded? The answer isn’t immediately clear, and Google’s silence isn’t helping. Let’s take California’s law as the example, since that’s the state where Google is based and where it used the system. Penal Code section 632 forbids recording any “confidential communication” (defined more or less as any non-public conversation) without the consent of all parties. (The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has a good state-by-state guide to these laws.) Google has provided very little in the way of details about how Duplex actually works, so attempting to answer this question involves a certain amount of informed speculation. To begin with I’m going to consider all phone calls as “confidential” for the purposes of the law. What constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy is far from settled, and some will have it that you there isn’t such an expectation when making an appointment with a salon. But what about a doctor’s office, or if you need to give personal details over the phone? Though some edge cases may qualify as public, it’s simpler and safer (for us and for Google) to treat all phone conversations as confidential. What we know about Google’s Duplex demo so far As a second assumption, it seems clear that, like most Google services, Duplex’s work takes place in a data center somewhere, not locally on your device. So fundamentally there is a requirement in the system that the other party’s audio will be recorded and sent in some form to that data center for processing, at which point a response is formulated and spoken. On its face it sounds bad for Google. There’s no way the system is getting consent from whomever picks up the phone. That would spoil the whole interaction — “This call is being conducted by a Google system using speech recognition and synthesis; your voice will be analyzed at Google data centers. Press 1 or say ‘I consent’ to consent.” I would have hung up after about two words. The whole idea is to mask the fact that it’s an AI system at all, so getting consent that way won’t work. But there’s wiggle room as far as the consent requirement in how the audio is recorded, transmitted and stored. After all, there are systems out there that may have to temporarily store a recording of a person’s voice without their consent — think of a VoIP call that caches audio for a fraction of a second in case of packet loss. There’s even a specific cutout in the law for hearing aids, which if you think about it do in fact do “record” private conversations. Temporary copies produced as part of a legal, beneficial service aren’t the target of this law. This is partly because the law is about preventing eavesdropping and wiretapping, not preventing any recorded representation of conversation whatsoever that isn’t explicitly authorized. Legislative intent is important. “There’s a little legal uncertainty there, in the sense of what degree of permanence is required to constitute eavesdropping,” said Mason Kortz, of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “The big question is what is being sent to the data center and how is it being retained. If it’s retained in the condition that the original conversation is understandable, that’s a violation.” For instance, Google could conceivably keep a recording of the call, perhaps for AI training purposes, perhaps for quality assurance, perhaps for users’ own records (in case of time slot dispute at the salon, for example). They do retain other data along these lines. But it would be foolish. Google has an army of lawyers and consent would have been one of the first things they tackled in the deployment of Duplex. For the onstage demos it would be simple enough to collect proactive consent from the businesses they were going to contact. But for actual use by consumers the system needs to engineered with the law in mind. What would a functioning but legal Duplex look like? The conversation would likely have to be deconstructed and permanently discarded immediately after intake, the way audio is cached in a device like a hearing aid or a service like digital voice transmission. A closer example of this is Amazon, which might have found itself in violation of COPPA, a law protecting children’s data, whenever a kid asked an Echo to play a Raffi song or do long division. The FTC decided that as long as Amazon and companies in that position immediately turn the data into text and then delete it afterwards, no harm and, therefore, no violation. That’s not an exact analogue to Google’s system, but it is nonetheless instructive. “It may be possible with careful design to extract the features you need without keeping the original, in a way where it’s mathematically impossible to recreate the recording,” Kortz said. If that process is verifiable and there’s no possibility of eavesdropping — no chance any Google employee, law enforcement officer or hacker could get into the system and intercept or collect that data — then potentially Duplex could be deemed benign, transitory recording in the eye of the law. That assumes a lot, though. Frustratingly, Google could clear this up with a sentence or two. It’s suspicious that the company didn’t address this obvious question with even a single phrase, like Sundar Pichai adding during the presentation that “yes, we are compliant with recording consent laws.” Instead of people wondering if, they’d be wondering how. And of course we’d all still be wondering why. We’ve reached out to Google multiple times on various aspects of this story, but for a company with such talkative products, they sure clammed up fast.

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