Juice — yes, the beverage — has experienced a renaissance of late: Juice bars. Juice cleanses. Juices for enlightenment, juices for energy, juices that might just cure cancer. But efforts to capitalize on the juice craze have only served to illustrate what’s wrong with Silicon Valley thinking.
Into the thirsty void of 2016 strode Juicero Inc., a company touting a revolutionary in-home juicing gadget that would provide cold-pressed beverages on demand. WiFi enabled and equipped with a QR code scanner, the Juicero was designed to squeeze eight ounces of juice out of a single-serve “produce pack” filled with pre-cut fruits and veggies, eliminating any muss, fuss or effort on the part of the purchaser. Several of these could be delivered to subscribers’ doorsteps each week for maximum freshness.
A minor detail: Each packet of almost-juice cost between $5 and $8. Oh, and the Juicero machine itself started at $400.
Still, Silicon Valley backers saw fit to pour about $120 million dollars into the venture. But now that the product has hit the market, investors have been horrified to find that the pricey gadget is essentially useless. Two Bloomberg reporters discovered on Wednesday that you can squeeze the produce packs with your bare hands. In fact, there is now video evidence that squeezing one yourself produces approximately the same amount of juice just as fast as — maybe even faster than — using the machine.
As the reveal squelched its way across the Web, investors grew angrier and ridicule mounted. At the story’s peak, Juicero chief executive Jeff Dunn felt compelled to issue a heartfelt statement: “The value of Juicero is more than a glass of cold-pressed juice. Much more.”
Have you stopped laughing yet?
While risible, the Juicero fiasco is a perfect example of some of the most, er, pressing problems with the venture-capital way of thinking. These should be of concern to anyone who hopes that Silicon Valley will be the place to produce the solutions to future problems.
The first issue is the mind-set that produces a product such as the Juicero, a bias for always favoring the next new thing. Tech critic Evgeny Morozov uses the phrase “technological solutionism” to describe the tendency to identify overly-simple answers before questions have been asked or problems fully articulated. Silicon Valley’s start-up scene increasingly seems to thrive on “optimizing” and “disrupting” things that actually don’t need any help at all.
Juicero Inc. is a prime example, an expensive solution to a non-existent cold-pressed juice shortage. Company executives and investors were so eager to make a profit off of a overhyped new product and its lucrative subscription model that they apparently didn’t bother to see whether it actually made sense. While the Juicero press might wield enough force “to lift two Teslas”– the fact that Teslas are the preferred unit of measurement is revealing in itself — that doesn’t turn it into anything other than what it is: a gratuitous gadget whose existence is barely even relevant to the fake problem it purports to solve.
Yet it’s Juicero, Inc.’s response to this week’s hand-squeezing debacle that sheds light on the bigger problem endemic to the whole Silicon Valley mind-set. Their CEO’s statement is a prime example of solipsism masquerading as benevolence, and a self-regard that makes it easy for those who think they have all the answers to avoid discussing actual problems and useful solutions.
Rather than admitting what the Juicero actually is — an entirely unnecessary device targeted at the tiny segment of the population who, for some reason, need expensive juice gadgets that they can control with their cell phones — Dunn claimed that his life’s work was in “solving our nation’s nutrition and obesity challenges.” His statement went on to embrace Juicero as the best solution so far, describing a mythological “frazzled dad” who needs the juicer in order to do something good for himself while getting kids ready for school, and a “busy professional” whose Juicero reminders keep her from wasting her hard-earned money. (Note to the busy professional: You’ve bought a Juicero! It’s too late!)
Of course, if Juicero really cared about solving issues of nutrition and obesity, or even helping stressed parents and overworked laborers, it might have used the $120 million dollars it received in funding to develop a product that did more than cater to one tiny market segment’s self-centered view of what the problem of nutrition looks like and the best way to solve it. It might be less glamorous and might not involve QR codes and WiFi, but it might also make a difference to those who live outside the affluent Silicon Valley bubble.
The problem with the Juicero is not that it’s a luxury good — there’s a market for fancy juice after all, and someone would eventually have filled it. But by pretending that a comically superfluous in-home juice press will Save the Nation from poor nutrition, the company is trivializing the real work that doing so would take. It’s the sort of self-congratulation that allows well-funded tech companies to signal that they care, distract from real problem-solving and absolve themselves of responsibility while doing nothing at all.