Why do tech startups insist that their pet businesses will help poor people?
The Atlantic Online published a story on fake shrimp last week. Apparently, some smart, enterprising 20-somethings have an idea to create a kind of “shrimp” that would taste good, but not grow in the ocean or actually be a marine animal. I’d try it, why not?
They pegged the story to the horrific revelations about forced labor and awful conditions for workers and sailors in the shrimp supply chain. The article cheerfully suggests, “plant-based seafood might be the answer.”
But what was the question?
If the question was how to help abused workers in warehouses in Thailand, I don’t see any logical argument there. If successful, fake shrimp would substitute for real shrimp and should compete with – and reduce demand for real shrimp. That means lower prices, lower production for real shrimp. Why does putting prices and competitive pressure on the real shrimp industry help the workers?
If the question is how to make shrimp consumers feel less guilty about eating a product that might have slave labor and abuse in the background, then then maybe fake shrimp is the answer. Great, consumers can feel good eating popcorn shrimp. But let’s not pretend this does anything to improve lives among poor people in the shrimp supply chain.
This is just the latest example of a short play I’ve seen at an avant garde theater:
BIG SOCIAL PROBLEM (BSP) enters stage right, “sad sad sad” music.
Cheerful problem solver (CPS) from California enters, stage left.
CPS: “Hey, I have a gadget!”
Stage is suddenly swarmed with venture capitalists, impact investors. The words “idea lab”, “philanthrocapitalism”, “social venture” flash on the screen. CPS, puts on a headset and runs through a power point on the screen while wandering the stage. The sound of gushing money plays in the background. BSP looks on, joins in the excitement. BiIl Clinton walks slowly across stage and hangs a large medal around the neck of CPS. Bill Clinton lifts the hand of CPS in victory and waves the audience. Cheers rise up. BSP, smiling, joins hands with Bill Clinton and CPS.
Two years later.
BIG SOCIAL PROBLEM enters stage left, “sad sad sad” music. BSP stands alone centerstage, staring out at the audience.
I get annoyed with these tech/biotech start-ups claiming they’re helping poor people when that’s not really the goal, nor the likely outcome. Creating an alternative to shrimp might be a good thing to do, might help real shrimp which are being over-fished, might give consumers some tasty alternatives, might make investors some money. But it isn’t a good strategy to improve the lives of workers in the shrimp supply chain. Displacing the product that poor people make, isn’t helping poor people. Polyester doesn’t help poor cotton farmers. Many tech innovators make these kinds of claims, and too often they’re passed along without any comment, critique or question.