At the Shiru Café close to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, students can get a cup of coffee without spending a dime. The currency here is information.
Students can get free coffee if they fill in an online form. They list personal details such as their names, phone numbers, and email addresses alongside less generic information about their program of study and their career ambitions.
The café’s business model is to pass this data on to recruiters at companies that sponsor the café, such as JP Morgan, who hold events where they discuss career choices with students. Screens that surround the tables—the coffee is only free if you stay inside—project advertisements for internship programs.
Shiru’s website describes its mission: “Through a free drink we try to give students some information which sponsor companies would like to give exclusively to university students to diversify the choices of their future career.”
Shiru staff hover around amidst the free wifi and phone charging ports, ready to dispense career information. Naturally, the free drinks are really being paid for by the corporations, who are buying access to lobby potential job applicants—one coffee bean at a time.
At first blush, there might seem to be something depressingly transactional, or even predatory, about selling your personal information in exchange for caffeine and juice.
After all, none of us like to think of ourselves as a target market. We don’t like to reflect on the many competing forces that seek to shape our choices, especially about something as personal and important as our career decisions.
Yet, in another light, Shiru Café is refreshingly open and honest about its use of personal data. Facebook’s business model, which we’ve all had ample cause to contemplate recently as the company’s data policies came into question, has always been the same: it gathers information about you and sells it to advertisers who want to influence the decisions you make.
In exchange, they provide a service: access to the website, a tailored stream of endless content designed to keep you clicking, free of charge. Those colossal data centers don’t come for free: you pay for them with your information and your attention in the attention economy.
The old maxim rings true: if you’re getting something for free, you’re the product.
For some, the information economy is already far too deeply ingrained to start worrying about it now. Nina Wolff Landau, a student, told NPR that the data collected is easily accessible on LinkedIn or other websites with a quick Google search.
“Maybe I should have been more apprehensive, but everyone has your information at this point anyway,” she said. “To give out my name and email and what I study does not seem so risky to me.”
In some respects, Shiru Café actually represents a step forward for how we view our data. After all, many people currently allow all kinds of third-party apps to access their personal information through Facebook Login, giving Facebook’s advertising platform data about how you use that app, and providing the app with the data that you gave to Facebook.
All that personal information about you, and your friends, and people you’ve never met made less secure, and for what? The convenience of not having to fill in another form, or remember another password. If your privacy already has such a low price attached, why not take the free coffee?
And at least there is a modicum of transparency, if not corporate responsibility, in Shiru’s business model. When the students at Brown take issue with JP Morgan sponsoring the café due to their role in the 2008 financial crisis, there is a target for their ire and an organization to boycott.
When a social media giant’s algorithm targets teenagers that it judges to be depressed, or people who it judges might fall victim to a predatory loan, it can just blame the black-box nature of that algorithm.
Yet this argument—that we should all just accept the insidious commodification of our personalities and lives as a fait accompli and try to profit out of the bargain—is hardly reassuring. It can seem like dystopian science fiction struggles to keep up with reality. The new Netflix show Maniac features “Ad Buddys,” a system of payment whereby you can pay for goods or services by letting an actor recite ads at you.
The brave new world of dataism, where everything from your shopping habits to your biometric signatures is fodder for machine learning algorithms that want to understand everything about you, holds promise.
All that data could be used to make more convenient and more effective services; it could be used to aid in everything from healthcare to disaster response. Or it could be sold to the highest bidder and expose you to a stream of ads.
Technological developments like the Internet of Things and the smart home might be the next step in convenience and time-saving in the same way that electrical appliances like the vacuum cleaner, dishwasher, and washing machine were decades before.
Or they could be easing us deeper into a world of “participatory surveillance,” where we exchange comfort and convenience for an external presence that’s always monitoring us in the background.
Whatever you think of Shiru’s experiment—and reviews are certainly mixed so far both from corporations and students—the way our data and information are handled is a crucial topic for contemplation.
If your information and your attention are so valuable to so many corporations, shouldn’t they have value to you?
Viewing data exchange as a transaction makes us reflect on what else we might be giving away for less than the price of a cup of coffee—and, perhaps sooner than we think, an era when this kind of transaction may no longer be optional.