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.