Handing over personal data to pay for a coffee? Welcome to the world's most dystopian cafe

Shiru Cafe in Providence, Rhode Island is getting students to give them personal data instead of financial payment. The business innovation may be normalised sooner than you think. 

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We don’t need many more indicators that we’re living in a late-capitalist hell of our own making. From paying four hundred dollars for juice to tracking our children under the guise of a fun toy, it’s painfully evident that the merge of tech, data, and happy-go-lucky branding is making modern life more dystopian by the day. And nothing embodies that spirit of dread more than the new coffee shop, Shiru Cafe, in Providence, Rhode Island. Shiru is a coffee shop built exclusively for students and staff at Brown University that does not require students to pay for their coffee.

While this initially sounds like a wonderfully altruistic endeavour to be kind to overworked students, there is, of course, a heinous catch. In exchange for a free coffee, students must handover swathes of personal information, from their date of birth to their phone number to their personal and professional interests. After providing this information, students must permit corporate sponsors to get in touch with them via phone or email to send them targeted advertising based on their submitted personal data. Sponsors range from banks to tech giants to car companies. 

The cafe also entices students in by promising to increase their career prospects, hosting recruitment sessions for companies such as JP Morgan and Microsoft within the shop. Shiru has even boasted that 40 per cent of JP Morgan’s hires from Brown University were Shiru Cafe patrons (although some students at Brown have disputed this claim).

The cafe so eerily echoes a plot line in Netflix’s new series, Maniac, that was released just last month. The dystopian world within which Maniac operates, people who can’t afford certain services (be it train tickets, a drink, or a sandwich) can instead get an “AdBuddy” to get them that service for free. The AdBuddies are real humans who sit with the patron for the length of time it takes to consume that service or item, and read aloud advertisements to them while they do so. This is the price they pay for a free product.

And this is what’s so unsettling about Shiru’s business model – it’s entirely predictable. Giving up our personal information is the logical next step within our current trajectory, where “data is king” and “whoever holds the data will rule the world.” Although both the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the GDPR implementation heightened our general awareness around our personal data, we’re still handing it over en masse; allowing companies to still track our purchases, entrusting social media platforms with our intimate details, and mindlessly clicking “accept” when we get a pop-up about cookies. Shiru’s innovation is unsurprising to the point of being overwrought; so much so that, now, when shows like Black Mirror and Maniac adopt storylines that include data manipulation like this, they are criticised for being a bit too on the nose. The surprising thing is that it’s taken this long for an idea like this to succeed.

One could argue that, where the problem lies, is in the service itself; that asking for people’s data in exchange for free hot drinks is unethical and plainly malevolent. This is a fair criticism, and it most definitely is a problem in and of itself. However, there is a broader problem - people who can’t afford to pay for basic things are willing to exchange their valuable personal information. This sort of exchange, through companies like Shiru, is beginning to be normalised. In nearly every profile of Shiru published thus far, reporters have noted that students are more than happy to patronise the cafe, and more than willing to hand over things like their career aspirations and their phone number for a free drink. We’re living in a society where basic goods and services have become unaffordable, and companies have figured out a way to harvest data from this inequality and desperation.

Shiru has announced plans to expand to other university campuses across the northeast of America by the end of the year, in locations near Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. It has also noted aspirations to expand into the UK in the near future. And while Shiru is just one cafe company, the ease with which people have come to accept handing over data for services suggests these kinds of personal data payments going to spread further from our online lives into our physical ones.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.