Why we should be angry about Manchester City, a ‘connected’ scarf and surveillance capitalism

·6-min read
Manchester City scarf Credit: PA Images
Manchester City scarf Credit: PA Images

Manchester City want your data and they’re prepared to sell you a scarf to mine it. Why should that bother anybody?

Usually when a company markets a product designed to leech data from its users they at least have the courtesy to pretend to be offering a service in exchange.

When, for example, Google scans your emails to extract and sell millions of data points on your movements, thoughts and feelings, they sneak it past you with a slick app, a quick search feature, an ‘undo send’ button – largely useless stuff masquerading as progress.

So what makes Manchester City’s new ‘connected scarf’ – containing a sensor to track emotional and physiological data – apparently such an egregious attack on supporters’ privacy is the total absence of sales pitch. Nowhere in the promotional material does anybody posit why a supporter might want to own the scarf or how it might benefit them. But who this product is really for, and what purpose it serves, is no mystery. It is not for you.

‘We are excited to share an innovative upgrade to the scarf that allows us to measure those ups and downs and get a better understanding of the emotion at the heart of the world’s beautiful game,’ reads the club statement. Note: allows us to measure. There is nothing here for the supporter and consumer.

The official website is littered with vague platitudes and ominous subtext. ‘We are only just scratching the surface of what the connected scarf can do’ is written in block capitals next to a smiling Aymeric Laporte. ‘We are excited by what we’ll discover.’

NFT should stand for No F***ing Tolerance at all

The club have yet to detail how they will handle privacy concerns once the smart scarf moves out of its pilot phase or indeed how much data will be shared with marketing partners. They did not respond to Football365’s requests for clarification.

In the absence of an explanation or denial of data sharing in the promotional material, should we assume they will be selling and analysing it for profit? It is the underlying principle of all ‘smart’ devices, and certainly those that don’t even allow the user to access any of the data, let alone give a reason why the consumer should want the product.

That is a big problem. As Soshana Zuboff details in her seminal book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the emergence of the ‘internet of things’ is potentially the biggest threat to democracy and free will in human history.

This may sound like an exaggeration. It is not. The sophistication with which smart devices can interact, sharing billions of data points on our emotional and behavioural activity, is already creating the possibility of ‘future markets’; the selling of data packets so accurate in their scope they predict human behaviour, a compelling and lucrative tool for marketing.

Once future markets are commonplace, and once smart devices are standardised in every corner of our homes and workplaces, it is logical that corporations selling data will seek to increase reliability – and therefore profit margins – by controlling the future, rather than simply predicting it.

This can be done through myriad nudges and suggestions, each the result of a complex tapestry of data mining and synchronicity between devices. To use just one example, a recovering addict whose emotional regulation is analysed by their smartphone could be alerted to a nearby betting shop and introductory offers at the precise moment when a life event makes them suddenly vulnerable.

At what point do our choices stop being our own? At what point does the immense power imbalance of the ‘shadow text’, as Zuboff calls it – the vast knowledge of human behaviour poured over by the gods of social media and e-commerce, but hidden from the rest of us – leave us unguarded against their manipulation?

This is not conspiracy talk but simple inevitability as companies embrace data-selling in the pursuit of profit. The endgame is corporate efficiency and vertical integration on an unprecedented scale. The endgame is enslavement: lemmings following pre-determined paths decided by malevolent corporations, pushed into habits of buying, moving and relating that are not truly our own.

Grassroots activism on all and every product of surveillance capitalism is essential to resisting a digital revolution that threatens to create a newly subjugated world. Each example, especially one as brazen as Man City’s ‘connected scarf’, must be fiercely opposed.

Man City do not have a master-plan to end free will, of course, but nevertheless they will be co-conspirators if indeed they plan to exploit supporters. The scarf, which uses an EmotiBit wearable sensor module not dissimilar to those found in fitness bands, will ‘accurately track and record fans’ emotional, physiological, and movement data throughout a match,’ capturing the following four data streams:

  • Heart rate, heart rate variability, respiration, oxygen saturation, and hydration.

  • Sympathetic nervous system responses that are driven by cognitive and emotional arousal.

  • Movements, activity, gesture, rotation, and cardinal direction.

  • Temperature that can be used to assess emotional reactions.

Even beyond selling this data to advertisers – as Fitbit and other fitness wearable brands do – there is cause for alarm in how this may be used to alter the matchday experience, already an explicit objective: the data ‘allows us to shape more curated, customized experiences in the future’.

Building a map of supporters’ movements and cardinal direction could help Man City recalibrate where they place advertisements. Hydration data would enable the club to target particular areas at specific moments with the sale of beverages. Most troubling of all, assessing emotional reactions could allow AI-assisted digital advertisements to display specific brands or targeted campaigns at a moment of heightened disregulation and vulnerability: nudging people towards choices; that’s hidden, deterministic control.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a fringe, and therefore insignificant, concern. But surveillance capitalism comes by stealth (first gradually, then suddenly) and the captive loyalty of football supporters makes us an obvious target – unless we choose to resist.

We are at the beginning of the era of surveillance capitalism. Once smart devices are standardised throughout society the battle will have been lost. Here is an opportunity to ‘be the friction’ against the ‘coup from above’, to use Zuboff’s phrase. She wrote the bible on the subject, and her words should echo through our response to every useless, bloodsucking piece of smart technology thrust upon us:

‘It is not OK to have our best instincts for connection, empathy, and information exploited by Draconian quid pro quo that holds these goods hostage to the pervasive strip search of our lives. It is not OK for every move, emotion, utterance, and desire to be catalogued, manipulated, and then used to surreptitiously herd us through the future tense for someone else’s profit… What is at stake is the inward experience from which we form the will to will and the public spaces to act on that will.’

It is time we stop swallowing the PR spin that each new smartification is cool, cutting edge, desirable. Man City’s ‘connected scarf’ should make us angry.

Angry that our private lives are treated as if they are freely anyone’s to take, harvest, sell, and exploit.

Angry they would treat supporters with such contempt.

Angry that they would take us for fools, willing to be tagged with a data extraction device just because Jack Grealish says it’s “amazing”.

And angry that this phenomenon has seeped into football without any regulation, any difficult questions, or even any attempt to explain why they are inserting sensors into merchandise – and what they plan to do with our data.

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