iBeacon of hopelessness: Apple and MLB’s Big Brother blunder


Surfers are stereotypically a soulful sort, especially when it comes to their sport. That doesn’t mean they don’t like to leverage a little technology from time to time when it comes to the timing and placement of their rubber-coated bodies into a nearby body of water.

By Andrew Pridgen

Surfers I work with monitor reports online from the gray shores of their desktops searching for that perfect window and suddenly feeling a tickle in their collective throat when the swell is good.

When the sets reach a certain apex (the blue line on their little chart starts peaking like an excitable EKG) they badge out to go drop in.

Once in the water, charts often turn into sets that don’t arrive. Windswept currents change more than a divorced dad prior to a first date and the science that spiked interest on your screen, telling you to drop everything, is reduced to a real-time flat line on the blue horizon.

I recently asked a surfer coworker, engineer by trade and admitted technophile, what he would think of an app that told him when the next set was coming, what the best wave was in that set, where the nearest sharks were and what their trajectory was in relation to his exact location.

Functionality that could, through social sharing, define which of your buddies was paddling out as well, and maybe even who to avoid in the water. Once on shore, this same technology would point you to the nearest empty shower or which taco stand had the freshest Mahi Mahi.

A total experiential “enhancement.”

He smiled, which I mistook as one of whimsy, imagining the possibilities: “I’d rather drown,” he said.

He went on to explain that surfing is his time. Work is work’s time. Family is family’s time. And pretty much all the time in between …is his wife’s time. But surfing, that’s between him and the sun, the sand and the sea.

“I don’t need anything shiny telling me when it’s my time or how to live it.”

It is a nice notion, is it not? To be able to just let go, even if for just an hour a week, all the buzzwords and catchphrases and inbox and to-dos and cell formulas and bill paying and GPS’ing and all the stuff we ship from China only to use and break and ship back to China as waste …pausing all this hustling to nowhere, and just, you know, being.

And not needing an app to do it.

Everyone should have a place to just “be.” For many years, decades even, that time for me was a baseball game. A game was the one place I was captive long enough in my teenage years to be forced into an actual conversation with my father.

It was the weekly meet-up spot and chance to connect in my twenties with long-time friends who were starting to spread out into different career and relationship paths.

In my thirties, it was a way to “come back home.” Same seats. Same hopes. Different year. But there was always comfort in turning to our section mates, seeing the same row of faces, pushing together the lips of souvenir cups just before first pitch, nodding and the silent, “Well, here we go.”

But that has all changed now. Now I’m being watched. Monitored. Calculated. I am the blue line on someone else’s screen.

I pretty much knew this already. It is all in my phone, the handheld gateway to the marketing to of me. Every Facebook post. Every Google search. Every #vapid Tweet. These companies aren’t worth billions because what you’re posting is cute or evocative or clever or because their functionality is necessary to living. They’re worth billions because they’re information farms. Somewhere stored in hundreds of miles of servers buried deep in a dried-out square state is your exact you. Your patterns. Your person. Your profile.

What you’re going to do next.

Because what you do next has become synonymous with how you spend next in this consumer experiment, these portal sites and apps are worth that much money because they know how to extract that much money. The billfolds of individuals are what’s being blasted out of today’s tech goldmine.

I’ve been as complicit as anyone. Nobody made me get an iPhone. Nobody forced me to join Twitter. Nobody stuck my hands to the keyboard and said, “post this photo of you and your sister in overalls from 1978 …or else.” Nobody held a knife to my throat and made me start spelling words with @ or #. It was my own hubris and want of some invisible yet tenuously traceable acceptance that drives, well, all of this.

Until now.

Until the iBeacon.

Major League Baseball, the league that knows a thing or two about, um, enhancements, has set out to “enhance” the fan’s experience this year in conjunction with the ghost of Steve Jobs.

Twenty of 30 MLB teams have already installed small-but-powerful Apple monitoring devices known as the iBeacon throughout their stadiums to communicate with fan’s phones (most notably the iPhone and Android). The technology lets the team monitor your exact activity in the ballpark. From the time you step in, every pee, every wait in line, every beer and dog, every interaction with the phone-carrying fan next to you — they know.

The San Francisco Giants, early adopters of the technology, have 19 such devices installed at AT&T ballpark. The Dodgers disclosed 65 devices are blinking and monitoring around Chavez Ravine.

Once a user is automatically “checked in” by the iBeacon, he will receive “custom” notifications and “special offers” throughout the game based on an algorithm that crunches previous in-game behaviors with what you do, where you go and how you search outside of it.

All this translates to custom-crafted messaging that gives you, the end consumer, fan #240441.21 the most rewarding “real-time experience” possible.

When all this time I thought home runs, stolen bases and strikeouts made for a pretty good “real-time” afternoon at the park.

MLB doesn’t think so. In fact, they’re betting big that flashing on your screen a coupon for soggy garlic fries when you’re passing the stand after a bathroom break in the bottom of the sixth is fair exchange for turning you into a barcode.

And they’re probably right.

I realize we live in the world of the monitored. Gone are the days of sneaking into the Polo Grounds through the rabbit hole in the chain link behind the left-field fence near 155th Street. And I’m aware it’s the constant marketing that runs these clubs into the $2 billion stratosphere. But I didn’t ask for the Big Brother iBeacon from Major League Baseball to track me like Skynet.

Sorry MLB, but for me at least, it is the experience on the field, not the one in my hand, that I’m still paying for.

And so this season, I’m going to the game, but my phone stays at home. The self-aggrandizing selfie with the field in the backdrop will just have to wait till another day. And maybe, if a few others left their homing devices on the wall charger as well, we could go back to doing what we fans do best: saying hello to your neighbor in the seat next to you, clinking the foam off your cups and watching a little baseball.

Because if it’s really not about that anymore, I’d rather drown.