QR Codes for the Dead

The QR code’s history is intrinsically tied to a quest for efficiency, thus mirroring the barcode’s trajectory. Drexel graduate students Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver patented the barcode in 1952, but their invention wasn’t fully realized until the 1960s, with the birth of the KarTrak system, implemented by the railroad industry to track the contents of individual railcars. Barcodes were then commercially popularized with the birth of the Unique Product Code, or UPC, in the 1970s as a way of automating cashiers’ labor, ostensibly saving time while preventing the carpel tunnel-inducing repetitive motions of manually entering numbers. But barcodes can only contain roughly twenty alphanumeric characters, thus limiting their applications. In 1994, a Japanese subsidiary of Toyota called Denso Wave released the “quick response” or QR code, allowing more information to become embedded into objects. Unlike the PDF417 and other earlier 2D barcodes, the QR code decodes information using image sensors rather than by utilizing a linear scan. Their ability to be read by smartphones means that QR codes are now being used in numerous ways, sometimes tied to long-standing physical structures. Although QR codes are primarily used to facilitate short-term commercial interactions, now they are being integrated into places associated with posterity. While they were originally created for use in the Japanese auto industry, in order to track motor vehicles during the manufacturing process, QR codes are now embedded in everything from wedding invitations to subway billboards. Since 2010, smartphones have had the ability to read QR codes, making them popular in many industries. QR codes have especially caught on in advertising, where corporations use them to lure consumers to their websites, which in turn allows those companies to learn more about shoppers by grabbing their browsing histories and other digital crumbs. Rather than merely tracking objects that move through market circulation and exchange or linking individuals to websites through short-lived advertisements, QR codes can track and map networks of social relationships over time while also linking users to rich content. Their ability to trace relationships, connecting various information points about individuals and their networks, has raised privacy and security concerns, particularly as malevolent QR codes spread malware. But the possibility of QR codes’ obsolescence, as well as the potential ephemerality of the digital connections they produce, have not enjoyed sufficient discussion. QR codes sometimes appear in unlikely places, on everyday objects rather than on advertisements or billboards. So common are these weird encounters, a Tumblr dedicated to ill-conceived QR code embedded things has emerged, with photographs of QR codes in the wild—on teabags, the backs of Subway employees’ T-shirts, and even on bananas. When the advertising campaign ends or a company nosedives and disappears, the QR code itself may endure on these materials. If they are placed on long-standing structures or tangible objects, the QR code becomes a part of the architecture. What does it mean to use QR codes as points of connection for the longue durée? What happens to digital objects after they lose their smartness?

Source :  http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/05/qr-codes-for-the-dead/370901/