hacking the (bar)code

Here are some results from links and ideas various people have sent from my post to the cultstud list and blog several weeks ago. Here is another post. The reason I am posting this to my blog now is because Google Android’s mobile operating system has received some positive critical comments regarding its barcode scanning application (see end link below).

David Silver let me know about Microsoft’s endeavour to produce a Windows Mobile Media (WMM) based application for scanning barcodes with mobile devices and sending phones to urls, the Advance User Resource Annotation System (AURA). Senior Research Sociologist leading the Community Technologies Group, MarcSmith, on the system. An interview with him on CNET. Paper by Smith. A video where he explains the logic behind the system. As the above video attests ‘bringing people together’ means bringing ‘consumers together’, but because of the capacity to collectively annotate any barcode, it doesn’t just have to be ‘consumers’. A paper on a field test of the system. Here is a forum post by someone who explores how to actually use AURA as part of the test beta.

Beyond the Microsoft horizon there are many other interesting devices and systems that had been developed. There was also the Cuecat system (and fiasco!). Bryan Behrenshausen pointed me in the direction of http://www.nearfield.org/ which seems to be a group of Nordic researchers investigating the design potential of RFID systems. Bryan writes “I like the Touch project because it’s run by a collective with such varied backgrounds — computer science, sociology, anthropology, design, communication studies, etc. Consequently, the project can examine the history of touch, embodied practice, design directions, and social consequences of/for these new technologies.” He also pointed me towards the Barcode Battler, which is not a post-human rearticulation of the aspirational Australian lumpen proletariat, but a game that involved collecting bar-coded playing cards and using this proprietary reader to ‘battle’ (like a precursor to Pokémon or something).

Machine readable codes have a long history. Ted Striphas sent me an article of his on the function and history of code-based ISBN technology in the ‘back office’ of the publishing industry. He observes that the gradual introduction of the machine-readable coding technologies intensified the productivity (or, in Marxist terminology, increased the production of surplus-value) of logistics workers in the mega-bookseller companies such as amazon.com. It transformed the character of the industry from one that was slow and full of logistical redundancies to one that was streamlined by databases. The barcode becomes a literal representation of the exploitation of workers in an intensified Taylorist enterprise where workers are continually assessed by overseers for efficiency in the rate of logistical processing and dispatch. Ref: Ted Striphas “Cracking the Code: Technology, Historiography, and the “Back Office” of Mass Culture” Social Epistemology Vol. 19, Nos. 2-3, April-September 2005, pp. 261-282

What I am imagining is an inversion of this process. Not to sabotage the logistical chains of contemporary consumer culture, but a repurposing of the barcode and the database. Deleuze writes about code as the numerical language of control:

In the societies of control, on the other hand, what is important is no longer either a signature or a number, but a code: the code is a password […]. The numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it.

For anyone who has grown up in this culture, and especially those who have worked in the service industry, all this is obvious.

Erik Hermansen discusses the logics behind ‘push’ versus ‘pull’ uses of barcode readers. He describes barcode readers as the killer app that will get people using the new feature laden smartphones:

Cell phones will start pulling information off the internet about products and companies. And nobody will be able to control it except the people doing the pulling. Who wins or loses when everybody gets the information they want to make spending decisions?

The consumer wins. Obviously. Dramatically. How many bad decisions have you made with no greater input than a price tag, product packaging, and the advice of a 19-year-old wearing a tie and sneakers? No more, my friend. Head into those flourescent-lit aisles armed with knowledge.

The mobile manufacturers win, because technology-assisted spending is the killer app that will finally cut through feature apathy. People are buying these sophisticated machines that they don’t really understand, so they mainly just use them as phones. Most people have figured out SMS and ring tones by now, but beyond that, the non-geeks don’t care much about all the bells and whistles. To make people truly interested in what mobile devices can do, a “gateway” feature with real-world value is needed. Save money on your shopping bill–everybody gets that, so lead with it!

4 thoughts on “hacking the (bar)code”

  1. hi ben, i totally forgot about rheingold!

    i’ve had a quick look and he does talk about barcodes at about page 100-101 in precisely the same way regarding commodities and information. i wonder why it has taken this long for barcode readers that can be linked to user-edited net content to become commercially available?

  2. Prob’ly dependent on some kind of crowdsourcey [insert Shirkyism here] tipping point… I remember when Howard was writing the book, and it was before a lot of that Web 2.0 social buzzword stuff had hit. I guess it’s to do with activating the virtual, *cultural* density that lies in suspension in that context, rather than the doability of the actual tech, which has been around for years. (I have an old, modded CueCat. And yet I didn’t really get into barcodes until I had software that could interface with my laptop’s webcam, which was much more elegant, if sometimes dicey.)

  3. I guess I mean that we need a cultural density of the read/write web, *combined* with a *streamlining* of the tech experience, rather than just the abstract technical capacity itself.

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