RFID Zeitgeist
By Howard Rheingold, Wed Oct 15 05:45:00 GMT 2003

We have never before lived in a world where your telephone knows your name, social networks hitch rides on objects and places, doorknobs decide who gets into a room and know who has entered, and every place you go, every thing you touch, is more likely than not to contain a processor and a miniature radio.


"RFID" isn't a household word yet, but geeks are beginning to care about "Radio Frequency ID tags" because of the privacy implications. The cost and size of microprocessor technology had dropped to the point where a sensor, a computer, and a radio transponder can be woven into clothing or embedded in the packaging of consume packaged goods. The notion that your razor blades might be spying on you is scary, but privacy isn't all there is to it. RFIDs are only the beginning, just as the first microchip, suitable only for desk calculators, was only the beginning for chips and PCs in the 1970s. Think about what it will feel like to inhabit a world where every object we handle, consume, or wear is likely to contain computing gizmos.

All these chips have the power to store information and to transmit it wirelessly to a nearby reader. Many chips available today have the power to sense the environment - tracking microwaves, movements, temperature, trace amounts of certain chemicals or biological organisms, the electronic identities of cell phones that pass by, the level of flow in the sewage and subway lines for a city, the presence of people in buildings and rooms. Many of them are equipped to self-organize ad-hoc networks with other sensors, processors, and human-usable devices like telephones. Gillette ordered 500 million RFID tags in 2003. Over the next year and a half, the first billion RFID tags will start circulating. After that, we'll be looking at the possibility of trillions of tags.

Lately, I've been poking around places where different kinds of enterprises play with RFID chips. In April, I visited the Rem Koolhaas-designed Prada showcase store in Manhattan, where ubiquitous screens turn every garment into a multimedia show: hang a few items on the rack in the dressing room, and a window on a display screen opens for each garment; touch the screen to watch runway models in the clothing, view shoes and other garments that could go with your selection. I also visited Procter and Gamble's unmarked information technology laboratory on the outskirts of Cincinnati, where Walmart and other P&G customers can walk through the aisles of a store of the near future, where every case of detergent is tracked from factory to checkout.

Fashion and consumer packaged products are today's first beachheads, but don't encompass the entire eventual domain of RFID tags. Wired reported in April, 2003 that "researchers at the University of Rochester began a clinical study of bacteria-sniffing microchip probes. Eventually, they hope to embed a handful of the devices into a single bandage, which would be able to detect specfic pathogens like salmonella, listeria, and E. coli. When a probe detects a bug, a small wireless transmitter on top of the dressing will notify an ambulance's onboard computer."

General Tommy Franks required all DOD containers shipped to Iraq to include RFID Tags, allowing "pull" logistics, rather then "push." After Benetton announced plans to embed RFID tags into 15 million of their clothing tags, the organization "Privacy Advocates" called for a boycott. Little more than two weeks later, after a storm of privacy-related consumer criticism, Benetton announced a radically scaled-back deployment.

As part of a new, federally mandated tracking system, the three major U.S. automobile manufacturers plan to put RFID tags in every tire sold in the nation. The tags can be read on vehicles going as fast as 160 kilometers per hour from a distance of 4.5 meters.

Imagine the worldview of the generation born into a computation-pervaded world. Using experimental methods that have been developed to study the ways people react to one another, Stanford researchers Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass substituted automatic devices such as computers, or even representations of people such as video images, for one of the parties in classic two-person social psychology experiments. They found that although people claim that they know the difference between humans and machines, their cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses to artificial representations of humans are identical to the reactions they have to real people. Humans evolved to pay close attention to other people, to the way people treat us, to facial expressions and tone of voice. Our artifacts might be in the information age, but our biology is still prehistoric

As we head into this world where the lines between things and human intelligence is blurred, work of people like Reeves and Nash raises a disturbing possibility: the generations born after 2010 will grow up to think techno-animistically. "Techno-animism" is a term that Mark Pesce used to describe the future of computerized toys, and it's a fitting description of the disturbing psychological implications raised by Reeves and Nash and others. Among the more predictable effects of rooms or shirts that call us by name is the probability that people will project unwarranted intelligence upon things and places that convey information but actually know nothing.