Friday, November 26, 2004

What Was he Thinking?

Yesterday's Guardian Online featured a column by Dave Birch which, astonishingly, advocated the integration of RFID chips into sheets of blank paper. Birch quoted a variety of consumer/convenience gains of a "one day we'll get all nourishment in pill form" kind, suggesting that
"If you couldn't find your credit card bill, you would just wander around the house with a mobile phone with an RFID reader in it (you can already buy these), waving it over stacks of paper until it beeped"
He didn't apparently consider that the police, or evilly disposed persons, could do the same. In fact, he actually suggests putting the text on the paper on the RFID chip too, so they could simply check for subversive documents or material they consider discreditable to you with one click and a really kewl silver gadget. Great!

Is finding your credit card bill quicker really worth the truly horrific potential for privacy invasion and censorship such an idea would present? Indeed, what was he thinking? The question appears to me to be whether Mr. Birch is a messy big-kid geek who sees remote monitoring of all paper documents as a great alternative to - refined shudder - picking up his credit card bill and putting it somewhere tidy, especially as it involves a new gadget, or whether he really wants total surveillance but thinks this sort of stuff will convince the burger-scoffing rubes who don't get it out there in Userland. There are well-attested reasons why members of technical elites do stupid things, and some of my favourites are those J.K. Galbraith offered in The New Industrial State. Broadly, he suggested that the "technostructure" is motivated, not by profit as that goes to the shareholders, but by "technical virtuosity" for its own sake, the approval of their peers, and the expansion of their departments. I suspect this is in operation here. Yay! Gadgets! New! Budget! Little thought is given to the consequences.

As a bonus question - why has the story vanished from the Guardian's compendious website? Not just that, but neither the Wayback Machine nor the Google cache bear any trace. Tsk tsk.

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