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RFID findability future
2010-07-06: Reading a book called Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become, the author quickly gets to that RFID future vision where absolutely everything from obvious products such as cars and bags to the less obvious like every tin of beans, every bank note and your underpants carry a tag that can be sensed by a nearby sensor. Similar to the Minority Report idea, perhaps when you walk back into Marks and Spencer its sensors know what of theirs you're wearing and they can tally that back to your purchase records and know who you are.
This idea has been knocking around for a long time, now, certainly back to the eighties when I used to do PR for a number of bar coding companies. So why hasn't it happened? After all, the Internet's happened in that time.
The difference is: we wanted the Internet because of the perceived freedoms it gave to us. Why would we want to give away such a lot of information about our buying habits to companies by wearing their RFID tags? And here's another piece of evidence towards the idea that maybe people generally don't want others to know exactly where they are.
Reading, also, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (I know you'll respect me for that one), one idea there is that men need to walk away from problems in order to solve them. They disappear into their caves, mull things over, and come out when they've worked it out. And it's not stupidity or slowness, it's a churning of their sense of self, of independence, and how that fits with the problem. Ergo: men won't want their whereabouts to be tracked because they need the freedom to disappear every now and then.
Perhaps the only way to get the RFID thing to happen would be to create an open infrastructure so that we could all use the information.
Even then, it's simply spying. Where the Internet provided ways for people to publish their opinions, 'be themselves' online, find others like them and get stroked for doing it, the only way I can see the RFID thing happening is if we created a cloud of identity based on brands .. so was published, for instance, that I wore more Vivienne Westwood than anyone else in Scarborough (I don't). In that way I'd become a leading exponent of a brand, and I could mix it with others who do the same and perhaps get discounts at the shop.
But that's elitist brand-led nonsense and won't be picked up by everyone. Where would be people's real passions? Family, cricket, wild flowers?
The other thing that's in the way of the RFID beautiful future is that it needs sensors everywhere. We did create the Internet's infrastructure in short order, but sensors everywhere is expensive, and they are unlikely to be set up in the middle of a forest or on the open ocean. Location under those circumstances needs GPS and its successors (the EU's Galileo system will be accurate to 1m and ready by 2014).
When trying to find lost children, pets, sailors or avalanche victims, GPS does what the population needs so long as there's a phone signal .. and that can only improve (Blue Tree Services is one provider of location systems using this combination.
So RFID remains something that shops want to do so they can track their products, reduce shoplifting, work out whether you've been before, and generally know more about you than you know yourself. We will want some safeguards on all that information.
Pity. Interesting idea.

By John Allsopp
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