Wednesday night I trotted down to the Center on Contemporary Art to catch the monthly meeting of Dorkbot—a group “…involved in the creation of electronic art (in the broadest sense of the term).â€ť
This month’s discussion was on RFIDs (Radio Frequency Identification), small chips which can transmit programmed information (passive RFIDs) and/or read information (active RFIDs). I slogged about RFIDs on Wed. and decided to check Dorkbot out, as it featured several prominent nerds discussing the social and political implications of RFID use.
Joe McCarthy, the first speaker, highlighted the medical advantages of having RFID implants (in an emergency, doctors could scan your hand for your complete medical history), and demonstrated how RFIDs could be used create personal profiles (similar to internet profiles, only embedded in a badge for you to wear or carry) used to meet new Friends and Lovers.
Question from the Audience: “Online profiles serve a specific purpose—they allow two or more people who aren’t physically present to form a connection. What is the benefit of walking around with a profile of yourself when people can simply approach you and strike up a conversation?â€ť
Good fucking point. Everyone in the room was stumped.
McCarthy’s eventual answer: “Shyness?â€ť
Klunder pointed out that aside from implants, RFID chips can just as easily be connected to benign objects and infringe on privacy rights. Clothing label Benetton, for example, implanted RFID chips in its clothing line to track retail sales and returns. As CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) pointed out, the chips can continue to transmit signals after sales, which is rather ominous. CASPIAN called for a worldwide boycott of Benetton, and the label retracted plans to bug its clothing.
RFID chips, because of their miniscule size and relative cheapness (25 cents on up), can and are being inserted just about everywhere. Libraries are making the switch to RFIDs in order to easily track books. However, if RFIDs embedded in books could be used to track their borrowers (Klunder used the example of an organization or government tracking everyone who checked out a copy of Mein Kampf), profiles of borrowers could be created without readers’ knowledge.
Klunder repeatedly stressed the dangers of standardization; the more standardized technology is, the easier it is to manipulate.
With regards to human RFID implants, I kept wondering if RFIDs are implanted in your hands but serve no practical purpose—the chips can open doors and unlock your car, shit most hands can easily handle—what’s the point? Do RFID-enhanced people regard themselves as walking art or pioneers of new technology? And with the rapid pace of technological advancement, would a person need regular implant updates just to stay current? Yeah, those suckers are small, but over the years will they add up to millions of little scraps floating around in your body, making it all lumpy and shit? Not Fun.
The topic was fascinating, the speakers were engaging, but the best part was how well informed the audience was (there were roughly 70 people in attendance). The event ran more like a conversation than a lecture, with people politely interrupting speakers with questions, clarifications, or comments. Even better, if a question was posed to McCarthy or Klunder that they couldn’t answer, inevitably someone else in the audience could.
Amal Graafstra, the man featured in Wednesday’s Seattle Times article for having RFID implants in his hands, was up as Dorkbot’s final speaker. I was really curious to see what he had to say/unlock, but I had a date with Project Runway. Did anyone else see him speak?
For more info on Dorkbot, Wednesday night’s speakers, and pre- and post- RFID surgery photos, click here!