Bruce Sterling at ‘How I learned to love RFID’

On the 20th May, Bruce Sterling talked at How I learned to love RFID in HMKV in Dortmund, Germany.

He covers a lot of ground, including approaches to sustainability, artist use of RFID and proposed interventions, many of the themes from Shaping Things. When he lays out the potential for misuse, the use of RFID for tracking cocaine supply chains for instance, he manages to reverse our pre-conceptions in a very useful way. Some of these statements are deliberately provocative, and they usefully challenge many of the commonly circulated ‘black and white’ opinions about RFID.

This is an outline of the talk that is edited from a rough transcript. It’s impossible to properly capture Bruce’s words that pour out in a stream of tangible utterances, so any errors are probably mine.

How I learnt to love RFID

Four ideas of sustainability

The talk started with perhaps an incomplete list of designers approaches to sustainability:

1. Collapse
In this scenario we end up in the wreckage of the unsustainable. This is the grim meat hook future that many think we’ll end up in.

2. Make less stuff
In this scenario we have people that want ‘a good design solution to every problem’: permanent tyres, housing, etc. and no more planned obsolescence. A utopia that never changes. In this case the Amish may have done it, but no child ever agrees to their parents version of reality.

3. Biological or biomemetic materials
In this scenario we use only biological or biomemetic materials: only materials that can be recycled or grown. But many believe that we can’t survive without our current heavy industries. This is an interesting approach but may be many decades away.

4. A sustainable internet of things
In this scenario (that Bruce is proposing) we use RFID and green technologies to enhance our current material world. We have a chance to make a whole bunch of really fresh mistakes!

About RFID

RFID is currently being imposed from on high by DOD and Walmart. The ‘RFID industry’ rarely alludes to the larger picture: rfidjournal for instance sees RFID as a glorified barcode in the supply chain. But what about the Colombian use of RFID to track cocaine: there’s your supply chain!

Books and references

Ambient findability Morville. Searching the physical world: looking for a library application to go out and catalogue the planet
Everyware Greenfield. Ubicomp is about the middleware: what is the browser of the ubicomp world? What should you do with ubicomp: what enhances peoples lives, what enhances dignity?
RFID Applications and Security Garfinkel & Rosenberg
Manifesto for Networked objects Bleecker
Shaping things Sterling
Calm, peripheral technology Weiser

What are the important elements of the internet of things?

Primary attributes

The lowest common denominator of the internet of things is a chip with a unique identity. Basically a file with a tag that is findable.

Local positioning systems: located, and histories of location.

Search engines: we’ve got to be able to find objects

Recyclability: have to do something about the end of the supply chain: a bit of economic value in junk. Some have negative economic value.

Secondary attributes

Virtual models of objects: the computer model is the first description of the physical thing. Immaterial instantiations of a material thing: 3D computer models at the start of the supply chain. At the end of the supply chain the practice of the object is still available: the history of the object is still available beyond it’s physical form.

Rapid prototyping of objects: fabjects. Solid plastic and metal objects from virtual models are now possible.

The future of RFID?

We could have an RFID boom and bust. Once we have printable RFID ink, sprayable tags made from organic semiconductors without silicon, this thing is going to be huge, and we cannot police ink!

Ubicomp will not actually be about ‘smart’ objects: not about ubiquitous, intelligent computing but about ubiqitous tagging: the dumbest, cheapest, walmart fodder: it’s about the everyday. Not about getting your fridge to talk to your cooker. There more of it there is in the landfill the more it needs tags. This is the war of the landfill!

What is the job at hand?

There is some overlap between the ‘web 2.0’ social phenomenon and internet of things (IOT), this is the most exciting time on the net since the invention of the browser. IOT is perhaps web 5.0…

The Web 2.0 meme map from Tim O’reilly helped the idea of web 2.0 to pass into general parlance, it became a web nexus of social practices. Overall it was very ambiguous, not disambiguating, and described more of an attitude than a technology.

We need an Internet of Things meme map: The IOT theory object, we need great THEORY ENGINEERING: What are the champions, heroes, ideas, corporate strategic bullshit in this space. We need to include ideas of small objects loosely joined: geolocation, storage, bandwidth, information architecture, interaction design, participation, reality augmentation, standardisation, customer self service, user positioning, etc.

The Internet of Things cannot grow from anything other than the internet itself: created with linked ideas: linked objects will form and thrive on the internet: the objects will come from the exact technical substructure that created web 2.0. RFID has reached the level of popular mechanics, and people looking at the map should feel like they could take it all home and whip some together.

RFID for artists

Artists have a seven year window of opportunity. RFID at the moment is basically magic: the classic force of technology art. This might be a more interesting immediate use of RFID than the classic bohemian kick-back of protest: I’ve got RFIDs too. Until people get used to it.

Artists should use the term ‘Arphid’: to distinguish practice from the haze of millions of blogs and RFID as barcodes in searches. This would help to define and establish an alternative community or practice.

Interesting arphid artists / people

Meghan Trainor: With Hidden Numbers
Mary Hodder: itags
Ulla-Maaria Mutanen
Yellow Arrow
xbox Blogjects
Urban Eyes
Arphield recordings: tracking oyster cards
Katherine Albrecht

The issue of privacy

Of course corporations are tracking and tagging: Google is tracking and tagging everything you search and mail. Amazon tracks and tags: look at the ‘page you made’! Every argument made against RFID now was made more eloquently against computers in the ‘60s.

Verichip is trying to push the contradicions: releasing implantable chips for immigrants. These are ‘Warholian’ stunts, ‘Yes Men’ style interventions.

Ubicomp is extremely potent. There is a lot of interest in geo-locative stuff at the same time: lots of journalists working in the same space. ‘Sometime it’s steam-engine time’.


Is it possible to tell that something is authentic just through an RFID tag?

There will be intense effort to break RFID. It is the ideal hacker technology. With such limited physical means it’s very hard to stop hacking and vandalism. The IOT has every internet problem, plus a million more. Because they are THINGS! Crashing will be a whole lot worse. A large surreptitious tracking community may emerge with the intention to take down and crash the system: it’s possible. There are a million ways to hack an arphid, plenty of opportunities to wreck the technology.

Is the Achilles heel of this technology the hackability?

The Achilles heel is not the technology, but the ‘spook aspect’ in public opinion: moral panic. But the more people that understand RFIDs the less it will be possible for Walmart and Darpa to use it for nefarious purposes.

Are we not heading for a world full of mental junk: managing hundreds of bleeping objects?

It’s a question of ‘cognitive loading’ how much do I have to think about this? One of the reasons that environmentalism has failed is it has too much cognitive load: the notion was that we would be mindful of our objects, and pay attention to using them thoughtfully or where they went once we had finished with them. The correct approach is to remove mindfulness from the system. Perhaps spimes could allow us to do something once and never think about it again. Want to move away from a potential obsessive compulsive thing disorder.

From a 20th Century design perspective Spimes would be really problematic: too much upfront configuration, categorisation and control. But on the web we are moving away from a ‘sort then publish’ model to a ‘publish then sort’ model. The cure then for ‘mental junk’ is twofold: a machine that gets rid of the spam, then a community that filters stuff for me. We want to do/make less with more, do more with data.

What would an effective intervention with this technology look like?

RFID is not going away, there’s very little possibility of popular resistance, because it’s being mandated by the Pentagon! A successful intervention might look more like Wikipedia: not sucking encyclopaedia Britannica dry, just a different approach.

Related things:

  1. Rob van Kranenburg at ‘How I learned to love RFID’ On the 20th May, Rob van Kranenburg talked at How I learned to love RFID in HMKV in Dortmund, Germany. This is a short summary of a huge presentation on RFID issues, that covered......
  2. FoeBud: How we learned to stop RFID FoeBud are a German group of privacy activists that has has a long history of public interventions in privacy and RFID. Rena Tangens and Padeluun presented their work at the recent workshop How I......
  3. RFID & the internet of things Julian Bleecker, Arie Altena and I will be participating at the Mediamatic workshop on RFID & The Internet of Things, 11-13 September in Amsterdam. If RFID becomes an open web-based platform, and users can......
  4. More upcoming RFID events On Monday 8th May the RFID Innovasjonssenter is having it’s opening event in Oslo (See here for more details in Norwegian). The project is centred around logistics and the supply chain, but they mention......
  5. RFID, logistics and material flow On the final day of How I learned to love RFID we visited the Fraunhofer institute for material flow and logistics. The institute concentrates on supply chain, logistic and robotic applications. They also foster......

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  1. Posted 6 June 2006 at 5:28 | Permalink

    Personally, I think the great promise of RFID is its hackability. It’s cheap, it’s ubiquitous, and it’s open. I know a lot of people fear the idea of “hackers” changing their system, but that’s just bad design. The web grew so fast because people could add content themselves without asking for permission from anyone - if the RFID ecosystem is similarly built, then I see no reason why such an explosion could occur there, too!

  2. Timo
    Posted 20 August 2006 at 0:03 | Permalink

    I agree with you Janne. I don’t think Bruce is saying hackability is a bad thing here, in many ways he advocates for street and alternative uses. But he does point out that when we have digital things pervading our physical environment then crashing and vandalism becomes an even bigger problem…

One Trackback

  1. [...] All of which recalls to mind Greg Egan’s hard sci-fi book ‘Diaspora’ in which the AI characters both emit and read gestalt ‘tags’ by way of introduction. And speaking of sci-fi writers,  here’s an outline of a Bruce Sterling talk 2 years ago at ‘How I learned to love RFID’. [...]

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