Question 73 of 365: What is the magic of a barcode?

Question 73 of 365: What is the magic of a barcode?

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The barcode is back.

While many are looking forward to Augmented Reality and to RFID chips as the way in which we will start tagging things and seeing everything as once big canvass for us to attach images, videos, and text; I believe that the barcode is a significantly interesting subject to consider the future of our physical world.

To paraphrase one of my favorite Breakfast Club quotes, we see the world as it is, in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. While we can attach sentimental value or recall memories based upon what we see, smell, taste and touch; we are the only ones that can see those associations. We have not barcoded our red t-shirts to produce any universally held metaphors or culturally significant symbols.

And yet, that is one of the things that we are desperate to do. We are looking forward to decoding the messages that are displayed through everything we see. We want to stop being confused. We want to stop lacking the context to make sense of the world around us.

Now, ideally, we would just be able to look at the things we wanted to know more about and then figure out their significance in relation to everything else we know, but I think that there is a certain kind of magic to putting a sticker onto something and allowing people (only if they want) to engage in figuring out what someone intended for them to know.

All of this is to say that I like the idea of a whole bunch. I like it more than I like AR and RFID because it introduces the idea of choice into our hyper-connected world. It allows us to decide if we want to find out what else has been attached to an object. We can print out and attach our own barcodes to the world to tell a story about the objects we choose to give significance to.

It is the new graffiti. It is a way of making old objects live again.

And yet, we can also leave the objects as they are. We can observe the painting and not have to scan its user-created barcode with a video mashup of other art. We can experience the food without seeing the way in which it was cooked tagged directly on top. We can take part in the process of tagging the world, and then when we don’t want to see that part of the world, we can turn it off. Or we can just turn off part of it.

I am engaged by the idea of my objects recommending to read, watch or experience. I think that I crave that much connection to the people that have held similar experiences that I can’t wait to decode what they have placed there for me to find.

And I think that is why the barcode is back, because I want an easy way to unencrypted other’s intentions for me. I want to stop guessing what is going on their head. While this is an intriguing game, and some would say an essential part of human nature, I am willing to give it up (at least some times) in order to more fully step into their shoes and know what they know. If I can see the connections that they are making then I can more fully know the people that I love or am interested in.

(I am not sure how yet, but I think there will come a day when we will be able to barcode  a conversation or an idea. While that may sound scary, I think that it will be really interesting to make the non-physical into something physical. It won’t have to stop with a traditional barcode. We can start creating art that is our barcodes, each one unique and full of meaning. I am still interested in tagging the world, and perhaps we need to start with thin and thick black lines.”

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  1. My gut (and I'm fighting against it) takes me to the creek that ran along our property line as I was growing up. I lost many a shoe in that creek. I built many club houses along and over that creek. Hours of my childhood and early adolescence were shaped by that creek. Who I am today is thanks in large part to the trouble I managed to find there.
    I'm taken back there for a couple reasons.
    I felt I was the first person to discover this trail or that climbing tree. The creek and its woods were mine. I explored. I built. I built. I destroyed. I created.
    A barcode, unless completely blended into the environment, would have changed that experience. It would have been a constant reminder I was borrowing the memories I was forming from those who went before me. It wouldn't have been completely mine.
    The second speaks more to my nature. I wouldn't have made it down the hill or as deeply into the woods if there'd been barcodes and some sort of reader. Yes, I would have had the option to put everything away and experience my creek alone. I don't know that I could or would have done that. I am curious. I want to know. Everything. The idea that I could have had the history of the woods and the creek and the tree bridge and the boat that washed downstream from some unknown neighbor when it flooded…well, I don't know that I could have ignored it. Because I wanted to know everything, I would have learned so much less.
    As I said, I'm fighting against these reactions. I know they're similar to my previous thoughts on augmented reality and I need to keep an open mind. In actuality, this would be über-cool. I'd play with it and mark stuff up and play Encyclopedia Brown all the day long.
    Still, the piece of me that keeps the important moments in the box marked “the good stuff” somewhere in the closet of my mind wants to fight against it.

  2. And yet.

    If I were a kid right now with access to this technology, I wouldn't be out
    looking for other people's tags. I would be putting up my own. Every time I
    built a fort, I would create a new bar code or foursquare checkpoint and
    attach a video tour. Every time I lost a shoe, I would probably write a poem
    and tag it to the other shoe. Every time I climbed a tree, I would have
    taken a picture from the top and tagged the tree so that I could see it
    again the next time I climbed that tree. Tagging and barcoding is personal
    for me. While I care about what has come before, I care more about my own
    story and being able to recall those moments.

    Learning everything for me means trying to remember it all and being
    absolutely terrible at it. Creating moments and then archiving them: I can't
    even tell you the amount of nostalgic pleasure I would get if I could
    actually recapture even a moment of my time in the woods behind my house.
    While it may take something away from having new adventures, it would also
    allow me to reflect upon ones that I'd had in a much better way. Tradeoffs
    are worth it sometimes.

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