"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Of the various characters who populate our computer dominated society, one of the most curious sorts is the “early adopter.” These are the figures found sprinting headlong to the frontier of technological advancement eagerly purchasing, signing up for, and excitedly embracing whatever manner of new doodad they find there. Regardless of whether one dismisses of such souls as faddish, foolish, or fortunate, the simple truth remains that it’s worth watching such people. They may be flush with disposable income and they may not necessarily understand all of the long-term implications of the things they’re championing this week, but they may still provide a glimpse of things to come. After all, before a new sort of technology is widely taken up by a society it is (generally speaking) first taken up by a smaller group of enthusiasts.
Granted, the case of the early adopter undergoes a slightly odd transformation in the case of the people in Wisconsin who can now boast that they’ve had radio-frequency identification (RDIF) chips planted under their skin. For, in this case, the driving impetus seems to have been more on the part of the company Three Square Market than on the part of the individuals. Still, it seems that many of the company’s employees (it is a tech company, after all) signed up to be “chipped” with the sort of aplomb one would expect from the stereotypical early adopter. At this point being chipped does not seem to bring with it an overly impressive set of new affordances: one can use the chip to unlock some doors, buy things from vending machines, and all of these things are pretty much limited to Three Square Market’s (TSM) headquarters. And the current commonplace used to explain these chips is the rather underwhelming comparison to the chips implanted in pets so that they can be returned home should they get lost. Of course, those chipped by TSM have greater ambitions for these chips, and they seem to be happily at work thinking of ways in which they can expand the usefulness of their new implants.
On a certain level it’s tempting to dismiss of Three Square Market’s chipping its employees as little more than an elaborate stunt designed to garner attention. After all, here is a relatively small tech company based far away from Silicon Valley that has managed to secure some quite impressive free advertising from major periodicals. And part of what makes it feel so much like a stunt is the fact that being chipped doesn’t really allow people to do terribly much. Yet, it would be a mistake to shrug off this story based on its seeming banality. For the people who have been chipped by TSM are many of the very same people who have a real stake in making sure that being chipped becomes a thing. From a techno-optimistic perspective the story of chipping people isn’t about what being chipped means today, it is about encouraging people to think about what being chipped might allow tomorrow – and convincing those people (in advance) that there’s nothing strange or worrisome about this procedure.
At first, many new technologies appear rather banal. They invite shrugs from many quarters and unimpressed comments that suggest that such things will not ever truly change society in their image. The history of technology is littered with tales of individuals saying “the automobile will never replace the horse,” or “the telephone will never replace written letters,” or “the mp3 will never kill the CD,” or “the Internet is just a fad,” and there are many other examples. Granted, it must also be noted, that the history of technology tells of a mountain of scrap made up of the numerous technologies that failed to find a public. Nevertheless, the important point is that new technologies are often unimpressive at first, but that can change over a rather short time span. Consider the iPhone – when it first appeared it was but one amongst many cellphones, and it had a fierce competitor in the form of the BlackBerry – but now pretty much every smartphone has fallen in line with the grid that the iPhone has drawn. Or consider Facebook – when it first appeared it was but one of many competing social networks (remember Myspace?) and to join it you needed a .edu email address from one of the schools that had been added – but today it is the social network and it is busy trying to get everybody on Facebook (whether they like it or not). The point here is not to say that the RFID chip in the hand is going to be the next smartphone or Facebook.
But it could be.
Which, frankly, is probably why many employees at TSM were eager to sign up so as to get in at the ground floor of the next big thing.
That should in no way shape or form be construed as an endorsement of being chipped. Yet it does not take terribly much imagination to think of the ways that getting chipped can be sold to people. Why pull out your wallet (or your smartphone) when you can just pay by swiping your chipped hand? Why carry keys to your home or your car when you can just unlock either with a swipe of your chipped hand? Why worry about remembering a password to unlock your smartphone when your phone can just tell that it’s you thanks to the chip in your hand? Why carry all of those little plastic membership cards and various fobs on a heavy keychain when you can just swipe your chipped hand? And, to be frank, none of these are all that imaginative. But the selling point for something like being chipped seems to be reliant on the way it can be framed as providing lots of convenience – and one can easily imagine that being chipped could be pretty convenient. And of course there is the other world of possibilities that chipping opens up: people chip their pets, perhaps some parents will want to chip their children?
It may well be that chipping will be brought down by its “ick” factor or by being framed as “creepy.” Yet, if the chip is just placed in a person’s hand (and it can be done by a qualified piercer [instead of requiring a trip to the hospital]) so it may not seem too icky to many, and the subtlety of the chip may keep it from being publicly rejected as “creepy.” A person could not hide the fact that they were wearing Google Glass – but would you really know if the person in front of you in line was chipped until they paid by simply swiping their hand? And after they swiped their hand would you think “wow, that’s actually really convenient.”
But it’s worth being wary of convenience, especially if convenience is being offered as a sort of bribe that ropes you into a system fraught with other worrisome matters. When it comes to technology, that which appears to give you more control quite often entails giving others more control over you. For installing chips into people’s hands seems to be less about making the world run smoothly for humans than it is about making the world run smoothly for computers. A person with a chip in their hand makes it easy for their every coming and going, their every purchase, to be tracked and recorded. True, it won’t be the RFID chip itself that is recording this – but as the chip interacts with smartlocks, or registers, those systems will be able to gather lots of information. And all of this, again, sounds like it might be shrug-worthy (“isn’t all of that stuff already tracked?”), but it is a sign that in our computer dominated society it is not that we are dominating the computers but that they are dominating us. So much so that we very well may be soon encouraged to chip ourselves so that our interactions with the machines around us are so seamless that we begin to forget that we are not machines.
Thus, instead of reading the articles about the employees at TSM as being about exciting possibilities – instead imagine those articles as if they were the first five minutes of an episode of Black Mirror. Don’t think about it in terms of a fantasy of what could go right, dare to think about it in terms of what could go wrong. You’ll pretty swiftly be able to imagine the dark side of being chipped.
For example, one of the aspects of this tale that should certainly set people on edge is the fact that in this story it is a business that is encouraging its employees to get chipped. Sure, it’s optional now. But will it remain that way? What would happen if TSM changed all of its door locks to ones that require an RFID chip? Would you be fired for not getting chipped? What would you do if you went for a job interview and they told you that you’d have to be chipped to work there? What would happen to the chip if you left that job? Would it have to be taken out again? Or, to return to the beginning of this piece, are the early adopters here really individuals or are they companies who can use the chip as a way of asserting more control over employees? Could chipping be just a further step in deepening the technological divide between those who are outfitted with all of the latest high-tech gizmos and those who are not?
It is, of course, unclear what the answers to these questions are. And it is quite possible that in five years’ time few will recall this tale because chipping failed to take off. But these are the questions that need to be mulled over before a new technology becomes widely embraced.
It’s easy to imagine starting a car with the chip in your hand. But it’s also easy to imagine the door to a shop refusing to open for you because it can tell by the chip in your hand that you’re not rich enough to shop there.