Spy chips

by Rob Horning

3 January 2006


Expect to hear a lot more this year about RFID chips, the tiny pieces of silicon that retailers can use to track each and every single piece of inventory, and which can also be used to monitor all sorts of our personal behavior—anything that involves a consumer good, which at this point is just about every activity we perform routinely. This article from AdAge.com details some potential uses for these chips gleaned from patent applications: “the privacy group Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering cites two patents and two pending applications by Goliath that envision extending the system to track individual consumers in stores and target ads to them at home by using RFID chips embedded in loyalty cards. One of the patents, granted in October, for example, outlines using RFID readers to count how many consumers are exposed to a particular display or to identify consumers who ‘closely identified a display for a predetermined amount of time’ by reading their loyalty cards. The patent envisions consumers flashing their loyalty cards in the vicinity of the displays or, it adds: ‘The card could be read in a shopper’s purse.’ The patent also covers gathering data about which displays individual consumers frequent in retailer databases to provide ‘personalized incentives’ and ‘focus subsequent advertising material, such as direct mail.’ ” In other words, RFID is a first step toward the “disctatorship of the consumer” that Hal Hartley visualized in his film The Girl From Monday—a society where the sum total of one’s contribution to the economy, the amount of consumer demand one has evoked and dsicharged, is constantly being measured to calibrate one’s standing in the world. RFID will be able to mark consumers with their class status and spending habits and thus make sure they get the preferential treatment their spending power should rightly procure. Meanwhile, everyone else will get shoddier and shoddier non-service, and will be like those line of chumps ringing themselves up on the confusing and demoralizing self-service check-out machines in The Home Depot. (RFID won’t eliminate those machines; it just relegate the second-class shoppers without “loyalty” to use them.) Such tracking information would seem to allow a retailer to customize a shopper’s experience, cater to him, make him enjoy shopping more, but this is the mere alibi for what it really allows: It permits retailers to demand fealty, and it enforces a more rigid stratification of the consumer public with the intent of sowing more inequality, more divisions between people who otherwise have common goals, and more conpensatory consumption to alleviate the pain. Happy new year!

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