I spent yesterday going back through some of the work on RFID tags. RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identity. Above is an image that matches with the often used comparative, that they are around the size of a grain of rice. Although they vary in size. A little while ago there was a bit of a flurry of work on RFID. The development and large-scale use of RFID was seen as indicative of the move toward trackable objects, the internet of things, the rise of information dense infrastructures (that might think for us), the development of increasingly sophisticated surveillance, and so on. As a result RFID became a point of reference in what was seen as an important moment in the transformation of our environments. In 2009 Katherine Hayles wrote that RFID are
‘now so small and cheap that [they] can be embedded in a wide variety of
products and objects’ (Hayles, 2009: 48), and she added that ‘[c]ombined with embedded sensors, mobile technologies and relational databases, RFID destabilizes traditional ideas about the relations of humans to the built world, precipitating a crisis of interpretation that represents both a threat to human autonomy and an opportunity for re-thinking the highly politicized terrain of meaning-making in information-intensive environments.’ (Hayles, 2009: 48). Hayles wasn’t the only writer to be drawing such conclusions, we can also find the presence of RFID playing a crucial role in Nigel Thrift’s Knowing Capitalism and in Stephen Graham and Mike Crang’s article on Sentient Cities. In fact, RFID references popped up all over the place. In one article I tried to use them to think about the imagined thinking power of things and spaces. And then there was also the influential work of Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchin. But perhaps one of the striking things about RFID was how this particular technology became a part of design futurism, of imagined coming spaces, objects and environments. Bruce Sterling, sci-fi author turned design futurist, published a book in 2005 about new types of objects which he called SPIME. These SPIME were imagined to be trackable objects whose location and history was inscribed on to each individual item (and the component parts of that individual item). Sterling used RFID tags as an indicative example of these emergent objects, and placed this particular technology within a linear set of technological developments.
The reason for returning to RFID was to reflect on how this development looks a few years on and to see how RFID might be part of such a narrative. I’ve ended up only writing quite a short passage for the book. But, reflecting on Sterling’s work in particular and the general response to RFID in the academic literature of 4 or 5 years ago, there is a sense that RFID have already become quite ordinary parts of our environment. We seem to have got used to this level of connectivity and trackability of objects. But maybe some of these initial questions about the implication of RFID and other similar technologies need to be revisited so that we might gain some perspective on how our environments are incrementally being altered. This seems more important now that these devices have become mundane and embedded.