RFID and the end civilization
Imagine a supermarket where there were no check-outs and no floor staff. Sounds far fetched? Not for much longer. Walmart (ASDA in the UK) is leading the charge towards Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags, small radio chips that allow stores to identify and monitor every item carried off the shelves. With a full implementation of the technology, customers can be trusted to just walk out of the store with their purchases in their bag. It won't be theft because the store will also know who you are to debit your account by a combination of CCTV cameras and credit cards with RFID technology.
To some this may be bliss - no more waiting at the checkout. No more difficult staff. No more problems swiping your credit card. But just how wonderful would this apparent utopia be?
RFID is the latest technology to be used in the ever-growing control grid that dictates the way we live our lives. Walmart has recently suffered flak in the USA for their RFID trials, even though they claim it is only to monitor possible theft of Gillette products. The reason for outcry? Walmart customers saw the RFID tags as the start of a new slippery slope in surveillance.
RFID has the potential for firms to know who their customers are as soon as they walk in the door, to know which branch the customer's underwear was purchased from and to monitor how fast each customer walks round the outlet. It can offer many more items of information if the hardware is in place. The advent of the Homeland Security and USA PATRIOT Acts could provide for the US federal government to access all this privately held data and then track citizens' movements in town. Many Americans have understandably protested the inception of the technology, having already seen their constitutional rights threatened with the above Acts.
The official reasoning for placing the chips in products or their packaging sounds fair at first glance; the technology allows for constant tracking of products on the production-line all the way to delivery. Admirable objectives served by new technology. However customers are concerned about the `creep' that the technology will provide for and already is. The trial with Gillette, monitoring possible theft, was run in a low-income area and can only tenuously be considered monitoring of the supply chain.
The industry lobby group for RFID, the Auto-ID Center at MIT was recently embarrassed when a consumer group, Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), successfully downloaded confidential documents from their website. The documents themselves provided further embarrassment when they revealed plans to `pacify' the public over RFID technology. The security breach also set a terrible example for the future of the technology.
Why they need to pacify us
RFID is not only the harbinger of heavy personal surveillance. It may bring an end to civilisation as we know it. Forgive the author for using such profound terms, but having considered the potential impact of the technology, this is what I foresee. The end of supermarket check-outs and their staff may seem ideal for some, but for me it sounds like hell on earth. One of the joys of being a human being with an active mind is the ability to engage others in conversation. An environment which encourages customers to shop quickly and avoid interaction with others further atomises society. We already spend a great deal of our time `entertained' by television or video games, avoiding contact with the real world. An end to supermarket staff would only increase our hermit-like status, acclimatising us to a world where real people are not important. For me, the highlight of a trip to the supermarket is the conversation at the check-out. After all, who really enjoys grocery shopping?
My fears are not purely based on whether or not I get to talk to anyone, however. I have also taken the economic implications of the technology into account. If chain stores started to invest in this technology to process purchases, sidelining human check-out operators, then those employees may find themselves out of jobs.
Thanks to globalisation and international competition, jobs that were previously safe are now being exported to developing countries. Many who lost their jobs in the decline of western industry were advised to re-train and find a job in a call-centre. At the time, call-centres were a growing market, particularly in the north of England where they provided welcome employment. Today call centre workers are seeing their jobs exported to India and elsewhere with cost savings are cited as the reason. Of course cost savings are the reason. Why pay someone £16,000 when you can pay someone in India £1,500 for the same job after a little dialect training? With a crash course on the soap operas and weather of the customer's market, callers are none-the-wiser as to the fact that their call has been routed half-way around the world.
I am frequently told that I should consider the benefit that this brings to the Indian economy. I point out in return that the people employed in India will ultimately lose their jobs just as surely as they did in England. With a higher income and an active role in the information society, the call-centre workers in India are rapidly having their aspirations raised so that they begin to demand the latest hi-tech gadgets and other consumer `must-haves'. What will happen when they decide that they want more money to pay for the next generation recordable DVD player? Simple. They'll get the sack and their jobs will be exported.
Globalisation is about one loyalty. Money. Firms have no loyalty to the countries they invest in, they have a commitment only to their shareholders to provide maximum return. If this means firing the people who buy your product, well it seems that's just too bad. Some of the jobs have to go to India? That's just competition. When they move from India to China, that's just international competition again. Sounds simple, but try explaining it to those people who lose their jobs as a result of this competition.
Walmart is no small organisation - it employs tens of thousands of people. If a large section of those people lose their jobs due to international competition and RFID, how are they expected to provide for their families? An economy is based on the re-circulation of money. If these employees become unemployed, they won't have any money to re-circulate. At a stroke, Walmart's former employees become former customers. It doesn't stop at Walmart though. The former employees would become former customers of other firms, both small and large, and there the downward spiral accelerates. A drop in the velocity or quantity of money circulating around an economy usually goes by another, more common name. Recession. I don't need to explain what happens next. History has taught us what this brings.
The first production line was not in the Ford factory, as many people believe. It was actually in gun manufacture some time before the Model T was even on the design board. RFID could simply be the next advance in production techniques utilising more `efficient' methods, but every advance in efficiency has meant fewer people producing the same level of output. Unfortunately I don't see a balance provided by the RFID factories - they'll be so efficient they won't be hiring many people, and they'll probably be based in China anyway.
Again I ask that you forgive the author for painting a bleak picture of this brave new world, but also ask that serious consideration be given to the issues raised here, devoid of corporate spin and voodoo economics. The enslavement of the masses to consumption, mass production and media bombardment has led to a way of life where very little is ever questioned, so long as things are going well. By the time the masses realise that competition and the latest technology may have repercussions for all of us, it could well be too late.
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