I was talking with a friend earlier this year (recently returned to the UK from Central and North America) about the potential for tracking supply chain information with QR codes. “Ah”, she nodded knowingly, on being shown an example of the 2D barcode, “we used to call that the sign of the beast.”
This is somewhat discouraging to hear when you are, as I am, convinced of the usefulness and potential of these little codes to contribute to positive social change. However, it connected a few disparate things that I’ve heard and read about QR codes, and technology more generally - some ideas that are specific and recent, and some broader themes that they refer to.
To start with, the specific - I was lucky enough to hear what Unltd’s Chief Executive, Cliff Prior, thought about QR codes - he voiced concerns over exactly the kind of sentiment that many people may have to QR codes. Essentially, the worry is that people like my friend are not in the minority in (correctly) identifying that the codes are mostly used for advertising or some other form of marketing. The unimaginative ways that they have often been used (or, indeed, completely unusable, such as on the side of a bus or in places with no internet connection, as documented variously here, here and particularly here) also don’t set inspiring precedents. Those most motivated about changing attitudes to consumption are (presumably) least likely to be engaged by marketing gimmicks.
With that in mind, below are some of the ways that QR codes (and barcodes in general) have been used for more interesting and noble causes.
(On a general note, the idea that barcodes can be used to contain ethical information on products has a history which predates the recent spread in the use of QR codes: between 2007 and 2010, the Fair Tracing project (which was an early contemporary of GoodGuide in the Ethical Consumer Information Network) looked into using barcodes to contain supply chain information, using case studies of both Chilean wine and Indian coffee.)
In the interim, a number of organisations have picked up the challenge, with Goodguide being the obvious leaders in the US, and Barcoo providing a more crowd-sourced version in Germany (although with a number of users from the UK continually adding content).
Here is another kind of use - linking QR codes on museum exhibits in Derby to wikipedia articles and further information.
And then there are those which are less about information persay, but the lighter side of life. Aside from sites like QR code art, which offers a continually refreshed catalogue of new and innovative uses of the codes, I thought this little gem really stood out for me in terms of creating a more interesting urban landscape.
But to dip back into the world in which Gabe and I entered when we started the Bunna Bet Project in 2011, there are mixed signs that QR codes, transparency and ethical consumption can go hand-in-hand-in-hand. Firstly, since the whispers of what we are up to and/or the same ideas have occurred to others, we’ve seen QR codes in use by Starbucks and Sainsbury’s supermarkets to link to information about geographic areas and FairTrade, respectively.
Secondly, there are a number of projects which are involved in using the technology to provide information related to ethics in some direct way. These are my top 3:
- A university-led project using the power of QR codes as a “quick and easy way to link any media to any object”, specifically aimed at telling the stories and histories of objects.
- Direct trade at its finest. A real text-book study in transparency and definitely one to watch for all those interested in how the principles work out in the practice of business.
- The latest incarnation of a number of efforts using QR codes to trace fish, these guys share a belief I hold for coffee: that greater levels of transparency promote higher quality, fresher products.
The real question remains whether the fad-obsessed world of marketing will kill these codes in the public’s perception, or whether there will be enough other, better-implemented uses to create a lasting association of usefulness and value with QR codes. There will be some tasks that Augmented Reality, or other forms of Near Field Communication, are better equipped to manage. However, the problems with getting machines to recognise the intricacies of images in the real world means that QR codes will retain an unmatched usefulness for some kinds of links. The real challenge - as with all implementation of new technologies - is to use the most appropriate tool to make the greatest positive impact; my hope is that the inherent neutrality and usefulness of the QR code itself allows more creative and beneficial uses to emerge and dominate over the poorly implemented and pointless uses. For this to happen, those in the fields of transparency and sustainability would be wise to avoid the pitfalls of the fad-crazed marketeers, and must be careful to differentiate how interacting with their code is more rewarding than accessing a mobile version of an advert.