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July 12, 2004

The dream of the simple life is rarely pursued by anyone who is not forced into it. For example, we lament the complexity of law in developed societies, and yet we are directly responsible for the complexity. There is no statement of a rule for which we fail to find an exception, and so we accumulate more and more “yeah, buts.”

As we seek to better our lives through more options, we also seek to better our lives by removing the burdens of choice. Computers are expected to do this for us.

I’ve been reading about RFID, or in its full multisyllabic splendor, “radio frequency identification.”

RFID tags are little computer chips that carry information about the thing to which they are attached. They receive radio waves and use them to make enough power to transmit information stored in the chip’s memory, such as a product number, which is then picked up by a sensor.

Their use is in full swing in some places in the world and will likely pervade our lives in the near future as the cost of a tag drops from a dollar to pennies, and as industry standards are adopted.

Libraries will soon struggle with the paradoxical position of opposing the collection of information about patron habits on the one hand while adopting a new technology that is full of new possibilities for doing exactly that.

In Hong Kong, “automatic ID” technologies, of which RFID is just one, are an integral part of daily life. Many people use “Octopus” cards, on which they can download “money” for use in many types of transactions: bus, subway, and ferry tolls; supermarkets and 7-11s; parking meters; copy machines; etc.

Elsewhere, Wal-mart and Procter & Gamble have been conducting various tests of RFID uses. The Department of Defense will require RFID tags by 2005 on everything it purchases. Some large retailers have been testing “smart shelves” that will read RFID information periodically and automatically.

My favorite use is by Delta Airlines, which will use RFID tags for tracking luggage. This is a brilliant idea for both efficiency and security.

The potential uses of RFID for libraries include automatic checkout, inventory and shelf reading (whereby we keep things in order), returned book sorting, etc. In a word: labor-saving.

What are the fears of this technology? Big Brother. Not to mention loss of jobs as yet more of them are automated. But the ability to secretly and remotely collect previously uncollectible information has privacy proponents on alert.

Fears about data collection in general include fear of abuse but also fear of error. Very large databases are full of errors. Collecting large amounts of information is hard to do well. Drawing conclusions from data collected without a carefully designed plan is asking for trouble. Unless you don’t care about being wrong.

Consider a very large commercial database: I looked up a book called “The systems bible.” Amazon thought that customers interested in this title might also be interested in a special offer to get “The Passion of Christ” DVD free with purchase of bible study computer software. Close, but no cigar.

Sometimes, you just get tired of “technology” spinning its wheels. When was the last time you heard a car alarm and actually thought a car was being stolen?

This may become another arms race, or simply an investment opportunity. One company is already working on RFID blocking technology. Buy now.

Protecting ourselves from ourselves is a full-time job.


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