Internet Geographer

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Codes on places

The divides between material place and virtual information will start to shrink even more over the next few weeks as Google begins sending out about 100,000 QR codes to businesses in the US (as reported in the NYT).


The idea is that a user will see one of these codes on a building, scan it with an android, iPhone, Blackberry etc., and then be served up information that Google has stored about that particular place. This information could include descriptions, reviews, images, and coupons. The QR code is thus in essence a portal between the bricks-and-mortar material world that we inhabit and the (invisible to the naked eye) information about those same places scattered throughout the internet.

This isn’t a new idea of course, and the technology has been quite widespread in Japan for most of this decade. However, the significance of this piece of news is Google. Given the scale of investment, the fact that Google really wants to drive adoption of this technology by subsidising some of the cost for users, and the fact that almost all new smartphones are able to read QR codes, it is quite likely that we will soon see QR codes scattered throughout our urban environments.

Virtual information really will then become an important component in the palimpsests of place. As such, a host of questions emerge. Will rival companies start creating their own bridges between the material and virtual on national or global scales? Will the practice of QR tagging the material world further entrench the power of Google to determine what we see, where we go, who we interact with and where we spend money? What will this mean for the people and places unable to make their information rise to the top of opaque ranking algorithms? And are there any potentials for an open and transparent version of this technology, in which the justifications for making some information visible and some invisible are clearly documented?