RFIDs on the Brain

Douglas Rushkoff, the author of Life Inc., is a guest blogger.

Here's Patrick Dixon, of Siemens, advertising as features all the things about RFID tags that I always thought should bother people the most. The first time I watched this, I figured it was The Yes Men having one over on the Ascent Business Leadership Forum.

I mean - it's all there: implanted RFIDs with human brain tissue growing naturally over them, total surveillance, predictive marketing... I suppose it's possible I'm still seeing this out of context - and that the speaker is actually pointing out how scary and strange this stuff gets. But I don't think so.

My favorite bit may be the reaction shot of one of the businessmen, who seems to be actually considering whether he is now fully and irrevocably engaged with the dark side of the force.

(Thanks, Joe, for sending it my way.)


  1. Suddenly I am thinking of that scene in Vonnegut’s “Player Piano” where the protagonist decides to buy a farm and live an old fashioned simple life to get away from all the technology.

    I’m not sure I know which businessman you infer is “considering whether he is now fully and irrevocably engaged with the dark side of the force.” They mostly looked pretty interested to me.

  2. The speaker may have said brain cells, but I believe he meant nerve cells. The reference was not to controlling humans with RFID, but rather to humans controlling their artificial limbs by thought.

  3. “Predictive marketing” sounds real scary, but is it?

    Really, it’s all about showing Douglas Rushkoff the kind of ads Douglas Rushkoff likes to see, about the kinds of products and services Douglas Rushkoff likes to buy.

    It’s all about filters, and the more perfect the Douglas Rushkoff Filter, the less money marketers will spend on Douglas Rushkoff in vain, and the less crap Douglas Rushkoff has to put up with in a day.

    The rest of the stuff, though, THAT creeps me out.

  4. hah. it won’t matter how many philadelphia mind-control bots i eat. those puny chips’ transmitters won’t get past my lead-lined pyramid helmet.

  5. Unusual Suspect,

    May I recommend a book to you? It’s called Coercion, by Douglas Rushkoff.

  6. Sounds like a contradiction to me, when he says, “there will be 10 trillion of things going into the environment every few years…total knowledge of consumer behavior watched in real time…” and then he says “the future’s not about [technology and] RFIDs, it’s about emotion.” BS!

  7. If we’re going to have biologically-engineered corporatist fascism, I want 100% theft reduction, not a piddly 70%, damn it!

  8. IS Elmer Fudd haunting the UK?

    I could not help but notice (yet again) the decline (or is it rise) in the number of people like this guy (and news readers, people in public…) from the UK who seem to be developing this rather strange inability to say the letter ‘r’. At first I thought it a speech impediment and then realised (wealised) that it is within the speech pattern itself i.e., forming part of the structure. Review this again and see if you note this. Look at other UK broadcast. I do not think I am mistaken. Any speech / linguistic specialists out there care to comment?

    e.g., RwefIDs, ‘electrwomagnetic wadiation in the air that we bweathe’… and so on…

    Rather odd. (Wather odd) and dweadfully fwightening to listen to…

  9. Hagbard, thanks! I have read Rushkoff’s “Coercion”, along with many others in that vein, and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

    On my desk in front of me right now is another of my favourites of the genre, a hoary old tome titled “The Plot to Make You Buy” by John Fisher (McGraw-Hill, 1968, LCcc# 68-20743).

    One of the problems with books of this ilk, however, is that they assign god-like powers to advertisers (who have proven, in my long and close experience, to be nitwits more often than puppetmasters), while lending scarcely a hint of responsibility to the consumer.

    In a nutshell, you wouldn’t get this crap thrown at you if it didn’t make you (or enough of the people around you) buy your little hearts out.

    At least predictive marketing can (in theory) make it possible for advertisers to know not to waste their money onpeople like you, me and Douglas Rushkoff.

  10. dude’s friend is not controlling his prosthetic hand with direct neuro-stimulation at least not without an ekg cap or plug sticking out of his head.

  11. SERIOUSLY: I am not getting it. Is this an activist-intruder, or is he for real? It is not possible that someone would take this seriously, or is this business-lecture standard?

  12. All depends on your perspective.

    From a business perspective it’s absolutely wonderful.

    From a government/security perspective it’s a boon of the highest magnitude.

    From a consumers perspective it’s both good and bad. Good in that it gives the consumer highly targeted knowledge without all the usual fluff. That saves the consumer time and aggravation. Bad is that privacy goes out the window, it limits the wide array of new experiences and knowledge. It allows for not only detailed records of purchases but also allows one to be tracked.

    The end result will be multiple huge databases of information. Most probable the government will be able to access all of them.

    From my perspective. I have never seen an ability or source of information that, regardless of original intent, is not illegally abused or has it’s scope expanded by legal alterations.

    Simply put, I believe it bodes ill in the long run.


  13. Great googly moogly…

    For a blog that (generally) celebrates technology, I can’t believe we’re harshing on RFID chips because there’s a *potential* for them to be misused. Here are some things that, yes, you’re not putting into your context.

    1. More accurate tracking of goods leads to less spoilage, less waste, fewer trips back-and-forth to the warehouse (thus, less fuel used), less room required in storage, better supply where it’s needed and less over-supply where it’s not. That is, all kinds of happy green things. Bumper-sticker version: breakage is bad for the planet.

    2. Better tracking of food packages will result in fewer illnesses and deaths and fewer costly “total dumps” of an entire food category. For example, knowing exactly which packages of meat came from a contaminated batch will let you get them out of circ that much better.

    3. Better tracking of individual’s specific biometric data — at their own or their doctor’s personal request… jeez — will keep people alive. People now have pacemakers that track biometric data and send info back to the hospital about (horrors!) personal information such as… is the battery on my pacemaker going to crap out soon? Is my pacemaker doing weird stuff? If so… please, please, please, please… track it.

    4. Ditto #3 for stuff that’s just getting started, like giving Diabetes patients insulin only when they need it. Which prevents stuff like death.

    5. Tracking troops in the field w/ RFID will allow recovery of wounded soldiers and bodies.

    6. Tracking weapons in the field will help prevent theft and recover stolen and illegally sold military hardware.

    7. Tracking my own stuff will help me not lose it and do more with it. You’re familiar with Bruce Sterling’s “Spimes,” I assume?

    I could go on. Knowing where stuff is at any given time is an incredible technological leap. Could it be used to track people without their knowledge and establish a One World Government that hunts you down if you stray from your assigned path? Sure. But you can drown in water, too.

    This is just alarmist. Please try to keep things in perspective.

  14. This is fabulously misinformed babbling by a salesman who paged thru an issue of Nature that somebody left on the airliner.

    [RFID] tags are powered by the electromagnetic radiation in the air that we breathe

    Uh, no. RFID tags are not powered by ambient RF energy; only RF energy from a compatible RFID tag detector will power them, and only for limited distances. And RF energy is not “in the air we breathe”, any more than light is.

    We can go onstage further if you like, we can put them in the brain.

    No, you can’t. Not yet, anyway. So far neuron-silicon interface research has involved small samples of neural tissue from slugs and rats, not humans, and certainly not whole brains.

    Here are human nerve cells growing onto the surface of an RFID-type chip.

    No, it’s not. It’s a rat neuron smeared onto a silicon sensor grid. His attempt to link RFID technology to neuron-silicon interface research is a laughable attempt to rub the magic aura of BIG SCIENCE on his cheap radio-barcode scheme.

    Human brain cells don’t have to be taught to do this, they are genetically programmed to work with computers.

    Good grief, what a stupid thing to say.

    Here is a chip, there is the chip, you put the brain tissue on and it organizes itself. The brain cells work their way in and they start communicating, with each other and with the brain of the PC. So it means we can have thinking computers.

    Meanwhile his projector is displaying an image of a slug neuron plopped onto a silicon sensor. No self-organizing is going on there. And it certainly doesn’t mean “we can have thinking computers.”

    Total knowledge of consumer behavior, watched in real time.

    He wishes. Attempts to data mine in-store RFID traces for customer behavior, I predict, will result in useless mounds of uninterpretable and contradictory data, fools gold for the corporate data miner.

  15. “We can go onstage further if you like, we can put them in the brain.”

    Yeah, sure fella. Let me volunteer to be the first to put one in your brain.

    But you might want to see the movie “Clear Cut” first.

  16. I’m pretty certain that there isn’t the potential connection this man thinks between RFID chips and any sort of “neural implant.”

    If I understand RFID correctly, they aren’t sensors and only communicate their own identity (hence rfID). Therefore, they don’t interface with whatever they are mounted to/stuck in, and it doesn’t make a difference if they’re stuck in your brain or in your left hand as far as crypto-fascist marketing kooks are concerned.

    I’m with 14 in that RFID really isn’t among the more sinister technologies out there.

  17. Good clarification, #14

    I was also wondering – hey, when did RFID switch from being passive transmitters that you have to make sing from (relatively) short range to super self transmitters that were ripped straight out of the terminator!?

    Also – that cuts down about half of the points mentioned in #13. Finding dead/wounded soldiers on the battlefield? Only if by finding you mean: Standing over a body, scanning it and saying “Yup, thats one of ours… hey, seems like he’s dead!” (This will of course change once we get to tiny UAVs or smart dust etc. – but then again, why would THEY need this?)

    I’m not categorically against RFID – which would be plain stupid considering the proven benefits in a lot of situations. However: Don’t make it solve problems you can already be solved rather competently through other means.

    As for the “we need more info about people” argument raised in #13: It certainly is a thin line to walk. The biggest issue (and this is ESPECIALLY with RFID) is privacy and security here. Data is made to be stolen and as soon as you bring functional qualities to the things that for now only read data to you… Although – having an automatic insulin trigger would be a nice reduction in workload for any hitman.

    As long as most energy is stuffed into creating gadgets for corporations, the only thing customers will see is fake reasons and increasingly large baits to buy into them (payback card anybody?). With increasingly blurry lines concerning the data being thrown around, it would need rather harsh laws to get a common ground for both parties. I’m afraid that won’t happen considering the magnitude of a lobby you deal with: Big Corps who sell stuff.

  18. I think for me it comes down to the fact that I don’t want a fucking corporation to target anything at me. I don’t want a fucking corporation monitoring my emotions. I don’t want fucking chips keeping track of the things I purchase. I don’t want to be part of an efficiency study.

    Plus, it won’t work, any more that the “targeted” facebook ads I get for Churches, MBA programs and wrinkle creams have any idea what I believe in or want to buy. So the very thought of having some dumb ass idiot that I have never met, at a corporation, fucking with my information just really bothers me.

  19. This is, perhaps, the worst fucking thing I’ve ever heard of, at least in terms of psychology. With strong enough algorithms the repercussions will extend as far as to preclude free will in practice. The processor of you data set effectively knows your next move before you do.
    In another light, people are only punishable for their crimes because we assume because they chose those actions. This sort of technology will not only prove that people unwittingly make predictable decisions in their shopping activity, but that all actions are predetermined. You cannot incarcerate someone if they had no choice. That I breathe and speak is only superficially presupposed in these words; that I would act and write them out was always meant to be.
    I’ve always suspected that free will was a farce, I was just hoping it wouldn’t be proven true before my death.

  20. #14 #17 and #18 have are right as far as it goes.

    Passive RFID is powered by the transponder and, depending on the frequency, works from a few centimeters to a few meters away.

    Semi-passive RFID have a battery backed chip for memory storage, extra processing power and other sensors, but still let the transponder power the communication.

    Active RFID are little transponders themselves and may communicate peer to peer with each other and posssibly power other, passive RFID types. (This last type isn’t typically seen yet, but is part of the EPC Global standards roadmap).

    As for the rest, the speaker doesn’t know much about RFID.

    The issue isn’t any one technology. RFID has been around since WWII. What matters is what safeguards and transparency we have in how government and business use my information. I’m happy to trade privacy for value for some things, and very unhappy about other uses of my information. Credit cards, server logs, emails, tweats, social network accounts, cell phones and cameras track us already. We need to deal with the issue with or without RFID. RFID does have many benefits, some of them lifesaving as others have pointed out in the thread, so do credit cards, cellphones and cameras. The issue is how they are used and what we will permit businesses and our governments to do with them.

    (full disclosure: I wrote a book on RFID for O’Reilly Media in 2006 and have worked in the field off an on for years).

  21. #15 JAYERANDOM: “he is not a salesman for RFID systems, he is a self-titled “futurist” with a 30-year-old medical degree: http://www.globalchange.com/cv.htm

    I ve read his CV. It is full of victories and self-confidence that is to illustrate his all-over success in life. That is typical for business people – ignoring failure. He is a salesman. He sells success (as opposed to e.g. art making, which sells failure).
    Watch e.g.

    This sample is interesting because it displays a core aspect of the neo-liberal era: it is all about net-value, global ethics etc. (“will the world be a better place”) – it reminded me how misleading it is to associate only selfishness, greed, egoism, shortsightedness etc. with neoliberalism. Instead it came in a utilitarian package (synthesis: ‘the world will be a better place if everybody cares for himself’). Ethics is the perfect label for almost anything.

  22. Wow RFIDs in the brain. It’s like George Orwell’s 1984, without the need of the rat. I admit that there is something seductive to marketers about the possiblity of a new vulcan mind probe. Might I suggest something a bit less intrusive? How about context-driven qualtiative research? This duplicates the buying scenario, without the need for brain surgery.

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