If the network is everting, turning mundane and imminent, there may be no better sign of the trend than the QR code. Mundane as can be, they currently serve mainly as “quick-response” gateways or portals between physical objects or places and the web. Mostly their use seems to be limited to advertising, taking people to the URL of a product or company. They became widespread shortly after smartphones gave large numbers of people a way to scan them wherever they were encountered. You see them in shop windows and on real-estate signs, on flyers for campus events or on badges at conferences. Often they’re just used as a kind of magical talisman of connectedness, or of the desire for connectedness. They say “This thing or place is networked,” or “data is here,” but often in the predictable, simplified form of opening an URL on your phone. Often their appearance and display betrays a general uncertainty surrounding their use, the vague suspicion that they’re nothing but a gimmick. Sometimes they’re given a graphical shadow so the cryptic square itself looks like an object, a large black and white stamp layered on the poster or print ad of which it’s a part. Sometimes you see them printed on an 8.5 X 11 inch sheet of paper with instructions added in large black type, just in case users are still unfamiliar with them: “Scan This With a Mobile Phone App.” Just printing the URL would be easier and save toner. Presumably at this stage the relative novelty of QR codes entices some people to try scanning them in situations where they’d never stop to type in or write down an URL. But if you think about it, the significance of all those QR codes seems worth thinking about. Even magic talismans–maybe especially when their practical uses are not quite clear–can have cultural significance. For example, just in terms of design, there’s something intriguing about the fact that QR codes go the bar code one dimension better with their matrix layout–and that they “encode” in more than one sense the idea that the network and its data are connected to the physical world and that those connections can be revealed by way of readily available, cheap and ubiquitous acts of dimensional translation.
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