The Future is Not Inevitably Bleak

Those who see RFID as a tool to be abused by governments have a poor grasp of history—and literature.
Published: September 7, 2010

Recent news that schools are starting to use radio frequency identification to track students, and that some municipal governments are utilizing the technology to track residents’ recycling efforts, has brought out the bloggers who see this as the first step toward a dark future in which governments employ RFID to control constituents’ behavior. What’s fascinating about these blog posts is that the writers seem to believe we are doomed to a bleak, dystopian future.

They have a poor grasp of both history and literature.

Take this recent post by former Congressman Bob Barr: Brave new world of trash, students and RFID monitoring. He suggests that it is bad for people that governments are using RFID to track whether constituents recycle. I understand that libertarians believe that the government that governs best governs least, and I certainly respect that view. But what I don’t get is his belief that the use of RFID means we are inevitably headed toward totalitarian control (and why he doesn’t understand that I am cheated when I recycle and my neighbor does not—but that’s another topic entirely).

Barr’s view is based largely on the vision of government that George Orwell described in his brilliant novel 1984. Barr says Orwell’s nightmare was “furnished with technology based on World War II-era know-how.” That’s just silly—they didn’t have two-way TV screens back then. He also calls the book “prescient,” even though the world today is nothing like the one Orwell imagined—not to take away from the novel, which is both a great story and a warning to all of humanity regarding the dangers of totalitarianism.

Barr, like so many commentators, doesn’t understand 1984. He believes the novel is about tracking and monitoring people to control them. In reality, the government’s ability to spy on people is mentioned only a couple of times—most prominently, right at the beginning, which is why I think so many people remember it. 1984 is about controlling the population not through spying, but rather through the control of information. The job of Winston Smith, the main character, not incidentally, is rewriting news reports. The Party, which controls the government, has a monopoly on information, and Winston’s constant rewriting of newspaper articles causes him to question the all-powerful Party’s “truth.” At the end of the book, he and Julia, his secret lover, are not subjugated by technology or monitoring. Rather, they are forced to accept—willingly and completely—the Party’s version of the truth.

I recognize that RFID can be abused, just as any technology can. And I recognize that it could potentially give governments a means to gather more information about what people are doing. But I don’t get why so many fear that a short-range identification and tracking technology will mean that the government will inevitably control the population. The U.S. government has enough weapons to make everyone in the country do exactly what it wants, but I’ve never had a soldier point an M16 in my face and tell me to do something. I carry around a long-range tracking device—the GPS in my cell phone—and I’ve never noticed the government using it to track me.

Let’s look at recent history. Have all the new technologies been used by governments to control people? Clearly, the answer is no. In fact, technology has been a key reason we are living in a period of history in which more people live in freedom than ever before. Television played a big part in this, by letting individuals around the world know how those in democratic capitalist societies live, thereby putting pressure on totalitarian governments. More recently, the Internet has been effective in furthering the cause of democracy. Just look at how the protestors in Iran used Facebook and Twitter to get word out regarding the government’s crackdown.

Are governments capable of tracking us? Sure they are. Most maintain extensive databases on some individuals. The U.S. government famously tracked e-mail messages and phone conversations after 9/11, to try to identify terrorists within the country, and in some cases, that ability was abused. But technology has also enabled people to track the government better than ever before. The Internet allows whistle-blowers to reach millions of people who could previously not be reached.

Individuals must always fight to protect their liberties. If RFID is abused, people must stand up against it. I know I will. But when I look at the world, I see positive trends, not negative ones. Dictators in nations from Argentina to the Philippines have been replaced by democracies. Countries are embracing new technologies and becoming wealthier. There are far more people living a middle-class lifestyle today than throughout history. The free flow of information has been—and will continue to be—critical to the freedom and prosperity of societies worldwide.

So to my mind, the use of technologies, including radio frequency identification, is central to the positive things that are currently happening in the world. If folks like Bob Barr would wake up and look around them, they would see that North Korea is the one country left that resembles the dystopia of 1984, and North Korea has no information technology. And the reason it doesn’t is that it understands, as Orwell did, that the way governments control people is not through tracking technologies, but through the control of information.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or the Editor’s Note archive.