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  • Dan Connors

QR CODES- Tiny squares and dots that want to take over the world.

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

When you look at a QR code, it looks like a random assortments of black and white squares and dots. Devoid of meaning. But when a computer looks at a QR code, it can unlock all sorts of important data that immediately links the squares to websites, databases, and embedded information. Invented in 1994 by Denso, a Japanese company as a way to keep track of car parts on an assembly line, QR codes have exploded in use in the 21st century. Because of the versatile way that they can encode vast bits of information, almost everybody is looking at ways to put them to use.

QR stands for Quick Response, and these codes can store all sorts of data within their mysterious alignment, but most often the codes point to a website. The proliferation of smartphones since 2010 has supercharged the use of QR codes which require a high-tech code reader. Luckily, the camera of most cell phones works just fine, and by aiming the camera at a code as if to take a picture of it, instructions generally pop up pointing to a specific website. But beware- since the internet is far from a safe place, some of these codes could be tampered with or generated by bad actors to send a scanner to an infected website that could compromise their security!

QR codes are evolving quickly. They can be customized to color versions with logos so that large companies can use them and extend their brand identity. They are showing up on digital media as parts of television shows or commercials, forcing viewers to freeze their screens in order to scan them properly. They can be tiny or gigantic and still carry the same information, though scanning them can be a challenge sometimes. Some have even gone so far as to get QR code tattoos on their bodies or shaving a QR code into their head, linking to some website or message that matters to them.

The usage of QR codes has also evolved greatly from their intended purpose of inventory management. QR codes are now used for:

- Advertising. Both online and print advertisers have grasped the power of condensing information into a tiny square, and they use QR codes in ads to generate buzz, point to special offers, or raise awareness. You can find QR advertising codes on t-shirts, in magazines or newspapers, on billboards, or even made out of a 300,000 square foot corn maze.

- Menus. Some restaurants during Covid stopped providing physical menus because of the germ transmission problem. That practice has caught on and now it's not uncommon to see QR codes at each table pointing to an online menu. Physical menus are expensive to keep and online ones are much more amenable to item changes or price increases.

- Tickets. Paper tickets for sporting, musical, or public events are on their way out. Airline tickets are all virtual now, as are boarding passes. More and more, entertainment venues are using online, virtual tickets to track ticket holders. QR codes are on most online tickets now, and offer ticket takers an efficient and fraud-free way to verify that the ticket holder is entitled to get in.

- Payments. Charities can provide QR codes to potential donors that point to an online payment portal. Businesses can use the codes to send customers who are set up for mobile payments to an easy payment site free from cash and credit card usage.

- Connecting to wi-fi. Scanning the right code in a public area can automatically connect your phone to the wi-fi for that area without having to search for it or enter passwords.

- Adding contacts. Specialized business cards can use the code to import the holder into the scanner's list of contacts instantaneously.

- Education. Schools are catching on to QR codes as a way to provide quick and easy access to information, as long as students have access to ways to scan them. Companies and non-profits are also using QR codes to point to videos and educational materials that explain their products or causes in more detail.

- Medicine. Medical professionals have a great need for quick, accurate information when it comes to patient care. They are using QR codes on charts, bracelets, medicines, and equipment to speed things along and make sure that the right information is accessible to doctors, nurses and other professionals quickly by scanning.

- Cemeteries, memorials, and museums. The dead can't speak, but the right QR code on a tombstone or museum exhibit opens up an opportunity to speak for them. Rather than post a live person to explain what went on before, one scan can open up a website or video about a historical site or a specific life story. The possibilities are endless.

So is there a downside to these magical coded squares that contain so much information? Of course there is. In addition to the aforementioned safety and hacking concerns, the threats from QR codes remain the same as that from technology in general- speed, privacy, and depersonalization. The extra speed and efficiency of the codes will help in many areas but will also add to the frenetic pace of life as it continues to speed up.

In addition, there is the concern of visual pollution as our world gets loaded with more and more of these ugly, confounding squares at every turn. They will soon be EVERYWHERE. The scariest thing to me is the thought of most of my important stuff being reduced to a series of black dots and squares. I hope my life means more than that to the people that I encounter. The wrong people in power could mandate QR code tattoos or identity cards that could greatly restrict our freedoms and identities, and we need to be ever vigilant against technology controlling us more than we control it.

Privacy is already a big concern when dealing with advertisers on the internet, and QR codes give them more information about us that it gives us about them. Advertisers are constantly collecting data about our activities, and scanning a QR code is a loud signal that we like something. Be aware that anything involved with responding to ads opens you up to more ads and better targeted ones.

But for now, I will be watching these little black and white squares and using them when I think it's to my benefit. They seem harmless enough right now, and anything that adds efficiency and information to a transaction is generally a good thing. Just as long as they don't get out of hand and try to take over.

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