business news in context, analysis with attitude

We finally caught up with the New York Times story last week about persons who have had radio frequency identification (RFID) chips implanted under their skin – presaging an era in which people actually merge with technology to become, in their view, more efficient and productive people.

“The tiny silicone chips, which for years have been safely implanted in pets and livestock to identify their owners, come with an encoded string of numbers,” the NYT writes. “They are read by a scanner two to four inches away, much like a bar code except the chips don't need to be visible to be read.”

The Times notes that this convergence of human being and technology has been speculated about for years, often by novelists and filmmakers who worry that it will result in a cultural nightmare. (Think the Borg from “Star Trek,” assimilating all races into their technology-driven collective that lacks creativity and independent thought and announces to its soon-to-be victims, “Resistance is futile.” This works, of course, until they bump into Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the starship Enterprise…but we digress.)

Proponents of convergence argue that this is a positive trend because it puts technology to even greater service of mankind, allowing people to do all sorts of tasks – from opening their front doors and cars to informing doctors of their medical history – without having to carry around keys and medical files. They even imagine that this is the next step beyond biometrics – that people could pay for purchases with the simple wave of their hand.

“Implanting chips in people is not new,” the NYT writes. “Some employees of the Mexican Ministry of Justice are implanted with chips that give them a fast track through their building's security, and a Barcelona dance club offered chips to V.I.P.'s.

“In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration gave approval in 2004 to a Florida company, Verichip, to implant RFID chips in people as a means to retrieve medical information. The information is not on the chip; it is in a computer database that hospitals gain access to by scanning patients who carry a chip beneath their skin. In the last three years, Verichip says, it has implanted more than 2,000 people around the world and 60 in the United States. Its chips are a proprietary technology and cost about $200 each.”

But critics of such a system continue to worry that we are becoming a world in which privacy is gradually being taken away and unreasonable demands are being made of individuals. For example, if insurance companies decided that it was far more efficient to have medical information available to doctors in emergencies via an implanted chip, they could conceivably make it a prerequisite for getting insurance – a notion that is alarming to privacy advocates.
KC's View:
Not to mention the fact that some people who worry about RFID being a sign of the devil will object to the fact that they will be marked with a small tattoo of the numbers “666”…

Just kidding.

We have to admit to sharing the concerns of privacy advocates on this one. Though we can imagine that such implants might make us a more efficient society, we also worry if at some point we will begin losing our essential humanity. The novels and films about such subjects almost always begin with people being sure that they are in control, that such technologies will somehow make us more human. But, of course, they don’t. This way madness lies…

There is one thing that we are sure of. This is not a technology debate. It is a debate for philosophers and poets and ethicists, not for politicians and scientists. It is a debate about the soul, not the mind…and we don’t use that word in a religious sense. And it is a debate that likely will do much to define our future.