Turning the panopticon around

Everything you always wanted to know, about everything.


Andrew Leonard
April 6, 2006 9:15PM (UTC)

For many people, RFID chips, those tiny little electronic identifying gizmos that are increasingly being incorporated in products so retail giants can track the movements of their goods, are a privacy-destroying, number-of-the-beast nightmare. Buy or borrow something with an RFID chip and they will know where you are, what you're doing, what you're reading, eating, watching. But I have a dream, a kind of science-fiction fantasy in which the utility of the RFID chip works for the consumer instead of against him or her.

I want to wave my cellphone at a shirt hanging on the rack at H&M or a DVD player on the shelf at Best Buy or a carton of strawberries at the Berkeley Bowl, and have the RFID chip tell me everything I want to know about that product.

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I mean everything. Not just all of its ingredients and every possible kind of health-related danger its consumption might pose. I also want a breakdown of the transnational production system that produced it, down to which semiconductor came from which province of which country. I want to know how much of it was produced in an environmentally sustainable manner. I want to know the wages and benefits and union status of the workers who built it or the farm laborers who picked it. I want the full scoop.

And I want even more. If something is labeled "organic" or "recycled" or "fair trade" -- I want to know what organization came up with the label, and how big of a role special interests played in defining it. There's a great Web site, SourceWatch, that I go to frequently to get a left-wing critical analysis of what the biases, ideology and funding of a particular so-called nonpartisan think tank might be. I want access, via that RFID chip, to dueling liberal and conservative source-watches that battle it out over the validity of every label out there.

I want to make an informed purchase. To do so, I want the full power of the information age at my immediate disposal. Is that too much to ask?

I think a lot about labeling at How the World Works, because I often wonder, If American consumers knew more about what goes into the products they buy would that knowledge make a significant difference in the ebb and flow of globalization? But that's a story I'll come back to in future posts. This particular rant has its genesis in something I learned while researching yesterday's post about scrap paper and China. Maybe everyone else already knew this, but it was news to me. According to FTC guidelines, the word "recycled" doesn't mean what I thought it meant. The official meaning of recycled is that a product is made from ingredients that were diverted from the "waste stream," and not necessarily from ingredients that have already been used by consumers and then recovered.

So, in the case of paper products, wood scraps and odds and ends left over from the original manufacturing or milling process -- so-called pre-consumer waste -- can be gathered up, made into paper, and called "recycled." But any product made out of the newspapers and cardboard I put out on the sidewalk is technically considered to be manufactured from "post-consumer waste."

Sure enough, yesterday evening, buying paper napkins at my local supermarket, I looked closely at two different brands that both proclaimed themselves 100 percent recycled. But one was only 40 percent post-consumer waste, and the other was 90 percent. (I know, I know, someone who really cared about the environment would only be using cloth napkins. Forgive me.)

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I explained this to my 11-year-old daughter over breakfast this morning, and she said, "If I was president, I would make it so the government could not lie."

Don't we wish! But that fantasy, I'm afraid, is out of our reach. My crazy dream, though, isn't really so far-fetched. Right here in San Francisco, the city announced today that it had chosen a joint venture of Google and Earthlink to provide free WiFi to the entire city. If I've got WiFi, and I've got Google, and I've got an RFID chip with a unique identifying numbert -- then I can, theoretically, find out everything I want to know.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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