The human capacity to find hidden meanings in things has given us poetry, physics and software. It's also given us superstitions, conspiracy theories and hoaxes. Given that this capacity is enduring it shouldn't come as any surprise that each new thing that comes along is inflected by it, and that includes technologies.
RFID is radio frequency identification. It's setting a small transmitter at a certain frequency, setting a reader to recognize that frequency. That's it. The implications as we have outlined, can include tracking wine inventory and sushi freshness. But there are other implications, ones rooted in, say, less demonstrable realities. RFID, to some, is the number of the beast.
Cattle Rustling, RFID & The End Times
When we wrote the first article on the possible use of RFID as a way to stop an increase in cattle rustling, it was, predictably, not the most wildly popular of our posts. No Facebook connection, for one thing. But suddenly, it shot up in page views. We researched it and found out that our post had made its way onto a website that featured a news feed for those who are certain the world is about to end. We could not figure out why. Then it dawned on us. Between the red heifer some believe will usher in the Apocalypse, and the assignment of numbers to human subjects of the anti-Christ, we were good to go.
The flaw in the logic that assigns a particular evil to a particular technology is that any technology can be rendered into numbers. Anything from language to music to a printing press to a computer can be assigned numbers or produce them. I wouldn't bad-mouth anyone's religious expectations, but it's straight out syllogism to presume they are dependent on the technologies that just happened to be of recent vintage. Plus, just a sample of the different recent technologies that have been assigned an apocalyptic role in addition to RFID include magnetic strips, barcodes, computer chips and biochips.
Three RFID Hoaxes
Money Replaced With Implanted Chips. This refers again to the fears behind Christian teleology. Biochips were going to take the place of money. The chips were to be planted in the body. This is close in approach to the idea of paying with your smart phone. The only problem is that it's not true. The giveaway is the fact that those who "revealed" this plan manage to confuse and conflate biochips, RFID and magnetic cards.
The U.S. Government Tracks Homeless with Chips>. If the fact that it was an April Fool's joke to the Politech mailing list weren't enough, the fact that it was supposedly Health and Human Services behind this that should have been.
Police Will Use RFID Rifles to Tag Dissidents. An artist, Jakob S Boeskov, cobbled together a convincing-looking rifle and toted it to an Chinese arms and armament conference, describing it as a way to non-lethally and permanently tag any trouble-makers in a mob situation. Practically everyone bought it. It turns out it was a "Fictionism" art event. Why was it accepted? The gun looked cool. It was performed in a context where such a thing might be valued. It was reported on by journalists looking for an angle - this was certainly one.
The reasons these tech hoaxes found a purchase on our imagination
First, the people who reported them, whether professional journalists or not, either wanted to believe them or didn't do due diligence in researching them. Second, professional journalists do not always explore and explain complex technologies as well as they should. For one thing, often times, we are excited about them and that can cloud the need to delve into their implications. For another, this stuff is hard. It can be hard for us to get our heads around, much less yours. (Neither of the foregoing are excuses, by the way. If anything, they are self-indictments.)
Second, this is an extremely complex era, in which changes in technology are matched by changes, challenges and crises in politics and environment. Even if it is not approaching a "singularity," it all seems to be getting faster almost exponentially. This drives people to seek explanations. When we fail at expressing the nature and limitations of technology as technology journalists, others fall in to breach the gap. Sometimes they do an excellent job. Sometimes they make a mess.