This isn’t a defense I ever expected would be needed but QR codes are getting a bad rap. It’s not uncommon for emerging technology to be reported on as a boogeyman (or is it boogeyperson? We’re inclusive). It seems that QR codes have finally become ubiquitous enough to be used for stories to generate fear-mongering clicks. First, let’s be clear about what QR codes are. They’re not apps or anything like that. They are simply an evolution of the UPC barcodes that stores have been scanning since the 1970’s. QR codes are just able to hold a lot more information than a string of numbers. This helps with tracking shipments and inventory, can be used in various ways with proprietary apps, and can even display messages or other information. This is why they’re great for website addresses — scan and tap vs. manually typing in the address. Most QR codes you see are precisely that, shortcuts to a website. No one is arguing that the mere use of a website URL is dangerous even if there are some dangerous and malicious websites out there. It’s the exact same situation with QR codes so it’s silly to point to them as the issue.
This recent New York Times piece gets pretty obtuse in trying to paint a sinister side “QR Codes Are Here To Stay. So Is The Tracking They Allow”. Throughout this article, they talk about the legitimately concerning ways in-which websites and apps, that utilize QR codes, are able to track your purchases and store data about you. But that’s the websites and apps doing the tracking, QR codes are just the vehicle getting you there. Feels like a scapegoat when the real story here is the near complete lack of legal protection or personal ownership of our digital data. That’s a real problem that needs to be addressed but, I promise you, fancy barcodes will not figure in the solution.
The other, more popular scary angle is that QR codes are going to take away jobs. Somehow the fears of automation are being connected to the equivalent of on-line ordering. We were excited to have our own Alexa, aka Foamy Wader, and our window shopping method recently featured in The Financial Times. We were less enthusiastic of the angle they chose: “QR codes replace service staff as pandemic spurs automation in US” In it, they conflate our difficulty hiring, during a local labor shortage, with our Scan to Shop method replacing the need for a salesperson. Which couldn’t be further from the truth. We initially created it in 2020 as a way to be semi-available to customers when in-store shopping was restricted. It turned out to be a hit so we kept it and wrote a guide so others could do the same. If anything, adding QR codes to our windows has increased our need for another employee with the extra business they bring.
The fact that miserable aspects of tipped-wage jobs are starting to be automated away is NOT A BAD THING.
In that NYTimes article mentioned above, they quote a bartender who says he thinks it’s convenient to order your food on a phone but that he was worried about the future of his job. Dude, QR codes and websites are not going to be mixing drinks.
The fact that miserable aspects of tipped-wage jobs are starting to be automated away is NOT A BAD THING. Many people aren’t ready for the conversation about how demoralizing the American foodservice industry is. You’re probably familiar with the old trope about “rude Europeans” not tipping waitstaff. Turns out it’s not their custom because, in lieu of tips, the service workers in their countries are actually paid a livable income, enabling stability in their lives. While the pandemic has forced some wages to rise, the American Federal minimum tipped wage is still $2.13/hr for these same jobs. Customers get a say in their server’s hourly rate, each day, when they are asked to tip or, more precisely, pay extra based on their feelings and generosity — that’s a lot of power! Something about this mindset feels classist and leftover from slavery… but I digress. As long as there are fairly compensated human employees available for questions and other help, like preparing and bringing out the food, I’m fine ordering on my phone. It beats having a stressed out, underpaid server not write down my order and getting it almost right.
What’s important is recognizing and acknowledging the differences between good and bad uses so we can address the bad ones.
All this is to say that as messed up as our reality can be, QR codes aren’t something to be feared. While they may have the potential to be used nefariously, that’s true of just about any tool. From cars to knives and even frying pans, any tool that is useful in one way can be misused in another. What’s important is recognizing and acknowledging the differences between good and bad uses so we can address the bad ones. For example, creating QR codes to direct people to malicious websites or even “safe” ones with the increasingly controversial data tracking are examples of bad uses. Saving resources and easing staff workload with digital menus (especially during a pandemic) is a good use of QR codes. But make sure your menu looks good on a phone, sending people to sites not optimized for mobile is another bad use. Other good uses are their ability to be a contactless payment method or to create alternative shopping opportunities like our literal window shopping.
The utility of those pixelated squares is undeniable and as they continue to integrate into our daily lives for better or worse, a lot of these negative takes will hopefully be dispelled. Fortunately, there’s a growing movement around updating our laws for 21st Century life or at least regulating the data brokers doing what they do. Perhaps if we can address the actual problem of corporations tracking us and our data, corporate media will stop pretending QR codes are the problem.