Reading/Writing via Cellphone

Today’s NYT features a popular summary of cellphone bar codes for things, that is, the kind of technology developed by companies such as Neomedia, Denso-Wave, and Semacode:  two-dimensional readable “tags” affixed to objects that encode all sorts of metadata, and that are readable by cellphones.  Point the cellphone at a tagged object, and the phone display renders all kinds of “additional” information about that object.  Design history, price, production information, risks, DRM information, etc. etc.

The Times summary makes the cellphone reader technology come across like a 21st century version of the CueCat consumer barcode reader, as a toy for wireless companies to offer consumers who want another way to play and buy things with their handsets.  More below the jump.

The Times doesn’t explain that at least some of these technologies enable information push *and* pull.  The content behind the code can be user-generated as well as user-read.  In other words, the tags can be read/write, not just read-only.  The cellphone-readable tag might be linked to a wiki, for example, and the content created and maintained by a distributed network of users rather than by (or in addition to) the producer.  (I’m thinking here of Marc Smith’s Project AURA, which has a similar amibition.)  And the wireless signal could be readable by devices other than the cellphone.  For example, the contents of the tag could be rendered in an eyeglass (or sunglass)-based heads-up display.

The social and technological possibilities here are pretty cool, but as with many read/write technologies commercialized by incumbent ICT producers (including the CueCat itself), those possibilities will come with expectations that consumers and users behave themselves.  What I expect, via future EULAs and DMCA claims:  No hacking the tags; only “authorized” tags allowed.  Physical “things” will be deemed to be read-only; therefore, when physical “things” are connected to the Internet via cellphone technology, at least that portion of the Internet may be deemed to be read-only as well.  The CueCat was a special-purpose read-only barcode reader that was appropriated by CueCat hackers as a general purpose read/write bar code device — and which promptly disappeared.  What will happen when the general purpose device is a cellphone?  It’s difficult to imagine consumers allowing their wireless carriers to prescribe the “appropriate” use of the phone.

And don’t forget privacy question, which the Times also elides.  Privacy problems were the CueCat’s Achilles heel.  Who was watching you while you scanned those bar codes, and what happened to your scanning data?  For cellphone users, what are the answers to those questions today?