Tech that seems totally useless can suddenly become crucial — like during a pandemic
The first time I saw a QR code, I scoffed.
It was 2010 and the code was in the bottom corner of a movie poster. To scan it, I had to download a special app on my Iphone. The software was still buggy and fiddly — I was hunched over for 15 seconds, scanning and rescanning, until finally it worked. Lo and behold: A crappy browser opened up, showing me the website for the movie.
This, I thought, is the most idiotic thing I’ve seen in my life. It had the unique whiff of Rube Goldberg that wafts off all tech that’s risibly too complicated for its own good.
QR code technology had, in fact, been around since 1994, when it was invented by a Toyota subsidiary for tracking car-parts as they whizzed around production lines. Now, that was a good use of QR codes! Tracking industrial parts is tricky. In a bold move, the subsidiary made the technology an open spec that anyone could use, and that’s when the marketing folks got their hands on it. They figured it would be totally cyber if they slapped QR codes on all ads and promotional posters, so it could save people the horrible toil of typing in a website address with their fingers like a bunch of animals. You could just imagine the pitch meeting: The Millennial kids will love it!
The Millennial kids did not love it. Nobody loved it. Though QR codes were soon splattered all over the world of advertising, by 2011 barely one in five Americans ever used them. QR codes seemed like the go-to parlor trick of Silicon Valley: Creating an app that is tech for tech’s sake, and that addresses no actual human need felt by any actual humans.
Indeed, that early surge of QR codes felt like a classic example of tech solutionism, where you attempt to automate something that does not, on its surface, seem to cry out for automation, such as the dreary toil of typing in a web-site address. And weirdly, this was the second such rodeo for the marketing folks; back in 2000, they handed out millions of the “:CueCat”, a little barcode scanner you plugged into your computer, and when you scanned a barcode printed on a magazine ad it would … take you to a website with yet more advertising material. (Some PhD student should investigate why marketing people are so thoroughly obsessed with having people scan things to avoid typing in URLs; it is practically Freudian.) At the peak of this mania, Wired magazine mailed a free :CueCat — yes, the colon is part of the name — to every one of its million-odd subscribers so they could scan magazine ads. (Time Magazine listed it as one of “The 50 Worst Inventions”, alongside “New Coke” and “Subprime mortgages”).
So, the CueCat was born, was flamingly useless, and then was reborn as the QR code a decade later, which looked equally useless.
Once again, over-eager technologists were creating a solution for something that wasn’t a problem.
Until COVID-19 came along.
The pandemic created an actual, honest-to-goodness problem for society: When we were out in public, nobody wanted to touch things. In the early months, everyone was worried about “fomites” and catching the coronavirus from surfaces. Obviously we know now that’s not how people really catch COVID-19, but for months the CDC was insisting we be super careful. If you went to a restaurant, you didn’t want the waiter to hand you a menu. At a doctor’s office, you didn’t want to touch forms. Nobody wanted to handle cash.
Suddenly the QR code became legit useful. Restaurants used QR codes to take you to their menu. Same with doctor’s offices and intake forms. And businesses (and friends) began swapping QR codes for instant touchless payment using Paypal or Venmo.
Better yet, the actual technology of QR codes had, in the intervening decade, become much easier to use. In 2017, Apple wove QR scanning into its operating system, so merely taking a photo of a QR code would open it in Safari. Similar moves took place on Android. Now that you no longer needed to download a separate app, QR codes were far less of a hassle. Cameras and image-recognition had gradually improved too, so now the codes usually scanned perfectly, the first time, even in low light.
And usage exploded: By the middle of 2021, 55% of Americans were using QR codes. This weekend, I used a QR code at a restaurant, at a doctor’s office, and at a gig where my band played, where we displayed our Venmo QR code.
So, lessons! As I was pondering my decade-old sniggering about the inutility of QR codes — and how wrong I turned out to be — I had these thoughts:
1) Technologies that seem silly can become unexpectedly powerful
The history of technology is littered with ideas that seemed frivolous at first, but which later tilted the world on its axis. Text-messaging, back in the late 90s and early 00s, seemed like a dumb obsession of semiliterate teens (“can’t you morons write a whole email like a damn adult?”) — then turned into a crucial information channel for the globe. It even architected Twitter’s original 140-character limit, thus becoming, inadvertently, one of the 21st century’s most significant new literary forms. The same eye-roll greeted oodles of eventually-powerful inventions, from the bicycle to wifi. This doesn’t mean all seemingly silly and useless tools become transformative; most are, yeah, fripperies. But it’s often hard, on first glance, to recognize a truly catalytic technology, particularly when it has to do with communication.
2) Sometimes a tool is still waiting for its problem
I snickered at QR codes because I couldn’t see any real use for them. It took a pandemic to reveal their serious utility. And while I generally avoid predicting the future, I suspect QR codes might be with us for a while, because they’re turning out to be extremely useful even outside of the realm of pandemic-adaptation. Restaurants are enjoying not having to print and reprint menus; contactless payments are super convenient even in situations where you’re not worrying about fomites. (Other markets, particularly Asia, have been using them heavily for years before the US, it’s worth noting.)
3) Iteration can make dumb tools become good ones
Part of the reason QR codes initially seemed so daft is that the whole thing worked so terribly. Smartphones were too slow, their cameras too low-rez, image stabilization wasn’t ready yet, and QR code-reading wasn’t built into the OS. But gradually, year by year, iterations of the hardware and software patched all those problems — until suddenly, whoops, the whole thing just worked. Again, judging a technology by its first iteration can be a bad idea, which I nonetheless do all the time.
4) “Open” usually wins over “closed”
The Toyota subsidiary that created QR Codes, DENSO WAVE, issued QR as an open standard, so that it would “be used by as many people as possible.” If they’d tried to keep it close to the chest and require a licensing free from everyone who made QR codes, the technology would never have taken off as it did. When you’re trying to get a weird new idea going, openness always wins over “closed”.
BTW, if you made it to the end, here’s my weird and meta easter egg: If you scan the QR code at the top of this article, it leads you to … this article. An ouroboros of publishing!
Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, a columnist for Wired and Smithsonian magazines, and a regular contributor to Mother Jones. He’s the author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, and Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better. He’s @pomeranian99 on Twitter and Instagram