QR WTF: transitory technology and internet immortality
An unquestioning press release re-hash on The Guardian’s website today claimed “traditional graveyards are being transformed through technology with interactive headstones providing a revolutionary way for people to remember loved ones.”
A £300 QR code etched into granite, claim Dorset funeral directors Chester Pearce, will enable visitors to learn all about the person buried, rather than being limited to a name, age and date of birth and death.
Or will it? QR codes attract significant criticism for being fiddly and hard to use, but in many cases this is simply because they’re used in entirely the wrong contexts.
My concern in this case, though, is that people are being sold a transitory technology for what’s supposed to be a lasting memorial. Let’s look at the issues:
- The QR code links through to a website giving details of the deceased, as well as providing a comment feature where people can share memories.
- All well and good – for now. But how long will this last? Who curates the content? Who ensures the domain remains up in five years, ten years?
- Then let’s look a little further ahead. Despite a great deal of hype, signs are pointing towards QR codes not really gaining traction with smartphone users. People are talking about the (far less faffy) Near Field Communication protocol performing the same job, better. I would wager that the QR code won’t be around in 2030, let alone 2080.
- If my wager is wrong, that’s ok, because I’m pretty sure this website won’t exist either – and nor will the ‘lasting memorial’ websites these QR codes point to.
- So what are we left with, in 2030? A weird design, etched in stone, which no device can decode, and (even if it could) almost certainly won’t point to a live website.
Claims that the QR codes will be “useful to those visiting graveyards to research their family tree” in the future ring very hollow once you think the thing through.
I’m no fan of QR codes, but in the right contexts they perform a useful task. What are those contexts?
- Where the subject is out of doors – for instance, an OOH poster campaign
- Where there is something in it for the user. A good example would be how QR codes were placed on statues of Olympic mascots Wenlock and Mandeville put up across London, allowing people to scan and collect them all as they walked around the city – providing additional details about the surrounding area too
- Where the campaign is time-limited – so it can be guaranteed the content being linked to is a) live (actionable) and b) up-to-date
- Where the content linked to is actively managed and curated. A good example of this (and a good comparison with the less well-thought-out funeral director’s offer) is how QR codes have been placed next to old gravestones in Washington DC’s Congressional Cemetery; these link through to Wikipedia pages about the more well-known people buried there.
As Bruce Willis’s case against Apple over the right to bequeath digital purchases highlights the fleeting nature of online content, many are starting to look at their digital legacy. As content increasingly becomes digital-only, it’s right that we consider the permanence of what we leave behind. But leaving a QR code as your memorial means that you’re merely one whose name was writ in water, not marble.
(with thanks to Adrian Short for the Keats quote).