City of QR Codes

I examine bar codes, wondering what it would be like to have only laser sight. I stare at handwriting until the loops and whorls stop being words, syllables, and even letters, and become no more than manic pulses brain wave transformed into muscle twitch, traced in the seismograph of our ink-hemorrhaging prosthetic appendages. I gaze at my city streets, running my eyes over the scars on its knees, feeling a refracted rainbow of urban skin interring a personal history of human frailty. I have a polymorphously perverted sense of physical praxis with objects. It’s not that I’m more object-curious or infrastructurally dirty-minded than most; it’s just that once you start to think about what things are wearing underneath their exterior semiotic reality, it’s pretty hard to calm down. Thankfully, the city invites my oddly tactile greeting, smiling and warming to my touch. Scars are so much sexier than tattoos.

This street, this entire block, this city—its beautifully exposed skin now appears in my imagination as a square of white and black squares, each structure and topological feature raising or lowering itself against a field of contrasting color. This city is a QR code. A QR code may not be a sex symbol to you, but stretching anywhere from 21 units by 21 units in dimension to a maximum of 177 by 177, (define these imagined units as you like) my metropolis is a pixelated, hemaphroditic Vitruvian pin-up drawing, a mandala of Kama Sutra-esque data positions. I walk down the street and I decode a pattern esoteric enough to be invented by gods, ancient shamans, or extraterrestrials. Invented by us. Within these folds and plateaus we have embedded the sort of information that arouses our attentions—the kind of public-knowledge secrets we think about just behind the self-conscious narrative of our thoughts. Or at least that could be there. But we have invented something that is more useful than we can use.

There are actual QR codes on the streets as well. These are the stickers we’ve seen proliferate over the last year or so, not my idealistic urban-sexual metaphor. In a restaurant window, the ubiquitous Google Places sticker. I decode and get a hyperlink to the establishment’s listing on Google Places. I keep walking. On a billboard, another black and white square, causing my touch-screen shutter button to twitch. I’m taken to the product page of the product being advertised. Color me black-and-white pixelated surprise. My attuned eye spots a QR code on a sticker on a bus shelter, and I dive into it. I end up at an artist’s Facebook page, asking me for my non-existent Facebook login credentials. I look into a free box on the corner, and pick up a magazine. On the back corner, the sacred sigil reflects the light. Unfortunately, the printed size of the code is too small for the camera on my second-generation smart phone to interpret—but that’s okay, because I can tell from the caption that it’s just another Facebook link. It says “Like us on Facebook.” I could interpret that one without any technology, and thankfully so, because I’m spared 30 seconds of loading the app, snapping the pic, and another useless login screen. Though I still feel like a minute has been stolen from my life.

The question rises from these particular incidences, to interrupt my flirtation with the streets: What happened to the QR code? “Seriously,” asks the gorgeous target of my urban attentions, “are you comparing me to a less-functional Facebook ‘Like’ Button?” QR technology, originally invented for tracking Toyota auto parts traveling through the supply chain, is a simple, freely accessible means for linking data to our physical environment. They are links between a place in space and time, and the atemporal network. And yet, they are utilized simply as large “Go” buttons, their only function being to load a web page. They are the location-web’s version of the “home page” button on the top of your OEM keyboard. In the time it takes for me to load a QR reader app and snap a photo, I could have typed in a URL, which is in a data format my eyes and fingers are already primed to interpret without an app. A QR code can hold over 7,000 numerical characters within its pattern, and we use them as convoluted photographic hyperlinks. What we’re doing with QR codes is leasing out wall space in the art museum for fast food advertisements. We’ve made our garden seem more natural with a hundred posted placards of a single, identical rose. We’ve discovered an alchemical philosopher’s stone, the most functional use of which seems to be crushing aluminum cans for recycling.

There’s a failure of imagination here, but it’s not simply the problem of the infinite extension of capitalism, which any hippie will tell you is the eventual co-option of anything and everything to the system of buying and selling anything and everything. Sure, QR codes are adopted by ad firms in a characteristically uncreative manner. But the local band and street artist are doing the same thing. The problem is endemic to the technology itself—or more accurately, to our use of the technology. Its potential escapes us. Of the 4,200-some characters that can be used for alpha-numeric data, the best we can do is to utilize 40 of them for a boring, entry-page URL. Our technology has depth beyond our use of it, and while we may have invented it, we have yet to invent the reason why.

But this is not the end of the flirtation. There’s more to the allure of the city than the cliche pickup lines of QR coded advertisements. And so, I seek to renew my attraction, ignoring the unsavory advances of web addresses, like drunken cat calls. I look for more delicious scars, under sleeves and behind waistbands. I focus on the spiraling curves of the mandala that first attracted my eye. I’m crawling on my stomach underneath the bus shelter. I’m lying on the gum-specked pavement, ignoring the other people reaching into their pockets after smart phones for their own un-trusting reasons. From here I see strange markings. Calling them hieroglyphics is granting them too much signifier, as graphemes clearly look like things, and what these most resemble are splashes of paint. In fact, they are splashes of paint. Orbits of drips, scattered across the pavement like interstellar dust caught in the filaments of micro-gravity embossed into the fabric of space-time. Scribbles of silver paint marker, visibly more steady-handed and intentional than the markings in a toddler’s coloring book, but their meaning no less obscure. Postal Service Priority labels re-purposed into personal branding stickers, marking phone booths, newspaper boxes, and other paleo-infrastructural fixtures in a dense, overlapping network of clots fixed from past decades’ own obsolete life-blood. Scrapings of keys or other metal blades into plexiglass rain barriers; photographs of electron orbits around the molecular statements of anonymous graffiti artists. “Graffiti artist” may not be a controversial term anymore, but applying the phrase to any and every defacement of public space does not necessarily follow. And yet, I’m seeing the larger code again, and the streets are looking better.

I get up off the pavement and the citizenry relaxes, this unconventionally histrionic behavioral intrusion removed from their perception. I walk further down the street. As the real meaning of the city intensifies and the mere signification of advertisement fades, it’s almost overpowering. I hold a hand to my forehead against the din, the dripping semiotic sexuality of the environment. It goes beyond the wheat-paste posters, the stencil art, the elaborate tags on the sides of rail cars, the murals on the the community center walls. Everything is becoming a symbol. The missing cobblestone. The gap in the aluminum shielding on the shop windows that ought to have been caulked. A boarded up window. A CCTV camera. A neon sign with three letters out. A street sign, fallen from its bolted perch, leaning against the curb. Exposed copper allowed to turn an oxidized green, before being stolen for its recycled value. Fixtures for forgotten electrical applications. Ceramic insulators for forgotten main connections. Fences marking what used to be ramps for what used to be large bay doors. Shadows of Infrastructure for forgotten architectures. Pure sexuality, performatively manifested in every twitch of dress, speech, or posture. Once you begin to be turned on, it is even harder to tune them out. But I don’t want to tune them out. I might need to sit for a moment, though.


There are no benches in this city, because the people who make such decisions have decided that places to sit are also places to sleep, and they don’t want people to sleep on the streets, even though they still do. A lack of meaning is its own meaning, as the misfortune of virtue defines its own transgressions. I sit along a short, prudish wall meant to retain a narrow landscaping scheme, carefully positioning my tailbone between small stainless steel bollards riveted to the concrete, meant to dissuade potential skateboarders. This pier was once part of the port system from which this city earned its name. Now it is a seemingly chaste harbor to graphic design firms, real estate firms, information technology firms. There are no QR codes visible from this spot. Only the large QR code remains: my mental map of this city’s topology, viewed from a perspective that is not physical, nor virtual.

It’s almost too much, to try and organize the more abstract meanings of the city into a black and white code. But the problem is never too much information, too many symbols, or too much sex. It’s all in how we use it. We haven’t quite figured out how the body of the city works in relation to QR codes, and so we’ve been making all the wrong moves. The long-implied goal of The Internet of Things is to link the network to the physical by giving every object in our possession its own IP address, to provide a routeable pathway for information in and out of objects. What information ought to flow in an out of objects is taken as granted. What the object’s name is, and where it is. Who it’s hanging out with, and where it’s going next. We ask potential sexual partners what they do and where they live, when we should be asking how they feel. If you want to know whether or not your dishwasher is running from the other side of the house, and augment it digitally to tell you so, you’ve just invented a really fucking loud dishwasher. It’s consumerism for co-dependents. You’ve embedded your URL in a QR code, right above your URL embedded in Latin characters. Before we know it, every object is screaming its own name at the top of its digital lungs, in multiple languages, in multiple tones of voice. You have a dozen lovers names tattooed on your bicep. And every piece of art has its own billboard to alert you of its existence. How many appliances in your house have a digital chime? Can you tell them apart? What do you gain from recognizing the voice of your coffee grinder, your toaster oven, and your iron? What are they telling you that you could not have gleaned from the smell of ground coffee, fresh toast, or a burned shirt?

I would rather my appliances and infrastructure danced for no reason, other than they feel sexy. I want machines to make nerdy inside jokes into street art. I want the Internet of Things to turn Things into Graffiti Artists, Dancers, and Street Performers. An unpredictable sense of humor and a good story about a scar makes a body more sexy than an exposed sexual organ and a symbolic sheen of lipstick. I want to have to decipher the city’s meaning, piece by endless piece, wondering if perhaps there is any meaning in it at all. This is what we’re doing all the time, after all, as we walk around the city, with our third semiotic-eye open, or not. We are constantly overwhelmed by our internally autonomous odd-dot astrology, picking apart apopheniac patterns that we have constructed between the brick facades, the mirrored windows, the unplanned drips of paint, and the magic marker vector geometry that grows extremophilic over the surface of our perceivable world. I long for the day when you not only need to present your verified address to buy a QR sticker printer as you do a can of spray paint, but proof of age, as when you enter that kind of club. As if any such control would stop technology from seeking out its desires, when technology like this is the most rampant evidence that our cities are departing from a Technological Victorianism to return to a gorgeous, sleazy, semiotic burlesque. Technologies like QR codes are the beat that gets our society’s machines tapping their feet. From the gaping maw of our technological future comes ugly, distorted, beautiful music, singing out loudly from bricked and re-bricked exteriors, from rusting, twisting pipes, from arcing buss fuse boxes, as our constructions slowly devolve back into the calciferous strata from which their concrete was originally mined, and our culture rediscovers what it used to do to have a good time.

And in this light, watching it perform the way it does, the city looks pretty good, if you know what I mean. Those scars, transformed into graffiti tags of an artistic reality bigger than anything short of the city itself, give it some character. The city leans over and scribbles a QR code on the back of my hand with a flirtatious wink. We’re getting to that part of the night when anyone can get up on stage. And so we keep on walking together. And tomorrow morning, as I roll out of bed, I’ll notice that QR code on my hand, and decode it then.