A Billion Little Pieces
RFID and Infrastructures of Identification
336 pp., 5 x 8 in, 9 figures
- Published: February 22, 2019
- Publisher: The MIT Press
- Published: March 19, 2019
- Publisher: The MIT Press
How RFID, a ubiquitous but often invisible mobile technology, identifies tens of billions of objects as they move through the world.
RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) is ubiquitous but often invisible, a mobile technology used by more people more often than any flashy smartphone app. RFID systems use radio waves to communicate identifying information, transmitting data from a tag that carries data to a reader that accesses the data. RFID tags can be found in credit cards, passports, key fobs, car windshields, subway passes, consumer electronics, tunnel walls, and even human and animal bodies—identifying tens of billions of objects as they move through the world. In this book, Jordan Frith looks at RFID technology and its social impact, bringing into focus a technology that was designed not to be noticed.
RFID, with its ability to collect unique information about almost any material object, has been hyped as the most important identification technology since the bar code, the linchpin of the Internet of Things—and also seen (by some evangelical Christians) as a harbinger of the end times. Frith views RFID as an infrastructure of identification that simultaneously functions as an infrastructure of communication. He uses RFID to examine such larger issues as big data, privacy, and surveillance, giving specificity to debates about societal trends.
Frith describes how RFID can monitor hand washing in hospitals, change supply chain logistics, communicate wine vintages, and identify rescued pets. He offers an accessible explanation of the technology, looks at privacy concerns, and pushes back against alarmist accounts that exaggerate RFID's capabilities. The increasingly granular practices of identification enabled by RFID and other identification technologies, Frith argues, have become essential to the working of contemporary networks, reshaping the ways we use information.
Who better to put together A Billion Little Pieces—and make meaning from it all—than Jordan Frith, a prescient critic of emerging technologies? Dr. Frith examines two overlapping and expanding trends: ubiquitous-computing mobility and deepening levels of human-activity datafication, illustrating just how quietly surveilled our lives are becoming.
Brett Oppegaard, Associate Professor in the School of Communications, University of Hawaii
An excellent and easy-to-read account of RFID tags as part of the Internet of Things—'invisible' mobile infrastructures with key roles in tracking the mobility of people and things and participating in Big Data collection. A must-read for all interested in mobile communication, mobilities, and internet studies.
Adriana de Souza e Silva, Professor of Communication, NC State University
Jordan Frith's A Billion Little Pieces is remarkable for the way that it takes a ubiquitous everyday object and makes it strange. This book encourages a curiosity to look beneath the surface of everyday objects—like RFID—and their supporting infrastructures. Having read it, you will never think about the humble credit card or metro card in the same way again.
Rowan Wilken, Associate Professor, RMIT University
Jordan Frith's skill as an author lies in his ability to take something that's the size of a grain of rice—the RFID tag—and show readers how it represents technological society at this moment in time. He skillfully blends infrastructure studies with scholarship about mobile technologies, global commerce, and identity to get us to look beyond an interface-centered study of media and uncover hidden connections that are shaping the media landscape.
Jason Farman, Associate Professor and Director, Design Cultures & Creativity Program, University of Maryland, College Park