Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory…
–Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation
The distance between physical and digital space has collapsed. Quick Response codes are scannable two-dimensional barcodes designed to be embedded in urban structures, advertisements, and everyday objects throughout the world. With a data capacity far exceeding that of traditional barcodes, and the ability to be read despite significant distortion, QR codes can be stylized, variegated, printed on uneven surfaces, sewn into fabrics, and even etched in glass. This versatility makes them today’s most popular instrument for object hyperlinking, whereby designers map digital information onto physical space. By snapping a picture with a smartphone, users essentially click a link within the object in front of them. The code either leads directly to a website or contains text that can be deciphered and displayed by the scanner app.
But QR codes don’t simply add information to objects. As attachments, they bridge to a more assessable reproduction of what they adhere to. QR codes intertwine once-disparate media forms. They subsume tactile structures into an intangible online sea of data. Like graffiti, parkour, buildering, and skateboarding––QR codes hack space by translating it into a new medium. And yet, quite unlike these physical activities, the language in which QR codes present their redefinition (which isn’t inscribed on the structures’ surface, but merely suggested by an encoded image) is utterly superficial––more superficial than appearance, even. If you want to understand this object, asserts the QR code, if you want to know its purpose; visit this online space (which isn’t a space at all) for more information.
Last year, about 14 million smartphone users scanned QR codes; and despite being a relatively new technology, developers have already pioneered a wide range of unique applications for them. Inventory-less ‘pop-up stores’ have become especially popular in recent years––giving retail websites new dimensions. In Seoul, for example, Tesco is using QR codes to transform subway walls into e-shopping catalogs. 2D market shelves display photos of the available products––everything from rib-eye steaks to toilet paper––and shoppers simply download an app, photograph the codes beneath the items they want, and get groceries delivered to their front doors. Overnight, Korean subways became supermarkets.
Alfred Korzybski once famously remarked that the map is not the territory. But a dimensionless digital matrix, despite containing a map, is the territory. Because it leaves no distance between the physical space and its digital reproduction, a QR code has the power to redefine function, revise meaning, and quite literally recreate the original. It is unclear whether this process transfigures the physical into the digital or the digital into the physical––and it is ultimately irrelevant. In either case, they become one.
A particularly revealing instance of object hyperlinking can be found in Monmouth, Wales. In an effort to promote tourism, Monmouth embedded their entire township––everything from monuments to bridges to businesses––with QR codes linking to Wikipedia articles (more than 500 of which they created specially for the purpose). Now visitors will see the 11th century stones through a windowpane of relevant abstract information. Dates, names, and historical contexts will be engraved not on Monmouth itself, but on the perspectives of those who come to witness it––who can now peruse pictures on their smartphones of the buildings they stand in front of.
So look around. The proliferation of QR codes, while seemingly mundane, marks an important shift in the way we interact with the spaces around us. QR codes give us a new creative––a new recreative––power over the landscapes we live in.
The other forms of space hacking I’ve explored in this series are esoteric. Enacting them requires a degree of physical ability and daring that, let’s face it, excludes many. But anyone with Internet access can make a QR code. It only takes a few seconds. And anyone with a smartphone can read and be influenced by one. At the moment, corporations like TescoLotus are using these hyperlinks to reinvent and redefine our cities. Why aren’t you?
View the full space hacking series here.