Back in 2019, visitors to the Universal Studios theme park in Florida started to post to social media about their experience with the RFID-chipped paper cups they got to use with the park's self-serve soda fountains:
Getting nickle-and-dimed in a themepark that charges whopping sums for admission is frustrating, sure, but as Daniel Danger wrote at the time, the noteworthy part was in the clumsy-yet-detailed way that this disciplinary technology was deployed.
Not only did it impose all kinds of rules about how your "unlimited" cup could be used (you had to wait 120 seconds before refilling it, etc), but if you violated those rules, a "robot voice" barked a denial at you.
It was Orwell-by-way-of-Gilliam - an absurd internet of shit dystopia moment at the fun park.
The technology came from "Validfill," who produced a spiffy and monumentally unself-aware video to boast about their system's use at Universal.
Corporate America never met a terrible idea it didn't love, which is how Validfill's creepy RFID-chipped cups have proliferated outside of the gates of Universal.
I've lost track of the number of people who've forwarded @AnemoneAndMe's viral tweet about their encounter with it in the wild.
They call it "anti homeless DRM," and not for nothing - one of the things these self-serve soda machines dispense is drinking water, often replacing public water fountains.
Chipped cups enable companies like McDonald's to prevent homeless people - and other marginalized people who still need to drink water because all humans need to drink water - from drinking their water.
Many of the people who've tagged me to tell me about this latest sensation cited my story Unauthorized Bread, an internet-of-shit technothriller that features heroic acts of appliance jailbreaking:
As these bad ideas are normalized, they travel up the privilege gradient, until they become ubiquitous - 20 years ago, if a CCTV observed your dinner hour, you were in a supermax prison. Today, it just means you bought home automation from Google, Apple or Amazon.
I'm both happy and sad about Unauthorized Bread. As a story, it's certainly given people a framework and vocabulary for talking about the proliferation of disciplinary technologies around them, and the unequal distribution of that terrible future.
But honestly, it's a little demoralizing to see how often Unauthorized Bread is applicable to another ghastly technological idea. Cyberpunk is a warning, not a suggestion.
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