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Title: A Billion Little Pieces

Author: Jordan Frith

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2019

ISBN13: 978-0-262-03975-8

Length: 336

Price: $35.00

Author note: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

A Billion Little Pieces: RFID and Infrastructures of Identification by Jordan Frith and from MIT Press, explores the history and applications of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and related technologies. Frith, a professor of technical communication at the University of North Texas, provides useful background on precursors such as the bar code before moving on to the many varieties of RFID tags and newer technologies such as Bluetooth beacons.

I'm old enough to remember shopping before barcodes were introduced into stores in the mid-to-late 1970s. As the author notes, the first barcode signifying a Universal Product Code (UPC) was scanned in Troy, Michigan in 1974. Within a few years, more than three-quarters of products sold in supermarkets had a barcode attached. Early scanners were slow and unreliable, as demonstrated by a scene in Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine where a hardware engineer at General Dynamics ducked under the checkout counter at a store with a balky scanner to try to fix the problem. He'd designed the scanner and knew it was a "kludge", a bunch of parts thrown together that worked just well enough to sell.

In the forty-plus years since the barcode was introduced, identification and tracking technologies have advanced dramatically. The most common technology, RFID chips, come in several major varieties based on whether they are passive chips to be read at close range, active chips that broadcast their position, or a combination of those and other technologies. Managing inventory takes much less time when employees or even robots can use portable scanners to check in the contents of a shipment without unboxing them. When scanners are built into shelving units or shopping carts, automated systems can track stock levels, item location, and help prevent theft.

The Internet of Things (IoT), where devices communicate with a central hub (such as a refrigerator that knows when you're almost out of milk) or each other, is the natural next step in this evolution. Driverless cars, smart homes, and advanced personal digital assistants represent civilian applications for these technologies, but there are many more ways the technology could be used or abused. Regarding that last point, Frith goes into some detail on how RFID, Bluetooth, and wireless tracking affects the ability of corporations and the government to track individuals, with the resulting impact on personal privacy and autonomy.

What I like most about A Billion Little Pieces is its accessible description of the RFID and beacon technologies currently in use. While general managers won't need to know the technical details of a system well enough to implement it, they should still have a firm grasp of a system's capabilities so they know what they can ask it to do. If the current system doesn't generate the information and control executives want, then company leadership will need to adjust their expectations or pay for an upgrade.

As such, A Billion Little Pieces would serve well as an executive briefing book for anyone from senior manager up to the highest executive ranks who has IoT and similar technologies as part of their portfolio. Frith explains the technical aspects of RFID and similar technologies clearly and well, befitting his position as a Professor of Technical Communication, and discusses the technology's impact on commerce and privacy. While not as compact a volume as you will find in the Essential Knowledge series, the additional depth offers useful insights for policy analysts and corporate decision-makers. Very highly recommended.

 

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media; he has also created more than 50 online training courses for lynda.com. He received his undergraduate degree in political science from Syracuse University and his MBA from the University of Illinois. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

 

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