4 Lessons From the Improbable Rise of QR Codes
Tech that seems totally useless can suddenly become crucial — like during a pandemic
The first time I saw a QR code, I scoffed.
It was 2010 and the code was in the bottom corner of a movie poster. To scan it, I had to download a special app on my Iphone. The software was still buggy and fiddly — I was hunched over for 15 seconds, scanning and rescanning, until finally it worked. Lo and behold: A crappy browser opened up, showing me the website for the movie.
This, I thought, is the most idiotic thing I’ve seen in my life. It had the unique whiff of Rube Goldberg that wafts off all tech that’s risibly too complicated for its own good.
QR code technology had, in fact, been around since 1994, when it was invented by a Toyota subsidiary for tracking car-parts as they whizzed around production lines. Now, that was a good use of QR codes! Tracking industrial parts is tricky. In a bold move, the subsidiary made the technology an open spec that anyone could use, and that’s when the marketing folks got their hands on it. They figured it would be totally cyber if they slapped QR codes on all ads and promotional posters, so it could save people the horrible toil of typing in a website address with their fingers like a bunch of animals. You could just imagine the pitch meeting: The Millennial kids will love it!
The Millennial kids did not love it. Nobody loved it. Though QR codes were soon splattered all over the world of advertising, by 2011 barely one in five Americans ever used them. QR codes seemed like the go-to parlor trick of Silicon Valley: Creating an app that is tech for tech’s sake, and that addresses no actual human need felt by any actual humans.