“Wisconsin Company Offers To Implant Chips In Its Employees.” This was the first headline I saw about 32M’s employee RFID program, and it’s relatively chill, as headlines go. But I already knew that I’d be getting emails soon. You see, I make a podcast about the future that often talks about body modification. And also, reader, I must confess: I already have an RFID chip in my hand.
Yes, you can touch it if you want. It feels like a little hard tube, about the length of a gel capsule you might swallow, but skinnier.
I’ve written about the implant a couple of places. I explained in Popular Science that it was, quite honestly, a boring implant. When I move into a house, or have a car, I’ll program it to unlock my doors. But as a car-less renter in New York City, it’s little more than a party trick. And I argued in Fusion that my IUD was actually a far more powerful and interesting cyborg implant than this little chip.
So when I read the news last week that 32M was offering its employees an RFID chip, I geared up to be asked a lot of questions, and to be presented with a lot of conspiracy theories. But I do think that there are some super interesting questions to talk about when it comes to work-sponsored implants. Let’s go through the uninteresting questions, about these chips, and then we can get into the interesting ones.
Let’s start here: RFID chips aren’t GPS units. They can’t track you. They’re passive technology. If you have a key card for your office, or a pet with a microchip, it’s the same technology. If you’ve ever struggled to get your office key card to read on the scanner through a wallet or purse, you know just have finicky they can be.
The smallest GPS unit is still much bigger than an RFID. Getting a GPS unit implanted in you would be far more intense surgery than the little piercing needle that put my RFID chip in.
Plus, most RFID chips can’t actually store all that much information. My implant can store 1,000 bytes of information. That’s just about the amount of space to store a single Tweet. Obviously RFID chips will improve and store more, and some already do, but it will be a while before you can really store a ton of data on one of these chips.
A lot of the pushback from the 32M RFID program surrounds surveillance. “Microchip implants chart new territory, but some experts say they are an ethical nightmare” reads one headline. Another says “Surveillance used to be a bad thing. Now, we happily let our employers spy on us.”
This is the interesting part! Yay! We got there! First, remember that your employer is almost certainly already tracking you. Do you have a company key card? They know when you’ve gone in and out of the office, the same way they would if you had an RFID chip. Do you have a company cell phone and computer? Those both have GPS units, and in fact probably are tracking your whereabouts in a way that an RFID chip can’t.
That doesn’t mean there are no privacy concerns here. The company 32M says that their employees will be able to pay for lunches with their chips, which gives the company access to what they’re eating. Plus, if the company installs doors with RFID access pads throughout the building they can indeed map out at least the basics of your movements within the building.
But I think the most interesting question here is a bit more philosophical: how willing are we to integrate our physical bodies into our work?
It used to be, even if your work was incredibly physical, you could leave it, and go home. Let’s say you are a coal miner, or you waitress in the morning and babysit at night. You might come home with lingering injuries (physical and mental), that refuse to let you forget your job. But you haven’t chosen these things. With an RFID implanted for work, you have chosen to literally become your job. To let your employer inject something beneath your skin that is purely for work. When you go home, that RFID chip is useless. You can’t use it to pay for your personal groceries, or unlock your doors at home.
I think there is something really interesting about what this means for the future of work, the future of working culture, and the future of personal time. So many jobs pay lip service to #selfcare, to time off, and to mental health. But at the same time they’re asking employees to have Slack on their phones, to be constantly on, to have an out-of-office reply while they’re away but really be checking emails.
The RFID chip is the physical melding of the personal, intimate body, and the impersonal work environment (is there anything more cold than a flat, matte, door pad or payment kiosk?. It is a way of literally taking your work home with you, in the form of a little bead beneath your skin. It requires breaking the skin to remove. It is like a blood pact with your employer, but one with more technological glitz.
I have an RFID chip, but I would never get one for my employer. Not because I’m scared of being tracked, or of my employer knowing what I eat for lunch. And not because I’m a wimp about body modification. I’m happy to adorn my body with tattoos and piercings. Rather, it represents a commitment I will never want to make for a corporation.
My work is something that brings me great joy. But my body is also something that my work rents. It borrows my body’s time. It doesn’t get to physically take up residency, to nestle in my skin, to be slowly encapsulated by scar tissue.
To embed something within you is a symbol, as that scar tissue heals and your body smooths over the trace of it, it means you are one piece, a whole, a unit, facing the world together, intrinsically linked as one being.
I’m willing to join forces, physically, with all kinds of things. But a corporation isn’t one of them.