By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing
Do You Cue?
There's been a lot of attention paid lately to a new device named ":CueCat". It attaches to a PC and supposedly allows you to find Web sites without having to type in a URL (Universal Resource Locator). It is basically a souped up barcode reader that sits between your PC keyboard and the keyboard input port and reads barcodes printed in newspapers, magazines, or on packaging and then searches a database of those bar code numbers to find an associated Web page or the associated company's Web page.
The :CueCat is brought to us by a company called "Digital:Convergence Corporation" which is based in Dallas, Texas. Not surprisingly, early corporate adopters of the :CueCat include the Dallas ABC TV affiliate station (WFAA) and the Dallas Morning News (both owned by the Belo Corporation), and Radio Shack (based in Fort Worth). Radio Shack uses it to support their catalog sales and gives away :CueCat devices in their stores. Newspapers can use the bar codes to point to specific URLs on their or other Web sites. TV stations can broadcast an audio signal which, if input through a computer's external audio input, can be interpreted by the :CueCat software to load a particular URL.
Do we have a clue?
The basic premise behind this technology is that we Americans are too stupid to understand, remember, or utilize URLs. Digital:Convergence claims that with their device and software, "[Internet] information can't hide." On their Web page it declares "No more typing in long URL's or hunting for hidden Web pages." Is this really a problem? Most URLs I access come to me via e-mail or other Web pages and half the time I don't type them. People who publish URLs understand that a short and/or memorable URL is preferable. Most Web browsers will now assume the"http://" part of a URL if you don't type it which makes getting to www.texasrangers.com, www.apple.com, www.linux.org, or any of your other favorite Web sites an easy task.
I also don't quite understand the problem of "hidden" Web pages. Internet search services have become quite sophisticated and can often find specific information based upon a word or short phrase. Anyone who wants their information to be easily accessed will be sure that their pages are being indexed by these search services. If you rely on the :CueCat to find "hidden" Web pages, you are being directed to the information that Digital:Convergence or its client companies want you to see, and not to all the information that may be available.
But with all that said, perhaps the keyboard isn't the best input device. After all, we inherited the computer keyboard from the typewriter, and if you know the history of that device, you know that most keyboards are not the most efficient input devices. Perhaps it is time for an alternate interface, and as a University of North Texas student was recently quoted in the campus newspaper, "Besides, they're free!"
Free at what price?
I'm always a bit suspicious of a company which wants to give me a "free" something or other. A gift from family or friend is one thing, but when commerce is involved, "free" often has strings attached which pull you one way or another. Radio Shack is freely "giving" you a :CueCat to make it easier for you to buy their products from their catalog. The real money maker for Digital:Convergence is information: information about the interests, browsing, and buying habits of different demographics of American consumers.
I don't know about you, but I am about to do away with my home telephone because every other call is a solicitation. What's worse is that half of those calls are from machines which play a prerecorded message that usually starts with someone saying "Hi there. How are you today?" with the appropriate pause so that you'll foolishly answer a machine. I don't need to be marketed to further. I also get U. S. Postal junk mail, junk e-mail, fliers on my front door, and I can't get away from newspaper ads or blaring TV and radio spots. Marketeers: if all that doesn't make me buy, I'm not buying! But beyond the constant din of commercial messages, do you really need some company with your name, address, and e-mail address knowing what Web pages you are attracted to, what news stories you read, when you watch TV, and what brand of canned beans you buy?
Even if their intentions are honest, Digital:Convergence obviously can't guaranty that your personal information will always be secure. But beyond the simple security issue is the fact that they are not necessarily legally bound to uphold the policy that they state on their Web page. A change in ownership may mean that the data falls into the hands of some who don't have any motivation to protect your privacy.
I'm not sure that Digital:Convergence is so altruistic. Their latest flurry of activity is to protect their "intellectual property" after inviting the technical community to experiment with alternate applications of their product (see "Turning CueCat Into a Cool Cat" and "Barcode Maker Responds After Forcing Drivers Offline" ). In other words, their bottom line and not your personal privacy is their main concern.
What price freedom?
Is knowledge the price of freedom? If we are willing to cede to commercial entities our ability to manage our own sources of information, are we giving up a bit of hard-won freedom that is unequaled by any other time in human history? In other words, who will be controlling our lives? Do we let convenience drive the influences of our daily activities or do we maintain at least a measure of control?
As for me, I don't want a little plastic cat, with a logo that looks like someone doesn't know which direction a bass clef is drawn, to provide a constant stream of information to a bunch of people who I don't know. This is one "revolution" in information technology from which I'll abstain. So, maybe dealing with those "long URL's" is not so bad after all. I can only pass on the advice that my third grade teacher passed on to me upon seeing me write cursive: "maybe you should learn to type."