The Old Woman and the QR Code

A flustered senior citizen channels Hemingway to write of her epic battle against the ubiquitous and often exclusive use of QR codes.

Asian old woman using computer © Paul Maguire/Shutterstock

May 14, 2022 23:18 EDT

I’m not Ernest Hemingway but he did advise “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” There was no big fish involved in my story (just an omelet) but the antagonist was a monster. The setting was not the vast sea but it was a room filled with strangeness and uncertainty.  In essence, the battle I write of was epic.

The Exposition

The characters were few. But the characters were memorable. First and foremost, there was me: a woman and recently turned 60 and traveling by air. Second, the dratted QR code. How laughable that QR should stand for ‘quick response’ – but that’s a bit of foreshadowing. Third, the waiter in the lounge. Fourth, my savior.

The time was morning, around 8am. The place was Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Specifically, an airport lounge. Not the Air Canada one, but the one for the rest of the airlines, the children of lesser gods.

The Front Story

The plot was short. The plot was simple. On a lengthy trip begun very early in the morning, I was transiting through Toronto and I went to the airport lounge to get some breakfast and I sat down at a table and I looked around for the menu. No menus were visible. But there was a sticker on the table with a QR code. So I pulled out my cellphone and I turned on the camera and I tried to scan the code. Zip. Zilch. Nada. The code and my camera blissfully ignored each other. I looked at my phone’s camera setting but couldn’t figure it out. I was reminded of Ernest’s reflection; “How little we know of what there is to know.”

But I was not going to let such a small thing stop me from getting food. As Ernie counseled, “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.”  So I walked up to a waiter and I politely explained that my camera was not recognizing the QR code and I asked if I could please have a hardcopy menu. The waiter told me they had no hardcopy menus. Then I asked if he could just tell me what they had on offer and I could give him my order. He said he could not and I would have to scan the QR code to find out. I explained again that my camera was not picking up the QR code. To which he replied the equivalent of “Too bad” and left. Fortunately, a fellow traveler who had overheard our exchange stepped in and saved me. “Luck is a thing that comes in many forms and who can recognize her?” … or rather him. First, he took my phone and tried to scan the QR code … to no avail. Second, he rapidly flipped through various screens and then resigning, mused aloud that perhaps my phone was old. He said the word as though it was something bad, something distasteful, something to be got rid of. Lastly, using his phone, he ordered breakfast for me. Battle over, bruised, humbled, and thankful, I ate.

The Back Story

My story had a happy ending, but why did there even have to be a story?

I realize that QR codes can be very useful for businesses in providing a lot of information about a product or service to customers while using very little space. I see that QR codes have become ubiquitous – such as in restaurants, the travel industry, and advertising. Ironically, even many services specifically targeted for the elderly have QR codes. QR codes are now often used to offer information on a variety of health issues – such as how to care for a fracture, the dosage of medication to take, and post-operative care. I also understand that, over the course of covid, businesses have resorted even more to QR codes to offer touchless services and to make up for staff shortages.

But what happens to people who don’t have a smartphone or don’t have a smartphone advanced enough to pick up QR codes or don’t know how to scan a QR code? Does it mean they don’t get to eat? Does it mean they can’t avail of services they’re entitled to? Does it mean they are ostracized from participating in society?

My story was a non-event – a non-serious situation in which I had other easily available options. I could simply have stepped outside the lounge and found a Tim Hortons to satisfy my breakfast needs. But what happens when the needs are more essential and there are no options? Like the elderly man in China who could not use the subway because he could not access his own health QR code. In New Zealand, during a covid outbreak, bus travelers who could not scan the QR code of their bus could not be easily traced later. Even showing the proof of vaccination QR code on their phone when traveling or going to a restaurant can be difficult and stressful for the elderly.

The Epilogue

I wonder if in our unreserved rush into automation and an information society, we are leaving some people behind. A 2021 survey noted that 14% of Americans in general find QR codes hard to use. Amongst the elderly, this number rises to nearly 20%, with 18% never having heard of QR codes. Currently, the over-65s are about 55 million in the US (about 16% of the total country population), 7 million in Canada (over 18%), 100 million in Europe (nearly 20%), 35 million in Japan (over 28%), and over 700 million globally. And the percentage in this age group – along with their spending power – is expected to only increase in the near future.

The presence of QR codes should not negate the need to present information in other forms. Just because a restaurant has a QR code does not mean it can do away with all hardcopy menus. I get that in the time of covid people want to avoid touching and retouching menus. Then why not also put up the menu on a screen or board? Or have sufficient staff who can take a moment to tell you what’s available. Making QR codes the only way customers or clients can access information may actually reduce accessibility for the technically challenged who weren’t born with a phone in their hands as well as the economically challenged who may not have the latest smartphone or even a smartphone at all. And yes, possibly also the ‘age challenged.’ Papa may well have been referring to QR codes when he pondered, “I wonder if you keep on learning or if there is only a certain amount each man […or woman] can understand.”

Hemingway may have taken an earlier and  easier way out when he ended his life with his own hands at the age of 61. Perhaps he understood only too well the challenges that lay ahead when he sort-of said: “The QR code kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

(This article was edited by Senior Editor Francesca Julia Zucchelli.)

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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