QR Code Backlash

Scholars of religion and biblical literature object to idea of having their conference badges checked and scanned, citing concerns about policing, profiling and their precariously positioned colleagues.

November 11, 2019
 
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Being scanned in to scholarly meetings? Religious studies and biblical literature scholars said a loud, quick no to the idea last week upon learning via email that name badges for their upcoming annual meeting would include QR codes.

The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature, which will gather at the end of the month in San Diego, responded to the criticism quickly, saying Friday that they would distribute badges with no codes instead. In so doing, meeting planners said they had been trying to encourage “fair use” of conference badges.

But scholars have lingering questions as to why and how the QR code plan took shape in the first place.

Common concerns include those about surveillance and tracking, and the disparate impact that enforcing a badge policy might have on racial, ethnic and sexual minorities. Elsewhere, policing of scholarly meeting attendance -- sometimes by hotel or conference hall staff members -- has led to instances of apparent racial profiling.

Beyond those worries, other scholars have suggested that those who can’t afford a conference fee upward of $100 shouldn’t be blocked from attendance. Other conferences, of course, have name badges. But the fear is that checking them will be much more formal with QR codes.

Kelly J. Baker, writer and independent scholar of religious studies, said Saturday, “Is there an epidemic of pirated badges? I doubt it. And if grad students or underemployed scholars are pirating a badge to get into the book exhibit or to be able to network, does this harm the AAR? No, not really.”

With QR codes, Baker said, the academy and the society “claimed that they could scan the badges to make sure folks belonged at the conference. Essentially, they could be tracking us. It would be surveillance, and they only announced this rollout two weeks before the conference rather than letting us know when we registered, which is not acceptable.”

More than that, “What really worries me about the QR codes and the checks for fake badges is how it would affect already vulnerable scholars in the AAR," Baker continued. "I feared that scholars of color could be stopped more frequently for badge checks than others.”

Policing, Profiling and Pirating

Similarly, a petition signed by more than 100 scholars from both organizations says that, “Whatever the intention behind QR codes, the impact is undeniable: the mere idea -- the very threat -- of surveillance tactics at AAR/SBL has caused harm to minoritized members of the AAR, as evidenced by the outpouring of responses. The oversights that allowed for this possibility are as much a problem as the QR coding itself.”

The petition further requests that the academy and society address the incident at the upcoming meeting and commit to a name badge process “that cannot be used to surveil your constituents and work with qualified constituents to resolve the tensions informing this proposal.”

Some scholars of religion have spoken out individually, as well. Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote on Twitter that she might talk about the role of social media in what's been called “QRgate" during her plenary at the meeting.

Hussein Rashid, independent scholar of religion, also tweeted that he’d seen nothing in his conference registration documents to suggest QR codes were a possibility. The society was therefore retroactively changing its terms of attendance, he said, raising the possibility that someone could refuse to be scanned, be denied entry and later challenge the academy legally.

Shaily Patel, an assistant professor of early Christianity at Virginia Tech, said in an open letter to the society that “Many of my graduate student and contingent faculty friends attended SBLAAR by sleeping on floors, packing granola bars to eat, and yes, sneaking in to sessions. For those whose wages fall far below the national poverty line and who have no institutional support, $100 [registration fee] is the difference between buying groceries or not.” And while both the academy and society have previously advocated for scholars in precarious positions, “the anti-piracy QR codes on registrants’ name tags undermine these efforts to address the hardships faced by so many of our members. Policing those of our colleagues who would most benefit from attendance and who are most burdened by the cost is a betrayal of the societal principles we aim to uphold.”

Patel asked what share of the meeting’s thousands of annual attendees “have ‘stolen’ their registration, do you think? How detrimental is this type of ‘thievery’ to SBL as an organization? My guess is that the survival of the society is not on the line here.”

Code Reversal

Alice Hunt, executive director of the academy of religion, on Friday shared a statement -- later shared with members -- saying that the academy and the biblical society had decided to try “a one-year pilot program of placing QR codes on attendee name badges, as a number of other associations do.”

The pilot’s “sole aim” was to promote “fair use of name badges,” not “tracking individuals, holding on to personal data, or policing -- which would go directly against our values and philosophy. We deeply regret the unintended messages the pilot idea triggered and have immediately withdrawn it.”

Still, per the petition and other public comments, members want more assurances that the idea will never take root again. Baker said that that while the organizations responded quickly, their actions still don’t “reckon with the consequences of what could have happened with all the badge checks.”

Via email Sunday, John Kutsko, executive director of the biblical literature group, said that QR codes were added to “underline the expectation that people register to attend the annual meeting and to provide a level of security since our meetings are held in public and open spaces. But no, QR codes do not surveil or track people.”

Kutsko also said that the meeting faced a bomb threat at a previous meeting in Atlanta. "As you can imagine, we are an international organization of religion scholars, representing many traditions. Some members wear identifiable religious clothing and have faced ugly experiences from the public. Knowing who is a member and who is not, based on the name badge, helps security prevent these incidents and for us to report them."

QR technology also offers opportunities for member benefits, such as networking and book giveaways, “which we were exploring,” he added. “To be clear, we weren’t going to scan them wherever people went. Among other things, it was an additional feature to ensure the authenticity of the badge.”

Other Fields -- and a Silver Lining?

Kutsko also noted that he was, at present, attending the National Humanities Conference in Hawaii, where, “ironically,” his name badge had a QR code. Asked if he’d been asked to scan in anywhere, he answered, “Only some events, such as a reception in a public space.”

Still, QR codes for conferences are a new idea that remains unpalatable and decidedly unnecessary to many groups. The American Historical Association, for example, doesn't have QR codes and “doesn't worry about fair use of badges,” said James Grossman, executive director, as it’s “confident in the honesty and goodwill of our constituencies.”

As for the general public, the AHA provides free registration to local public school teachers.

Interestingly, the QR incident did achieve one thing: bringing together scholars of religion and biblical studies. By some accounts, they meet as one group each year but don’t generally commingle.

“This hashtag nonsense seemed to be one thing that many of us could agree on,” Nyasha Junior, an associate professor of religion at Temple University, told Inside Higher Ed.

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