Gatekeeper Techne

Artist Statement:

This project explores access to private knowledge in public spaces via quick response bar-codes, commonly known as QR code. How might digital nomads conspire and collaborate using this portal to to the digital world?

Whispered words are bounded in the space and time they are uttered, and written words are widely accessible in literate societies. Vagrants and nomads in the mid-19th century created a pictographic language, termed hobo sign, to convey functional messages with important in-group information about people and places such as safe and unsafe areas, places for work or leisure, and friendly or unfriendly neighbourhoods (Ponsler, 1972; Wanderer, 2002). Hobo sign was an in-group language meant to inform and protect group members, with simple visuals that were easily overlooked in the visual landscape (Ponsler, 1972).

τέχνη, or techne, is the Greek root of the “technology,” meaning an art, skill or craft; a technique, principle, or method by which something is achieved or created (Bolter, 2001; Techne, n.d.). Hobo sign was a form of techne congruent with its time, purpose and place. Today, techne informs the digital language of QR codes to provide private, in-group knowledge in public spaces (Levin, 2011).

QR codes in the urban landscape have quickly become a new type of iconography, remediating ambient space as a post-mechanical gate between the natural and digital worlds (Baik, 2012; Bolter, 2001). As a writing system, the data held within QR icons belies their compact form: in itself the icon may contain up to 7kB of information and may act as a direct hypertextual link to any online media (Baik, 2012; Shin et al., 2012). Free to generate using a variety of online services and readily decoded by devices such as Smartphones, QR codes constitute a fully exteriorized writing system (Bolter, 2001; Fleishman, 2010).

As our relationship and interactions with our devices are becoming increasingly nuanced, QR icons provide a symbolic reminder of the hidden digital dimension beyond the curtain of the natural world (Shin et al., 2012). Beyond the code is a private space, inaccessible to the technologically disadvantaged and unnoticed by the uninformed. As we cannot read them with our naked eye, and as they have become almost inextricably linked to commercial campaigns, judicious use of QR codes can form a guerrilla breakout of hypertext, a “covert markup scheme for urban spaces” (Bolter, 2001; Levin, 2011).

Subjective norms and behaviour towards QR codes as social media illustrate the dichotomies of public/private and interior/exterior, as bridged by the hardware in your pocket (Shin et al., 2012). The cultural ramifications of these developing social norms will only deepen as our knowledge and retrieval structures grow complicit with technological augmentation. Further removed from the visual noise of cities, the juxtaposition of their unique aesthetic in the rural visual landscape provides a strong symbolic reminder of the fluctuation and remediation of text technologies.

Please follow this path to view my exploration of QR codes in urban and rural landscapes. All photographs are available at my Flickr photostream, where you will also find the meanings hidden within the QR codes that I generated and placed. Also, please note that the audio track must be activated by the volume icon in the lower right-hand corner (it will not automatically play).


Baik, S. (2012). Rethinking QR code: Analog portal to digital world. Multimedia Tools and Applications, 58 427–434. doi:10.1007/s11042-010-0686-9

Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Fleishman, G. (2010) Digital Semaphore: the 2D Tag [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Levin, G. (2011). QR_Stenciler and qr_hobo_codes [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Ponsler, M. (1972). Tell a story with hobo signs. Design, 74(2) 4-7.

Richard, S. (2011). San . Retrieved from

Shin, D.H., Jung, J., & Chang, B.H. (2012). The psychology behind QR codes: User experience perspective. Computers in Human Behaviour, 28(2012) 1417-1426.

Techne. (n.d.). In Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved from

Wanderer, J. J. (2002). Embodiments of bilateral asymmetry and ‘danger’ in hobo signs. Semiotica, (1/4), 211-223.

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