How the QR code became a meaning-making practice during COVID-19
While QR codes have been used in many different contexts, the one that has sparked the most discussions is the QR code provided by the Dutch CoronaCheck app. A quick scan, and you could see exactly if someone was vaccinated, had COVID, or tested negative. Privacy and freedom were two of the biggest topics in the discourse around the CoronaCheck app and the QR code. But how did the implementation of the QR code change our behaviors and ideas about being a part of society?
Your QR code, please
Socio-technical platforms and digital media evermore shape our everyday lives. One specific socio-technical phenomenon quickly covered ground throughout the corona pandemic: the QR code. During the worldwide struggle to protect civilians against the coronavirus, governments saw this two-dimensional code as a security measure and a way to get back to our ‘normal’ lives, step by step. In this article, we analyze the corona QR code as a meaning-making practice and discuss its effects on society, focusing on the CoronaCheck app in the Netherlands. The Netherlands implemented the QR code as a system to track an individual's corona vaccination and recovery status. A design of a structure was put in place: the 'G' system. This 'G' system can be further explained as stages of societal rules due to the situation of Corona:
1G is “where everyone has to present a recent negative coronavirus test” (Séveno, 2021). This never became an active rule.
2G is “only those who have been fully vaccinated or have had coronavirus in the past are allowed to obtain a valid QR code for daily use” (Séveno, 2021).
3G is “individuals who recovered from, got tested for the coronavirus, or were vaccinated are issued a valid QR code to be used when entering venues, such as gyms” (Séveno, 2021).
In order to apply to each stage, the QR system is used to display the vaccination or recovery status from 2020 to 2022. The issue, in this case, is the idea that the QR code is of a meaning-making practice and how its use of communicating information has ultimately affected society's resilience through the use of conformism, social value, and normative expectations.
The meaning behind a QR code
QR code is an abbreviation of Quick Response Code, and, like the name says, it is ‘quick’ in decoding messages: in just a matter of seconds, it can decode pieces of information (Tiwari, 2016). While Denso Wave Corporations originally invented it in 1994 to track parts and products down assembly lines (Singh, 2016), its use has been expanded to various purposes, such as marketing, restaurants, museums, and more. It works similarly to a barcode, except that barcodes only work vertically, while QR codes work horizontally as well and, as such, are two-dimensional. It is a code in which a message of up to 7089 characters is stored. Once the code is scanned, the information it contains gets transmitted.
The QR code is thus a means of communicating information. And communicating - making oneself, as well as information you want to transmit, understood by other agents - is the foundation of literacy. Or, as UNESCO formulates it: “beyond its conventional concept as a set of reading, writing and counting skills, literacy is now understood as a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world” (UNESCO, n.d.). When one thinks of literacy, one thus also thinks of meaning-making, including attention to meaning form and meaning function. When people make and encode meaning, they can use a rich set of different modes to convey this meaning and message. Speakers in the socio-technical arena that the 21st-century presents can switch between forms and functions of meaning-making modes very swiftly and accurately according to the specific context in which they wish to communicate (Cope & Kalantzis, 2006).
"A new order of indexicality was set up for the corona situation"
The present day is thought of as being characterized by globalization and neoliberalism (Cope & Kalantzis, 2006). In neoliberalist societies, every person has the freedom to make their own decisions, and the state only intervenes when and where it is really needed. However, the corona pandemic changed this completely. Suddenly, we are back in what Cope & Kalantzis (2006) deemed the ‘old’ centralized system. Governments took back control in their struggle to detain the spread of the coronavirus. Security measures such as mask mandates, social distancing, and lockdowns were instated. People had to follow the state’s security guidelines to be seen as ‘good citizens.’ Good citizens meant doing what the government told and saw as fit. A new order of indexicality, a new hierarchy of value of "social categories, recognizable, semiotic emblems for groups and individuals" (Blommaert, 2007) was set up for the corona situation. Social distancing, wearing masks, testing yourself if you portrayed symptoms, getting vaccinated, and more were suddenly deemed indexes of being a good Dutch citizen in the context of the corona pandemic.
A society divided: the CoronaCheck app
The next measure came in the summer of 2021 when the Dutch government rolled out the CoronaCheck application (Rijksoverheid, 2021). This is where the QR code came into the picture. The CoronaCheck app is a covid pass that shows either proof of vaccination, proof of recovery, or proof of a negative covid test to provide access to public places or go on holiday abroad (Rijksoverheid, 2021). They took the allround useful QR code technology and gave it a new purpose: a meaning-making practice to converse proof of health in the ongoing corona pandemic. It is a good example of Cope & Kalantzis’ (2006) notion of design and redesign. Agents, now the Dutch government, took a digital medium, namely the QR code, and reinvented it into a covid pass. The government made use of the efforts of foreign governments, such as the Chinese, who used a similar application in their fight to beat Corona (Hua & Shaw, 2020). As well as the help of tech companies Google and Apple as they provided governments worldwide with the technical foundation utilizing an Application Programming Interface (API) to develop a corona (tracking) application that fits the local governmental needs (Barriga et al., 2020). This is making use of available designs to create (new) meaning(s) (Cope & Kalantzis, 2006).
An important part of meaning-making is the notion of transformation and semantics. Citizens take specific data about themselves from their local GGD and turn this information into a visual; transform it into a QR code. This information, namely personal data such as your name, date of birth, date of either negative test, proof of recovery, or proof of vaccination, is mostly numbers and letters. But it received a semantic meaning in the context of the corona pandemic in the Netherlands. Semantically, this information means ‘I am healthy, I do not have corona, the data captured in this code proves it.’ It recalls the shift from focusing on writing and words as a representation of the world to one in which the visual takes this central role (Cope & Kalantzis, 2006). Visuals have always played a large part in literacy and are by many considered as humans’ first sign of communication. However, since our current society is built on a written-down structure, written language is often considered superior when it comes to literacy. The times of the digital era slightly changed this, as our digitalized and globalized network presents us with multimodal communication means, in which the QR-code gives the role of the visual a new shape.
"Individuals are more willing to conform to the governmental rules ‘for the greater good’ rather than pursuing individualistic goals"
This system is essential in regard to the clarity of societal rules and social distancing practices. By simplifying society's structure, the way of adaption from individuals is more accessible by using a labeling rule process. Implementing the QR code is another aspect that demonstrates a resilient society by proving once again the quickness of adaption that can be applied in society; however, this does depend on the individuals' cultural differences. The influence of the creation and continuation of social norms such as behavioral output can be identified as conformism, which attempts to avoid deviance in society. While an individual may disagree with the technological use of a QR code for access in a public area, conformity is most likely to come into play. (Bond & Smith, 1996) This is to avoid appearing as a deviant and to adhere to the rules of staying at home and not participating in social activities or being in public areas. Portraying as deviant in such a health-critical period is less likely despite possible individualistic opinions and feelings, and a shift towards the majority is more likely to come into play. As a whole, collectivist cultures have a shared goal, in this case, that's lessening the spread of corona. Hence individuals are more willing to conform to the governmental rules ‘for the greater good' rather than pursuing individualistic goals. (Triandis, 1990, p. 42)
One scan away from freedom
However, just like any form of literacy, the QR code in times of corona is not solely a linguistic issue. Any expression of language is always attached to a different value in different contexts, making it a vastly social issue (Blommaert, 2009). The usage of the CoronaCheck app is bound to be valued differently by different people. Some might see it as a means to protect people, in which the QR code began to symbolize safety. Others might see it as an invasion of their privacy or a form of discrimination, in which the QR code began to symbolize inequalities within the country. Because such social values are attached in various ways, just like any form of language, the CoronaCheck app automatically becomes an issue of (social) inequality.
One matter of inequality that has already manifested itself through processes of digitalization, is the issue of a digital divide. The digital divide refers to the difference in access to digital devices between different people, which leads to an unequal distribution of information and communication facilities. Times of corona only intensified the digitalization of such facilities even more, meaning that also the digital divide has been “sharply widened by the special social controls implemented during the pandemic” (Hua & Shaw, 2020). For example, older people are generally less enfranchised by technology and thereby more isolated from access to digital devices (Hua & Shaw, 2020). The attainment of a QR code in one’s CoronaCheck app involves multiple digital literacy skills, which might be easy for people who are familiar with digital affordances but can be difficult for people who never fully learned those skills.
Another interesting development when the CoronaCheck app became more and more present in everyday life, was the formation of normative expectations about the usage of the QR code. In the summer of 2021, nightclubs opened again with a 1G policy, in which only a negative test result could give people a valid QR code in order to access a club. After two weeks, the clubs had to close again because of an explosion of infections. Unlike before, the blame for this closing was put on those who misused their QR codes, such as forging one or using someone else’s. In the process of holding these people responsible, the QR code attained both a meaning of safety and freedom (to go to a club), in which forging a QR code became a sign of danger to this safety and freedom.
The QR code and its implications
In the context of the corona pandemic, the QR code came to be an important socio-technical phenomenon for governments to both protect and open up society. This counts for the Netherlands as well. Building on the knowledge from the Chinese government among others, and the technical affordances of Google and Apple, the Dutch ministry of public health, welfare, and sports developed an application called CoronaCheck. The core of this app is the creation of QR codes that encode personal information about health. Its use in the Netherlands by means of the CoronaCheck app can be viewed as a meaning-making practice. It is a visual mode that communicates proof of health. The QR code came to be part of a specific order of indexicality in the context of the corona pandemic in the Netherlands. Besides it being digital evidence that you are not infected by the coronavirus, it also indexes proof of being a good citizen. The corona crisis namely installed new norms of what is seen as good behavior. Good behavior is keeping your distance, wearing masks, testing when you show symptoms of covid, and getting vaccinated. These last two practices are represented in the QR code in the CoronaCheck application. As such, this code directly indexes these norms. The CoronaCheck and QR code formed an important part of the Dutch government’s vision on how to safely open up the country by means of the different ‘G’ systems. Most people supported these policies and the QR code, but they were met with resistance as well because they impact people’s freedom and privacy. The corona QR code is a digital literacy practice. It comes with literacy skills, and as such ignites inequalities and exclusion for people who are not fortunate enough and who are not skilled in digital affordances.
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