It was all downhill after the Cuecat

On the origins of “user manipulation and surveillance.”

Cory Doctorow
13 min readOct 20, 2022

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A Cuecat scanner with a bundled cable and PS/2 adapter; it resembles a plastic cat and also, slightly, a sex toy. It is posed on a Matrix movie ‘code waterfall’ background and limned by a green ‘supernova’ light effect. Image: Jerry Whiting (modified) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CueCat_barcode_scanner.jpg CC BY-SA 3.0: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Sometime in 2001, I walked into a Radio Shack on San Francisco’s Market Street and asked for a Cuecat: a handheld barcode scanner that looked a bit like a cat and a bit like a sex toy. The clerk handed one over to me and I left, feeling a little giddy. I didn’t have to pay a cent.

The Cuecat was a good idea and a terrible idea. The good idea was to widely distribute barcode scanners to computer owners, along with software that could read and decode barcodes; the company’s marketing plan called for magazines and newspapers to print barcodes alongside ads and articles, so readers could scan them and be taken to the digital edition. To get the Cuecat into widespread use, the company raised millions in the capital markets, then mass-manufactured these things and gave them away for free at Radio Shacks around the country. Every Wired and Forbes subscriber got one in the mail!

That was the good idea (it’s basically a prototype for today’s QR-codes). The terrible idea was that this gadget would spy on you. Also, it would only work with special barcodes that had to be licensed from the manufacturer. Also, it would only work on Windows.

https://web.archive.org/web/20001017162623/http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/s

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