The Utopia of Rules

Last week, I wrote about David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy in the context of Fortnite Battle Royale.

There, Graeber’s most salient observations had to do with the similarities between fantasy role-playing games and accounting, the role of comics in socializing future leaders, and the tension between the fun of rules-based games and that of anarchic play.

That’s certainly an idiosyncratic list of topics to find in a book that is ostensibly about bureaucracy, and still it doesn’t begin to show the extent of the ground that Graeber covers.

It’s a testament to the fact that bureaucracy—the use of impersonal rules and procedures to regulate public life—is so deeply embedded in our lives that I have a hard time thinking of a society that gives a sharp enough counterexample the make it concisely clear what Graeber means by “total bureaucratization.” Continue reading “The Utopia of Rules”

Getting the Future Wrong: Xerox’s Hardware Solution to Software Problems

In 1965, Xerox made a 14-minute-long video ad for the Xerox 2400 photocopier, and I’ve been tickled by it ever since I first saw it years ago. Not only does the ad, titled “What’s the Difference?” illustrate how many steps the Xerox 2400 can eliminate from the process of short-run duplication,

The Xerox 2400 reduces the steps in the short-run duplication process from seven to two.

it also notes that since xerography is a dry process, as the name suggests, it keeps printers’ and office workers’ hands clean.

No more stained fingers, no more smudged documents.

Even better, with just a handful of simple techniques,

Just use overlays to add, delete, and substitute.

the Xerox 2400 not only duplicates documents but also facilitates the creation of new ones. The video devotes a good three minutes to demonstrating how this will revolutionize the sales order and invoicing system, the purchase order system, and production order system.

The ad closes by noting that the Xerox 2400 is so easy to use that not just women, but even children can do it.

In her book, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz conveys the contemporary appeal of such advertisements, which seem so strange to us today. Continue reading “Getting the Future Wrong: Xerox’s Hardware Solution to Software Problems”

Taking Payroll Literally

The word payroll first appears in the English language around 1765, according to Webster’s. While I’m pretty sure the “roll” part comes from the concept of “roll call” or “muster roll” (which probably itself came from such things being recorded on rolled-up scrolls), I like the way this Dey Time Register time clock at the San Francisco Cable Car Museum brings the word full circle.

Employee Time Clock ca. 1900. The device is rather straight forward, even though it looks intimidating. The main difference to today’s time clocks is that, rather than having individual time cards for each employee, all times were recorded together on a roll of paper inside the clock. Each employee had a number, located on one of the buttons on the front of the clock. By moving the arm to the number location and pressing the arm into the hole next to the number, the print head inside the clock would stamp the time and the employee number on the (pay-) roll. (Apologies to Paulie and Jessamin for sharing their appropriately delighted reflections.)

Continue reading “Taking Payroll Literally”

Austin’s Highland Mall as Victor Gruen’s Last Laugh

Oh, Highland Mall, the stuff of my childhood back-to-school shopping dreams. It opened in 1971 and closed officially in 2015, though it had been dead for a while before then. During the 80s, it was the most accessible mall in Austin to my family, who lived in rural isolation to the east of the city. I salivated to be driven 50 miles to shop in that neon-lit concrete bunker, though now I’m much more likely to be found eating ice cream in a green space at The Domain farther north when I visit my home city. Today, the property is owned by Austin Community College and is being transformed into a mixed-use anchor of neighborhood amenities, including not only retail, residential, and park areas, but also computer and chemistry learning and co-working facilities.

Food court at Highland Mall, Bellerophon5685
So who was Victor Gruen? Tom Scott gives a brief introduction to the Austrian architect who conceived of the shopping mall as a way to combat suburban sprawl in the United States, his adopted country–then hated the “bastard offspring” of his idea and developers’ money that resulted. The Highland Mall of my youth was one of those bastard offspring; the Highland Mall of the future is much more what Gruen had in mind.

Illustration of an analog numeric typewriter, superimposed on a paper chart of printed numbers.

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Even Your Pocket Change is Telling You to Vote

As citizens of the United States finish polling and wait for the results of their midterm elections, here’s Tom Hockenhull of the British Museum talking about coins that were defaced in the name of voting rights for women. The coin was featured in Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects: “this coin stands for all those who fought for the right to vote.”

May that right always expand and never contract. (You can help make that wish a reality by supporting the Fair Fight PAC and other organizations that defend voting rights in the US.)

The featured image for this post is a copper-colored British coin stamped with the phrase ‘Votes for Women.’ It is housed at the British Museum and photographed by Mike Peel.

Illustration of an analog numeric typewriter, superimposed on a paper chart of printed numbers.

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Manny Medrano, Spreadsheets, and the Data in the Khipu

This time of year always finds me thinking about all of the information, knowledge, opinions, and ways of thinking and being that humanity lost when the 1492 renewal of sustained contact between the east and west hemispheres developed into a holocaust fueled by germs and greed. To this day, for instance, no one knows what data then Incan Empire encoded in its knotted-string khipus.

In 2016, Manny Medrano, a freshman economics major at Harvard, used Excel to decipher the information in some of the 17th-century khipus recorded in professor Gary Urton’s Khipu Database Project.

When Urton mentioned at the end of class one day that had found a Spanish census document from the same time and place as a set of his khipus, and that many of the numbers seemed to match, Medrano offered to spend his spring break formally correlating the data from the two sources.

According to Atlas Obscura, Urton didn’t expect much to come of it, as was the case with prior research. But Medrano noted that not only did the numbers line up, but the “way in which pendant cords are tied to the top cord indicates which social group an individual belonged to.” Medrano’s discovery is a first in khipu analysis, and it stands to turn these six khipu into the Rosetta Stone for Inca textile databases.

Khipu at the Larco Mueum in Lima. Photo by Claus Ableiter on Wikimedia Commons.
Khipu at the Larco Mueum in Lima. Photo by Claus Ableiter.

Medrano is now a Marshall Scholar at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.


Illustration of an analog numeric typewriter, superimposed on a paper chart of printed numbers.

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