Ryan: Welcome to 10 Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. And today, we’re going to talk about a sound that we’ve heard thousands of times and never really stopped to think about.[Scanner Sound Effect Beeping]
But it’s a sound and an object that fascinates today’s guest.
Jordan: My name is Jordan Frith and I’m the Pierce Professor of Professional Communication at Clemson University. And I finished my PhD in 2012 and spent seven years at the University of North Texas before coming to Clemson in 2019, and I have a diverse set of research interests ranging, from emerging media and mobility, so my work started on smartphones and emerging apps, and I’ve slowly kind of transitioned to a focus on infrastructure in my research and the kind of invisible systems that we don’t pay attention to that shape our lives in like various ways. And I’ve also increasingly tried to grow my public scholarship to write things that are more accessible, publish in like public venues, and this book I’m discussing today is the first of my six books that is more geared towards both an academic but also public audience. It’s the first book I’ve ever written that, in my opinion, at least, is fun. So that’s been kind of how my work has been taking me over the last couple years.
Ryan: I’ve invited Dr. Frith on the podcast today to talk about his new book Barcode from the Object Lessons series by Bloomsbury Publishing. The book is a short, accessible history of an object that most of us consider extremely boring: the barcode. And Dr. Frith argues that that’s exactly the point. That barcode’s boringness is the key to their success. That once we stopped thinking about them, they actually became much more ubiquitous. But there was a long road to the barcode becoming boring, and we’re going to discuss that entire history today. I hope that when we’re done, you’ll find barcodes anything but boring.
Ryan: Jordan, I’m really happy to have you on the podcast to talk about your book. And you start your book by asking, so why barcodes? So, what inspires you to write a book about barcodes?
Jordan: It’s kind of a long story that I will try not to keep too long. So I’m a mobile media scholar and I study like different mobile technologies and I started by studying smartphones when they first came out because I was a PhD student when smartphones came out. And in 2012, I published my dissertation, which was about the mobile app Foursquare. So different ways of kind of tracking mobility and things like that. And then over time, I got more into infrastructure. And in 2019, I published a book with MIT Press about RFID infrastructures, which you don’t really need to know what they are. They’re kind of like a souped up barcode. They’re like an emerging technology that’s a little flashier and things like that. But as I was writing that book, and as I was doing like different work on mobile media, it struck me that like barcodes are this form of mobile media that mediates between like digital backend records and like physical objects that I had basically never thought of.
I grew up, I’m 40 for the record. Mm-Hmm. So like I never lived or shopped in a world where barcodes weren’t everywhere until I started doing my research, I couldn’t even imagine what a grocery store looked like before barcodes. So it struck me that for all the talk of RFID or smartphones and location tracking, that there was this like technology that I’ve used like millions of times that nobody researches, that for 50 years now has been the most important mobile data infrastructure in the world and continues to be so. And so I kind of started diving into the history thinking, “I could maybe get an article out of this. There’s certainly not enough to write a book about barcodes.” But then as I dove into the history, I was like, “Oh, there’s so much here. This is so interesting. Like nobody talks about this.” And my dream was always since like the first time I read one like more than five years ago was to publish a book in Bloomsbury’s object lesson series, which I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but they’re short books that are meant to be engaging and fun and they’re deep dives into things that people like wouldn’t typically like think of, like there’s a great book on stickers for example.
And so I decided I think barcodes would be this fantastic way to write an object lessons book because they’re the most important technology that no one ever thinks about. Like Nigel Thrift, I believe the sociologist, said that they’re “the most important identification process of the last half century, one whose history remains untold.” And I came across that quote and I was like, I should tell that history.
Ryan: You’re going to tell the barcode history in this book. Yeah.
Jordan: Yeah. And also as someone who’s like increasingly studying infrastructure, I’ve kind of come to this like conclusion where the ultimate testament to a technology’s success is when it becomes boring. And I don’t mean boring in the sense that like, I don’t think barcodes are boring. I just wrote a book about it. It’s the only book I’ve ever written that I still like talking about after I wrote it, normally I’m so done. So I don’t think they’re boring, but they seem so boring. They’re so mundane. There’s something I had never thought about. But like the ultimate testament, especially to an infrastructural technologies, like success is when we stop thinking about it, right?
So I think of like AI in writing, which I know you’ve had some really great recent episodes on, and to me, like the moment AI in writing will have really arrived, which won’t be for another like 10, 20 years, is when. We stop talking about it.
Ryan Yes. Yeah, when it becomes like spellcheck or something, when it’s just like we all just kind of accept that it’s there.
Jordan: It’s there and nobody researches it. Nobody thinks about it. And there will be a point, say, like 40 years from now, where, if it does succeed, who knows, and is incorporated into everything, it will just be so taken for granted that its history will disappear. And people will forget these discussions now. It will just be a thing that a 25-year-old grew up with. It was always part of their life. And once the technology hits that point, its history essentially gets erased because there are technologies that are so ubiquitous, like pencils, pens, barcodes, where they just seem inevitable, right? Like, and once they seem inevitable, their history kind of falls to the side. And so as I was studying these other technologies that are flashier and maybe on their face more interesting, I was like, but none of these transmit as much data. None of these are as crucial to like, globalization and so much of what has happened in the last 50 years, as these little black lines that contain data. Like, this is something to write about. The point is people, it’s not that they should care about it. The point is that like they don’t have to care about it. Like that’s the ultimate success of it.
Ryan: Right. It’s something you don’t even think about. It’s so embedded in your life that it doesn’t cross your mind. And you’re right, we’re about the same age, so, uh, barcodes are just inevitable to me, like, they, I, I didn’t even realize until looking through your book, like, I never thought about, like, how would you shop if barcodes didn’t exist?
Jordan: I haven’t either, and an interesting thing about barcodes as I did more research, is you would shop very different, because, barcodes are also beyond just being everywhere. They also shaped our lives in ways like we just like don’t even think about. So they shaped retail. So super stores and larger grocery stores were only possible because of barcode technology, because you couldn’t have a Wal Mart or a giant grocery store if everything everyone bought was like typed in by hand.
Jordan: So there’s studies about how like once barcodes really started to take off in like the mid 80s, retail spaces grew, for example. You couldn’t have online shopping without barcodes because barcodes are completely essential to like logistical processes. Like next time you get a package, it’ll have two or three barcodes on it that are scanned. And you couldn’t really have the global economy at the state we do now, because without barcodes, there is no way to track and automate logistical processes and identification processes. So once I started thinking about all this, I was like, “Oh, like, this thing I’d never thought about at all has shaped all of our lives in ways that most of us will never realize because their success kind of hides their importance in a way.
Ryan: Yeah, well, absolutely. I mean, it’s something where we take it for granted, but if you took barcode technology away, society would just fall apart.
Jordan: No, it would, like, if you took it away without replacing it with something, and eventually it will be replaced, but who knows when. I mean, yeah, we’ve built entire global structures on the back of like barcodes as a data infrastructure, like whether it’s in retail and grocery stores, whether it’s shipping through like the global economy, whether it’s like online shopping, all of that is like built on the back of these like black lines, right?
And another thing that got me really interested in barcodes is I like read about more, more about them and like got into their history is I find something almost like romantic and strangely beautiful about the fact that like, so the first real like barcodes that went mainstream, the ones that made them possible, are UPC barcodes, universal product code barcodes, which like, you don’t even need to know, they came out in 1974 with the data standard and it’s still the same. Like they’re essentially unchanged. So as I started thinking about like, this technology that was feeding data into these like gigantic room-sized computers in like 1974 and it’s still the same barcode when you check out at a grocery store that feeds data into like clouds and like data centers cooled by massive amounts of water and things like that. So as everything else changed around them, they have been this like steadfast technology that hasn’t gone anywhere.
Ryan: Like a horseshoe crab or something, like everything else around it evolved, but it’s like, well, now we’re good the way we are. Yeah. This’ll, this’ll work.
Jordan: Yeah. Yeah. And like barcodes certainly have evolved. Like there are like newer forms of them. So, another quick point I think talking about barcodes is like, QR codes are barcodes. They’re, they’re just two D barcodes, so there are barcode that works slightly different, but they’re barcodes. So like they have evolved, but even QR codes, which people are like, oh, well, but that’s new and that’s taken over. Even QR codes, they were introduced in 1994, so like UPC barcodes are turning 50 next year, but like the newer QR codes, they’re 30. I mean, like they’re not young either. So, yeah. Once I got into it, like this data infrastructure that is just so crucial to so many of our lives and has been like so consistent and has survived all this competition and yeah, just kind of stayed steady. The idea that you could pull someone from 1976 and show them a barcode in the grocery store and they might know what it is. Whereas you could show them like a mobile phone and they would lose their minds, right? Like that is like, just something like really amazing to me.
Ryan: You said, you know, the history of this stuff kind of disappears when it becomes so ubiquitous, but can you give us kind of a quick history of the bar, you know, so 1974 is the first, the UPC barcode, tell us a little bit about kind of the history of this object.
Jordan: So the history of the object, I mean, it depends where you start it. But like, if we’re just talking barcodes, the first barcode was patented in 1949, or the patent was submitted, maybe it was like 52 that it was (patented). It did not look anything like the barcode we know now it was like a bullseye, but it didn’t take off immediately cause it was one of those technologies that was invented like too early. Right. So there was no easy way to scan it. And so it wasn’t until the early sixties when the laser was invented. And then when computing became cheaper, that could store all the data, that it began to be like, something that was actually viable.
So then the grocery industry, after a false start from the railroad industry, which is just a footnote because it didn’t work. The grocery industry created a committee in 1972, I believe, called the Ad Hoc Committee, which is the most boring name for like, a committee that did something that’s like, one of the most important like technological developments of 50 years, they created a committee to automate inventory and parts of the resale process and barcodes were what they decided to focus on.
And they created the UPC data standard, because none of this works without data standards to get back to like infrastructure as writing, like there’s so much writing underneath the barcode and they created that standard and then they had to decide on a barcode. And the thing about barcodes that I hadn’t realized either is barcodes are just a technology that is patterns of lines and spaces where the lines and spaces make up numbers. There’s nothing about them that has to look like the barcodes we know. Right? That’s the IBM design, like the black vertical lines.
And one of the things that was really amazing to me is this kind of like ubiquitous, like cultural symbol, right? It came down to the last meeting of the ad hoc committee that decided on that symbol. It was down to that or a bullseye symbol from RCA. We came within like that last meeting of us having just bullseyes on everything. Like concentric circles where instead of like the data being in like the vertical lines, it’s like in these circles. I had never thought that the barcode could look any different.
Ryan: Yeah, well, this is sort of like, you know, you know, any kind of sort of science and technology studies. This is always one of the pivotal things is that the thing that seems inevitable could have been different. It was controversial until it wasn’t. You know, it’s always fascinating to kind of uncover those histories. We could have a completely different barcode, and that would have seemed the inevitable outcome, right?
Jordan: Yeah, or we could have no barcodes. The barcode almost failed. So just like as a real brief like history. So 1974 the grocery industry introduced the UPC barcode. First official one was ever scanned on June 26, I believe, on a pack of Wrigley gum in Troy, Ohio, a pack of gum, a facsimile of which is now in the Smithsonian.
Ryan: Wonderful. Yeah.
Jordan: Right. And the scanner that scanned it is now in the Smithsonian. So, introduced by the grocery industry, nearly failed altogether, which we’ll talk about in like a later question because like the seventies were really rocky. Like it was controversial. It nearly failed. They held on. It did not fail.
And then in the early eighties, because of the grocery industry success, the U S Department of Defense mandated barcodes, a different barcode. Cause another point is like the UPC barcode, but like you have different ones. Like the UPC one is essentially the simplest one. It only contains 12 or 13 digits, but like you have other ones like code 39 that are just longer. But then the Department of Defense mandated in the early eighties, the automotive industry mandated in the early eighties. And then it was mandated in like shipping, like FedEx created their own barcode. The USPS created their own barcode. So it went from the grocery industry to other industries by like the mid-eighties and nineties. And now it’s essentially like how you identify products in almost every industry. It’s spread from retail to the automotive industry, the defense industry to shipping, to different forms of retail, it’s all over the place. And now to this day, even as it approaches 50 years old, six billion barcodes are still scanned every single day, six billion. It started in the grocery industry and then just spread as it succeeded to kind of like every parts of our lives.
Ryan: Terrific. One of the things that you wrote that I really liked that we’ve already gotten at is a major part of the power of barcodes is that we don’t need to understand how they work to interact with them, right? It’s just, in fact, I have no idea how barcodes work and I don’t, I haven’t thought about them and I’ve been taking them for granted for, you know, 43 years. But you’ve talked about their ability to transform objects into data. Real quickly. How do they do that? How does, how does scanning something on a package of lettuce turn it into data?
Jordan: So, yeah, that’s a really good question. And also I think this is why like as tech comm scholars doing these kinds of infrastructural deep dives, we’re really well suited because like we can explain technological processes in ways that are engaging without going too into it. The way that they turn things into data, and I won’t get too complicated in it, but it’s essentially through binary. So on a UPC barcode, there are 15 pairs of black lines and white spaces. Three of those pairs, the longer ones on both edges in the middle, those are just called guard bars. Those don’t have any data. That’s just so a laser can like orient itself, right? But then the other 12 pairs, each one of those pairs represents a number from zero to nine. And the way that it works is the two pairs of black lines have varying thicknesses and there’s varying space between them, xo varying white space between them. And those are completely standardized. So say like if, for example, a thicker black line, a larger amount of white space, and then a thin black line represents a six, then it will represent a six every time. And so the way it works is through binary where the scanner is just looking for black or white. Like zero or one, zero or one for each pair of lines. And that’s how it determines the numbers zero to nine. And they’re the same for every code and there’s different barcode standards, but the way they all work is that those pairs of lines always have to be the same. So if you want to get like wild about it and as a sign, I maybe got too into this research, you can teach yourself to read barcodes just based on the line. So you can teach yourself that like, Oh, well, this line pairing equals like blank. And this line pairing equals that. Yeah. It’s just pairs of lines and each pair represents a number. And it’s just based on the thickness of the black lines in the white space.
And I talk about them as like making objects hybrid because they turn objects into kind of material digital, like hybrids. Because what they do is they make any object they’re attached to machine readable. So they are the mediator when you are at a self checkout in a grocery store, or when someone scans a package when it’s delivered to you. They’re the mediator between a physical object moving through the world, and when they’re scanned, a digital record. So they can turn any physical object into a digital data trace into a backend like database and they do it through a process that was developed in like the early seventies where different pairs of lines mean different things that are read by lasers and that’s kind of how they work and just zero to nine, over and over again, billions of times a day. With also tons of standardization that I won’t get into. But yeah, they mediate between like back end digital records and material objects and they make the machine readable in ways that have changed inventory and things like that.
Ryan: Well, yeah. And you talk about this a little bit in your book, the idea of kind of the internet of things, of stuff communicating with computers, and the barcodes have really been doing this in a way for a long time.
Jordan: Oh yeah. So I talk about like barcodes as kind of the proto internet of things before the internet of things, because, for the internet of things, you have like much flashier technologies, you have your embedded WiFi, you have RFID tags, and all these things that are ultimately about making objects communicative in new ways. And barcodes, they obviously don’t do that to the same extent, but they did that way before anyone was talking about the internet of things. Because barcodes, when they’re scanned, let an object communicate with this large database of inventory, of global logistics or anything like that. So I think the way I describe it is like, if the internet of things is about giving objects a new voice, barcodes don’t give them a loud voice, because all they’re doing is transmitting like a series of numbers to identify them. But it does give them a voice long before anyone was talking about that. It was able to essentially like link material objects, by making them machine readable into these, like much larger networks through also what’s, I think, interesting, especially with the grocery industry, an intentionally simplistic process, right? Like just through identification numbers. Like your barcode doesn’t have any information about the product. It has nothing about prices, nothing about expiration dates, quite intentionally. All that is stored in the digital back end. The barcode just gives a number that triggers the digital record, but even like that little mediating role, where it’s just maybe 12 identification numbers, that makes an object communicate, that networks it with this larger system, and so yeah, kind of the Internet of Things before the Internet of Things.
Ryan: So it basically works by, if I have a shirt that I want to buy at Target, the barcode has got a 12 digit or whatever number on it that when the laser scans it, it turns that into numbers and then references a database somewhere that says, this is this shirt, this is how much it costs, all of this information.
Jordan: Yes, for the most part. So like I said, there are different standards and different barcodes. So like on a QR code, for example, you could have more information in that QR code. But no, it was the UPC barcode, and then most of the barcode standards that followed, were designed to be intentionally simple, which was a big debate when they were first invented of like Should we have a bigger barcode that actually does all this stuff? Like includes expiration dates, includes pricing and things like that. And they decided, I think quite smartly, that the answer is no, we should make it as simple as possible. So it’s exactly like you said, like it’s a series of identification numbers that then triggers a record that has all of the information. And it didn’t have to be that way. But like in my research, I think if they had gone with something more complicated, it wouldn’t have worked. Because part of the simplicity of it is it’s not that hard to do or implement. Because we’re just talking about numbers and then we’re talking about backend records.
Ryan: Right, right. All the complicated stuff, in a way, sort of happens in the records that are stored elsewhere. And the barcode connects the object to those records.
Ryan: So, you know, you’ve mentioned this a lot that this was not an inevitable technology that, you know, it’s successful and invisible. Now we don’t think about it, but in its day, you know, barcodes saw a fair amount of controversy. Uh, so tell us a little bit about this.
Jordan: Oh, sure. So when the ad hoc committee was developing the barcode, they did it over like three years, I think, like it was a long involved process and they met with a ton of stakeholders. They met with labor, for example, because they knew labor was going to protest barcodes because part of the point was reducing retail labors. But Stephen Brown in his history of the ad hoc committee notes that like one group they did not consult with, because they didn’t think they would care, was consumers. Like they just didn’t think consumers would care, which was almost a fateful mistake that killed the barcode because as soon as it was released, you had gigantic nationwide consumer protests, partially led by one woman, Carol Tucker Foreman, who is head of the Consumer Federation of America, and she fought really hard against barcodes for a reason that like, once again, as a 40-year-old still seems kind of abstract to me. It was about this thing called item level pricing, where every grocery store before the barcode included a price tag on every item, right? So kind of like when you buy a shirt. The whole point of barcodes was to get rid of that, reduce the labor, manage inventory, and then just have shelf level pricing, right? Which is what we all grew up with. So like, it’s like this controversy, which was hugely controversial at the time, but someone looking back from 2023, it’s kind of like, well, who cares?
But people did care. So she fought super hard against barcodes as basically like a rip off from the grocery industry that people wouldn’t have price tags on things, would not be able to shop comparatively. And she was really actually very successful. So consumer groups fighting against the barcode to preserve item level pricing managed to get legislation in a few states passed that temporarily made it illegal to remove like individual price tags. They fought for federal legislation that they never got, but there were boycotts against grocery stores that introduced barcodes like, there were nationwide protests. There were US Senate hearings. There were state legislation hearings, and it really was like the biggest threat the barcode ever faced because for as kind of like silly and minor as it might seem, it was kind of a nonstarter in the sense that barcodes were expensive to implement around 200,000 a store in the 1970s. So the only way to make this money back was to automate some of the labor involved in price tagging. If that legislation, which at times like came really close to passing, had been made permanent, there would have been no barcodes, because there would have been no way to financially implement them. And so at the time, like you can find all of these articles like about like barcodes, like nationwide rip off, like these boycotts, these protests, Senate hearings, all of these things, because it’s really hard to become mundane. So like you were saying. Things that we take for granted often were controversial and barcodes were certainly one of them. Like Carol Tucker Foreman appeared on the Phil Donahue show to warn people about barcodes. There’s like front page stories in the New York Times about like consumer protests and barcodes. And a lot of it was centered on this item level pricing thing, which, once again, as a taken for granted thing, we all grew up in a world where like grocery stores have shelf pricing, so it’s a little hard to understand, but it really mattered to these people. And it was a non-starter that really came close to like killing the barcode because, reading those early histories, they were totally unprepared for it. Like they were totally unprepared for consumer pushback because they thought. “Why would consumers care?” And it took them about like a year or two to start realizing. And then they started writing their own editorials.
So in part because of the cost and in part because of like these major protests, barcode adoption was disastrous. At first they came out in 1974. There were widespread protests. And then, in one of my favorite articles ever, and an article that’s in like the pantheon of this did not age well, in 1976 Businessweek published an article entitled like the supermarket scanner that failed. There was already declaring in 1976 that the barcode was dead. This was it. And by the late 70s, in part because of those consumer protests, adoption was about half what the industry expected, and there were all these articles coming in that the grocery executives had like lost their faith in barcode systems because they were too controversial. By like the late 70s, it looked like this whole thing was going to fail. And if it had failed in the grocery industry, it’s very possible it would not have been picked up by other industries and we would live in a very different world.
So that’s one controversy. And then another controversy, which still is kind of ongoing, which was never like a threat to the barcode, but I think is interesting, is in the late 70s, you had evangelical writers, particularly this woman named Mary Ralph, begin identifying the barcode as the mark of the beast foretold in the book of Revelations. And so there are all these books about that. There are all of these like warnings. There’s a great artist who did a series on Appalachian revivalism and like fears of death in the barcode. And that somehow still maintains to this day, even though people have kind of moved on to like new marks of the beast, whether it’s like RFID. But you also had this evangelical pushback, which is complicated, and I won’t get into it, it’s actually really interesting, identifying like barcodes as like a sign of the apocalypse, which was this other controversy that was never as widespread, but has endured for 40 years. So yeah, the same technology that is completely invisible to us, to other people was like a signal of a possible end of the world.
Ryan: Foretells the end of the world. So the general idea there would be that, you know, the barcodes are allowing everyone to be tracked. Right. And so like, is it, was that sort of the, the gist of that theory?
Jordan: So, yeah, the gist of the theory. So the mark of the beast, cause I actually wrote about this with RFID too, cause that too, is from like three sentences in the book of Revelation. And essentially, it’s that you will all get the mark of the beast, which in this reading would be a barcode tattoo on your hand, and it will lead to a cashless society. So that’s a big thing about it is like it has to lead to a cashless society. Like that’s in the Bible and people who don’t take the mark will not be able to buy or sell. So the reason the barcode got picked up as this thing was that it was like automating transactions, and that it was something where eventually you would be able to get it tattooed and then you would have the mark as a follower of the Antichrist and only you would be able to like participate in the economic system. So that’s kind of where it came from.
It also interestingly came from, talking about technological literacies, a misreading of how a barcode symbol works. A UPC. So as I mentioned before, barcodes are 15 pairs of lines, but three of them, the long one on the left, the middle and the end are guard bars. They don’t have data. But this woman, Mary Ralph, wrote a book where she misread those three lines as sixes. Those are the sixes.
Ryan: Okay, so it was like the 666.
Jordan: So it’s 666 in every single barcode and you can still find websites to this day that claim that those guard bars are like (666), so just like this kind of fundamental, like. misreading of guard bars, the least important part of a barcode as the end of the world that somehow lasted for decades, right?
Ryan: Well, your book ends with different cultural significances of the barcode. And this is a good transition into that because you’ve got on the one hand, you’ve got people seeing this is a sign of the apocalypse and sort of what other, it’s permeated culture. What kinds of meanings does it have symbolically?
Jordan I think one of the interesting paradoxes about the barcode is like, it is a technology like I’m talking about that we take for granted, but it also is a technology that is one of the most iconic symbols in all of capitalism. Most people around the world, like just show them barcode, they would know what that is. It’s become kind of like THE cultural icon of capitalism. I start my book with a story from high school about a morning, this friend of mine, we were goth kids. She showed up and she had a barcode tattooed on the back of her neck. And we were like, that’s so cool. What is it? And like, she said something about like, you know, we’re all cogs in a machine, like anti conformity, whatever. So barcodes, like for an infrastructural technology, they’ve become popular tattoos, right? So that’s one example.
They’re also all over dystopian science fiction from like the early 80s till like the early 2010s, barcodes in science fiction were often like used as a symbol, particularly barcode tattoos, of conformity and control and also like just irresponsible commoditization. So like the first example I found was Terminator. So in Terminator, one of the scenes is where Reese has to convince Sarah Connor that he’s from the future. And he talks about like the slave labor camps, the machines, and he rolls down his sleeve and shows her a barcode as like a sign of like, we’ve become products. And that was so early in the barcode that in James Cameron’s script, I don’t think he knew the word barcode, because he just says, he says like rolls down his sleeve and it’s something like. “shows her like those checkout things at the grocery store.” But by even then, it had become a thing where like, we had been turned into products.
And then like the Hitman video games, Alien 3, like Dark Angel, Repo Man, all over like dystopian science fiction, it becomes like a symbol of like control and turning a body into like a product to be sold.
Ryan: Right, and tracked and monitored.
Jordan: And tracked and monitored. It’s in Idiocracy, right? Where it’s not about tracking and monitoring, but it’s just barcode. The UPC is like just a symbol for like capitalism and commoditization run amok. It became this dystopian symbol where it was a stand in for essentially the like worst parts of capitalism, where anything can be turned into a product, including a human body.
But then at the same time, so a barcode tattoo might mean that, it might mean someone pushing back against the system and like being all punk rock. But then there’s also like fan communities that love barcode design as an aesthetic. There’s this great subreddit called barcode porn, which has nothing to do with porn, but it’s just these like amazing like designs of UPC barcodes that still work, where it’s like become like a fan community and you have artists, some of whom use it for critique in dystopian senses, but some of who you use it as like an interesting design aesthetic. You even have buildings like all over the world that I talk about in my book that are designed based on the barcode. So you have buildings that are designed as barcode facades. So it’s this kind of bizarre thing where the cultural meaning of it is really complex because it can range from something that someone is a fan of, as like a design aesthetic, to a dystopian symbol of like the worst ills of capitalism that popped up in science fiction over and over and over again.
And I just find that like really interesting and amazing for a technology that was, you know, created by like a bunch of grocery executives in like the early 70s, and all of a sudden it became like one of the major symbols of dystopian science fiction for 30 years, from like these grocery executive board meetings. Right. Or a sign of like the end of the world for certain like evangelical Christian groups. And that’s just wild to me, coming from, you know, plans to automate inventory and checkout processes.
Ryan: Right, to all this cultural significance, all these different meanings that run the gamut of, you know, this is the Antichrist or the worst of capitalism, all the way to like, these are sort of strangely beautiful, you know, minimalist designs.
Jordan: Yeah, and I don’t know, that was just something that really stood out to me as particularly interesting, because if you go back and read those notes from those ad hoc committee meetings, like they thought what they were doing was important, but not in their wildest dreams. Like when I was doing my archival research, cause also there’s actually an archive on primary barcode doc.
Ryan: I saw that in your book. Where is it by the way?
Jordan: Uh, Stony Brook university. It’s called the Goldberg archive. But yeah, reading those notes, like none of them would have ever guessed that. They thought the high end was maybe 20, 000 stores would ever adopt a barcode. And the fact that 50 years later, we’re still scanning those same things, and 50 years later, like they’ve become a symbol of, they’ve become, I don’t know, arguably like the most recognizable dominant symbol of capitalism. Is just not something anyone ever would have guessed or intended like going back to those meetings.
Ryan: It wasn’t given that symbolic meaning by the creators.
Jordan: Oh, yeah for sure, like definitely had nothing to do with the creators. And it’s interesting how that can happen over time. Right something that can start for I don’t know slapping a identification tag on a can of soup, can later be picked up by fine artists and movie directors and tattoo artists and just have this broad reach that would have blown people’s minds who are working on it in the 70s.
Ryan: Well, Jordan, this was super interesting. I really enjoy talking about barcodes. You make a great case that these are much more interesting than we’ve given them credit for. Remind us of the name of the book.
Jordan: The book is simply called Barcode. And it is, um, yeah, part of the Object Lesson series, so it’s shorter, and it is less than 15 bucks. That was another thing I was really focused on, is, I want to write a book that people can buy.
Ryan: That people can actually afford, and who is the publisher?
Jordan: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Ryan: Cool. Well, we appreciate you for putting out your book. And I really enjoyed talking to you today. Thank you so much.
Jordan: This is delight. And thank you so much for having me on. I love your podcast.