“Ernest O. Lawrence, Arthur H. Compton, Vannevar Bush, James B. Conant, Karl T. Compton and Alfred L. Loomis. Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory”

“As Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Dr. Vannevar Bush has coördinated the activities of some six thousand leading American scientists in the application of science to warfare. In this significant article he holds up an incentive for scientists when the fighting has ceased. He urges that men of science should then turn to the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge. For many years inventions have extended man’s physical powers rather than the powers of his mind. Trip hammers that multiply the fists, microscopes that sharpen the eye, and engines of destruction and detection are new results, but the end results, of modern science. Now, says Dr. Bush, instruments are at hand which, if properly developed, will give man access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages. The perfection of these pacific instruments should be the first objective of our scientists as they emerge from their war work. Like Emerson’s famous address of 1837 on “The American Scholar,” this paper by Dr. Bush calls for a new relationship between thinking man and the sum of our knowledge.” – The Editor, Atlantic Monthly

AS WE MAY THINK, by VANNEVAR BUSH  /  July 1945  /  Atlantic Monthly
online version by Denys Duchier, University of Ottawa, April 1994

“This has not been a scientist’s war; it has been a war in which all have had a part. The scientists, burying their old professional competition in the demand of a common cause, have shared greatly and learned much. It has been exhilarating to work in effective partnership. Now, for many, this appears to be approaching an end. What are the scientists to do next?

For the biologists, and particularly for the medical scientists, there can be little indecision, for their war work has hardly required them to leave the old paths. Many indeed have been able to carry on their war research in their familiar peacetime laboratories. Their objectives remain much the same.

It is the physicists who have been thrown most violently off stride, who have left academic pursuits for the making of strange destructive gadgets, who have had to devise new methods for their unanticipated assignments. They have done their part on the devices that made it possible to turn back the enemy. They have worked in combined effort with the physicists of our allies. They have felt within themselves the stir of achievement. They have been part of a great team. Now, as peace approaches, one asks where they will find objectives worthy of their best.

Of what lasting benefit has been man’s use of science and of the new instruments which his research brought into existence? First, they have increased his control of his material environment. They have improved his food, his clothing, his shelter; they have increased his security and released him partly from the bondage of bare existence. They have given him increased knowledge of his own biological processes so that he has had a progressive freedom from disease and an increased span of life. They are illuminating the interactions of his physiological and psychological functions, giving the promise of an improved mental health.

Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.

There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers – conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

“Gladys Owens (foreground) while working on a kalutron”

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling. Those who conscientiously attempt to keep abreast of current thought, even in restricted fields, by close and continuous reading might well shy away from an examination calculated to show how much of the previous month’s efforts could be produced on call. Mendel’s concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.

The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present-day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.

“Vannevar Bush (center) visited Langley on 21 October 1938-just months before becoming the NACA chairman. Henry Reid stands to Bush’s right; George Lewis is to his left.”

But there are signs of a change as new and powerful instrumentalities come into use. Photocells capable of seeing things in a physical sense, advanced photography which can record what is seen or even what is not, thermionic tubes capable of controlling potent forces under the guidance of less power than a mosquito uses to vibrate his wings, cathode ray tubes rendering visible an occurrence so brief that by comparison a microsecond is a long time, relay combinations which will carry out involved sequences of movements more reliably than any human operator and thousands of times as fast – there are plenty of mechanical aids with which to effect a transformation in scientific records.

Two centuries ago Leibnitz invented a calculating machine which embodied most of the essential features of recent keyboard devices, but it could not then come into use. The economics of the situation were against it: the labor involved in constructing it, before the days of mass production, exceeded the labor to be saved by its use, since all it could accomplish could be duplicated by sufficient use of pencil and paper. Moreover, it would have been subject to frequent breakdown, so that it could not have been depended upon; for at that time and long after, complexity and unreliability were synonymous.

Babbage, even with remarkably generous support for his time, could not produce his great arithmetical machine. His idea was sound enough, but construction and maintenance costs were then too heavy. Had a Pharaoh been given detailed and explicit designs of an automobile, and had he understood them completely, it would have taxed the resources of his kingdom to have fashioned the thousands of parts for a single car, and that car would have broken down on the first trip to Giza.

Machines with interchangeable parts can now be constructed with great economy of effort. In spite of much complexity, they perform reliably. Witness the humble typewriter, or the movie camera, or the automobile. Electrical contacts have ceased to stick when thoroughly understood. Note the automatic telephone exchange, which has hundreds of thousands of such contacts, and yet is reliable. A spider web of metal, sealed in a thin glass container, a wire heated to brilliant glow, in short, the thermionic tube of radio sets, is made by the hundred million, tossed about in packages, plugged into sockets – and it works! Its gossamer parts, the precise location and alignment involved in its construction, would have occupied a master craftsman of the guild for months; now it is built for thirty cents. The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.

A record, if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted. Today we make the record conventionally by writing and photography, followed by printing; but we also record on film, on wax disks, and on magnetic wires. Even if utterly new recording procedures do not appear, these present ones are certainly in the process of modification and extension.

Certainly progress in photography is not going to stop. Faster material and lenses, more automatic cameras, finer-grained sensitive compounds to allow an extension of the minicamera idea, are all imminent. Let us project this trend ahead to a logical, if not inevitable, outcome. The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut. It takes pictures 3 millimeters square, later to be projected or enlarged, which after all involves only a factor of 10 beyond present practice. The lens is of universal focus, down to any distance accommodated by the unaided eye, simply because it is of short focal length. There is a built-in photocell on the walnut such as we now have on at least one camera, which automatically adjusts exposure for a wide range of illumination. There is film in the walnut for a hundred exposures, and the spring for operating its shutter and shifting its film is wound once for all when the film clip is inserted. It produces its result in full color. It may well be stereoscopic, and record with spaced glass eyes, for striking improvements in stereoscopic technique are just around the corner.

The cord which trips its shutter may reach down a man’s sleeve within easy reach of his fingers. A quick squeeze, and the picture is taken. On a pair of ordinary glasses is a square of fine lines near the top of one lens, where it is out of the way of ordinary vision. When an object appears in that square, it is lined up for its picture. As the scientist of the future moves about the laboratory or the field, every time he looks at something worthy of the record, he trips the shutter and in it goes, without even an audible click. Is this all fantastic? The only fantastic thing about it is the idea of making as many pictures as would result from its use.

Will there be dry photography? It is already here in two forms. When Brady made his Civil War pictures, the plate had to be wet at the time of exposure. Now it has to be wet during development instead. In the future perhaps it need not be wetted at all. There have long been films impregnated with diazo dyes which form a picture without development, so that it is already there as soon as the camera has been operated. An exposure to ammonia gas destroys the unexposed dye, and the picture can then be taken out into the light and examined. The process is now slow, but someone may speed it up, and it has no grain difficulties such as now keep photographic researchers busy. Often it would be advantageous to be able to snap the camera and to look at the picture immediately.

Another process now in use is also slow, and more or less clumsy. For fifty years impregnated papers have been used which turn dark at every point where an electrical contact touches them, by reason of the chemical change thus produced in an iodine compound included in the paper. They have been used to make records, for a pointer moving across them can leave a trail behind. If the electrical potential on the pointer is varied as it moves, the line becomes light or dark in accordance with the potential.

“Advisory Council, Office of Scientific Research and Development. Left to right: Dr. J.C. Hunsaker, Mr. H.H. Bundy, Dr. J.B. Conant, Dr. Vannevar Bush, RADM J.A. Furer, USN, Dr. A.N. Richards, Dr. F.B. Jewett, Dr. C.L. Wilson.”

This scheme is now used in facsimile transmission. The pointer draws a set of closely spaced lines across the paper one after another. As it moves, its potential is varied in accordance with a varying current received over wires from a distant station, where these variations are produced by a photocell which is similarly scanning a picture. At every instant the darkness of the line being drawn is made equal to the darkness of the point on the picture being observed by the photocell. Thus, when the whole picture has been covered, a replica appears at the receiving end.

A scene itself can be just as well looked over line by line by the photocell in this way as can a photograph of the scene. This whole apparatus constitutes a camera, with the added feature, which can be dispensed with if desired, of making its picture at a distance. It is slow, and the picture is poor in detail. Still, it does give another process of dry photography, in which the picture is finished as soon as it is taken.

“Billboard encouraging employees at Oak Ridge to keep a secret”

It would be a brave man who could predict that such a process will always remain clumsy, slow, and faulty in detail. Television equipment today transmits sixteen reasonably good images a second, and it involves only two essential differences from the process described above. For one, the record is made by a moving beam of electrons rather than a moving pointer, for the reason that an electron beam can sweep across the picture very rapidly indeed. The other difference involves merely the use of a screen which glows momentarily when the electrons hit, rather than a chemically treated paper or film which is permanently altered. This speed is necessary in television, for motion pictures rather than stills are the object.

Use chemically treated film in place of the glowing screen, allow the apparatus to transmit one picture rather than a succession, and a rapid camera for dry photography results. The treated film needs to be far faster in action than present examples, but it probably could be. More serious is the objection that this scheme would involve putting the film inside a vacuum chamber, for electron beams behave normally only in such a rarefied environment. This difficulty could be avoided by allowing the electron beam to play on one side of a partition, and by pressing the film against the other side, if this partition were such as to allow the electrons to go through perpendicular to its surface, and to prevent them from spreading out sideways. Such partitions, in crude form, could certainly be constructed, and they will hardly hold up the general development.

Like dry photography, microphotography still has a long way to go. The basic scheme of reducing the size of the record, and examining it by projection rather than directly, has possibilities too great to be ignored. The combination of optical projection and photographic reduction is already producing some results in microfilm for scholarly purposes, and the potentialities are highly suggestive. Today, with microfilm, reductions by a linear factor of 20 can be employed and still produce full clarity when the material is re-enlarged for examination. The limits are set by the graininess of the film, the excellence of the optical system, and the efficiency of the light sources employed. All of these are rapidly improving.

“According to [unverified] documents, members of the original MJ-12 (MAJIC) included Dr. Vannevar Bush, an inventor, engineer, and head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II; Retired Admiral Sidney Souers, the first director of the CIA; and Dr. Donald Menzel, theoretical astrophysicist.”

Assume a linear ratio of 100 for future use. Consider film of the same thickness as paper, although thinner film will certainly be usable. Even under these conditions there would be a total factor of 10,000 between the bulk of the ordinary record on books, and its microfilm replica. The Encyclopoedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk. If the human race has produced since the invention of movable type a total record, in the form of magazines, newspapers, books, tracts, advertising blurbs, correspondence, having a volume corresponding to a billion books, the whole affair, assembled and compressed, could be lugged off in a moving van. Mere compression, of course, is not enough; one needs not only to make and store a record but also to be able to consult it, and this aspect of the matter comes later. Even the modern great library is not generally consulted; it is nibbled by a few.

Compression is important, however, when it comes to costs. The material for the microfilm Britannica would cost a nickel, and it could be mailed anywhere for a cent. What would it cost to print a million copies? To print a sheet of newspaper, in a large edition, costs a small fraction of a cent. The entire material of the Britannica in reduced microfilm form would go on a sheet eight and one-half by eleven inches. Once it is available, with the photographic reproduction methods of the future, duplicates in large quantities could probably be turned out for a cent apiece beyond the cost of materials. The preparation of the original copy? That introduces the next aspect of the subject.

To make the record, we now push a pencil or tap a typewriter. Then comes the process of digestion and correction, followed by an intricate process of typesetting, printing, and distribution. To consider the first stage of the procedure, will the author of the future cease writing by hand or typewriter and talk directly to the record? He does so indirectly, by talking to a stenographer or a wax cylinder; but the elements are all present if he wishes to have his talk directly produce a typed record. All he needs to do is to take advantage of existing mechanisms and to alter his language.

“Voder keyboard and wrist controls”

At a recent World Fair a machine called a Voder was shown. A girl stroked its keys and it emitted recognizable speech. No human vocal cords entered in the procedure at any point; the keys simply combined some electrically produced vibrations and passed these on to a loud-speaker. In the Bell Laboratories there is the converse of this machine, called a Vocoder. The loudspeaker is replaced by a microphone, which picks up sound. Speak to it, and the corresponding keys move. This may be one element of the postulated system.

The other element is found in the stenotype, that somewhat disconcerting device encountered usually at public meetings. A girl strokes its keys languidly and looks about the room and sometimes at the speaker with a disquieting gaze. From it emerges a typed strip which records in a phonetically simplified language a record of what the speaker is supposed to have said. Later this strip is retyped into ordinary language, for in its nascent form it is intelligible only to the initiated. Combine these two elements, let the Vocoder run the stenotype, and the result is a machine which types when talked to.

Our present languages are not especially adapted to this sort of mechanization, it is true. It is strange that the inventors of universal languages have not seized upon the idea of producing one which better fitted the technique for transmitting and recording speech. Mechanization may yet force the issue, especially in the scientific field; whereupon scientific jargon would become still less intelligible to the layman.

One can now picture a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments. Time is automatically recorded to tie the two records together. If he goes into the field, he may be connected by radio to his recorder. As he ponders over his notes in the evening, he again talks his comments into the record. His typed record, as well as his photographs, may both be in miniature, so that he projects them for examination.

“Vannevar Bush PhD ’16 served as America’s first presidential science advisor.” 

Much needs to occur, however, between the collection of data and observations, the extraction of parallel material from the existing record, and the final insertion of new material into the general body of the common record. For mature thought there is no mechanical substitute. But creative thought and essentially repetitive thought are very different things. For the latter there are, and may be, powerful mechanical aids.

Adding a column of figures is a repetitive thought process, and it was long ago properly relegated to the machine. True, the machine is sometimes controlled by the keyboard, and thought of a sort enters in reading the figures and poking the corresponding keys, but even this is avoidable. Machines have been made which will read typed figures by photocells and then depress the corresponding keys; these are combinations of photocells for scanning the type, electric circuits for sorting the consequent variations, and relay circuits for interpreting the result into the action of solenoids to pull the keys down.

All this complication is needed because of the clumsy way in which we have learned to write figures. If we recorded them positionally, simply by the configuration of a set of dots on a card, the automatic reading mechanism would become comparatively simple. In fact, if the dots are holes, we have the punched-card machine long ago produced by Hollorith for the purposes of the census, and now used throughout business. Some types of complex businesses could hardly operate without these machines.

Meccano differential analyzer in use at the Cambridge Mathematics Laboratory, 1938. Douglas Hartree visited Bush in his laboratory, and built it based upon Bush’s design.”

Adding is only one operation. To perform arithmetical computation involves also subtraction, multiplication, and division, and in addition some method for temporary storage of results, removal from storage for further manipulation, and recording of final results by printing. Machines for these purposes are now of two types: keyboard machines for accounting and the like, manually controlled for the insertion of data, and usually automatically controlled as far as the sequence of operations is concerned; and punched-card machines in which separate operations are usually delegated to a series of machines, and the cards then transferred bodily from one to another. Both forms are very useful; but as far as complex computations are concerned, both are still embryo.

Rapid electrical counting appeared soon after the physicists found it desirable to count cosmic rays. For their own purposes the physicists promptly constructed thermionic-tube equipment capable of counting electrical impulses at the rate of 100,000 a second. The advanced arithmetical machines of the future will be electrical in nature, and they will perform at 100 times present speeds, or more.

Moreover, they will be far more versatile than present commercial machines, so that they may readily be adapted for a wide variety of operations. They will be controlled by a control card or film, they will select their own data and manipulate it in accordance with the instructions thus inserted, they will perform complex arithmetical computations at exceedingly high speeds, and they will record results in such form as to be readily available for distribution or for later further manipulation. Such machines will have enormous appetites. One of them will take instructions and data from a roomful of girls armed with simple keyboard punches, and will deliver sheets of computed results every few minutes. There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things.

The repetitive processes of thought are not confined, however, to matters of arithmetic and statistics. In fact, every time one combines and records facts in accordance with established logical processes, the creative aspect of thinking is concerned only with the selection of the data and the process to be employed, and the manipulation thereafter is repetitive in nature and hence a fit matter to be relegated to the machines. Not so much has been done along these lines, beyond the bounds of arithmetic, as might be done, primarily because of the economics of the situation. The needs of business, and the extensive market obviously waiting, assured the advent of mass-produced arithmetical machines just as soon as production methods were sufficiently advanced.

With machines for advanced analysis no such situation existed; for there was and is no extensive market; the users of advanced methods of manipulating data are a very small part of the population. There are, however, machines for solving differential equations – and functional and integral equations, for that matter. There are many special machines, such as the harmonic synthesizer which predicts the tides. There will be many more, appearing certainly first in the hands of the scientist and in small numbers.

If scientific reasoning were limited to the logical processes of arithmetic, we should not get far in our understanding of the physical world. One might as well attempt to grasp the game of poker entirely by the use of the mathematics of probability. The abacus, with its beads strung on parallel wires, led the Arabs to positional numeration and the concept of zero many centuries before the rest of the world; and it was a useful tool – so useful that it still exists.

It is a far cry from the abacus to the modern keyboard accounting machine. It will be an equal step to the arithmetical machine of the future. But even this new machine will not take the scientist where he needs to go. Relief must be secured from laborious detailed manipulation of higher mathematics as well, if the users of it are to free their brains for something more than repetitive detailed transformations in accordance with established rules. A mathematician is not a man who can readily manipulate figures; often he cannot. He is not even a man who can readily perform the transformation of equations by the use of calculus. He is primarily an individual who is skilled in the use of symbolic logic on a high plane, and especially he is a man of intuitive judgment in the choice of the manipulative processes he employs.

All else he should be able to turn over to his mechanism, just as confidently as he turns over the propelling of his car to the intricate mechanism under the hood. Only then will mathematics be practically effective in bringing the growing knowledge of atomistics to the useful solution of the advanced problems of chemistry, metallurgy, and biology. For this reason there will come more machines to handle advanced mathematics for the scientist. Some of them will be sufficiently bizarre to suit the most fastidious connoisseur of the present artifacts of civilization.

The scientist, however, is not the only person who manipulates data and examines the world about him by the use of logical processes, although he sometimes preserves this appearance by adopting into the fold anyone who becomes logical, much in the manner in which a British labor leader is elevated to knighthood. Whenever logical processes of thought are employed – that is, whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove – there is an opportunity for the machine. Formal logic used to be a keen instrument in the hands of the teacher in his trying of students’ souls. It is readily possible to construct a machine which will manipulate premises in accordance with formal logic, simply by the clever use of relay circuits. Put a set of premises into such a device and turn the crank, and it will readily pass out conclusion after conclusion, all in accordance with logical law, and with no more slips than would be expected of a keyboard adding machine.

Logic can become enormously difficult, and it would undoubtedly be well to produce more assurance in its use. The machines for higher analysis have usually been equation solvers. Ideas are beginning to appear for equation transformers, which will rearrange the relationship expressed by an equation in accordance with strict and rather advanced logic. Progress is inhibited by the exceedingly crude way in which mathematicians express their relationships. They employ a symbolism which grew like Topsy and has little consistency; a strange fact in that most logical field.

A new symbolism, probably positional, must apparently precede the reduction of mathematical transformations to machine processes. Then, on beyond the strict logic of the mathematician, lies the application of logic in everyday affairs. We may some day click off arguments on a machine with the same assurance that we now enter sales on a cash register. But the machine of logic will not look like a cash register, even a streamlined model.

So much for the manipulation of ideas and their insertion into the record. Thus far we seem to be worse off than before – for we can enormously extend the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it. This is a much larger matter than merely the extraction of data for the purposes of scientific research; it involves the entire process by which man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge. The prime action of use is selection, and here we are halting indeed. There may be millions of fine thoughts, and the account of the experience on which they are based, all encased within stone walls of acceptable architectural form; but if the scholar can get at only one a week by diligent search, his syntheses are not likely to keep up with the current scene.

Selection, in this broad sense, is a stone adze in the hands of a cabinetmaker. Yet, in a narrow sense and in other areas, something has already been done mechanically on selection. The personnel officer of a factory drops a stack of a few thousand employee cards into a selecting machine, sets a code in accordance with an established convention, and produces in a short time a list of all employees who live in Trenton and know Spanish. Even such devices are much too slow when it comes, for example, to matching a set of fingerprints with one of five millions on file. Selection devices of this sort will soon be speeded up from their present rate of reviewing data at a few hundred a minute. By the use of photocells and microfilm they will survey items at the rate of thousands a second, and will print out duplicates of those selected.

“Vannevar Bush is shown with his differential analyzer, an analog electromechanical device that helped provide solutions to complex differential equations.”

This process, however, is simple selection: it proceeds by examining in turn every one of a large set of items, and by picking out those which have certain specified characteristics. There is another form of selection best illustrated by the automatic telephone exchange. You dial a number and the machine selects and connects just one of a million possible stations. It does not run over them all. It pays attention only to a class given by a first digit, and so on; and thus proceeds rapidly and almost unerringly to the selected station. It requires a few seconds to make the selection, although the process could be speeded up if increased speed were economically warranted. If necessary, it could be made extremely fast by substituting thermionic-tube switching for mechanical switching, so that the full selection could be made in one-hundredth of a second. No one would wish to spend the money necessary to make this change in the telephone system, but the general idea is applicable elsewhere.

Take the prosaic problem of the great department store. Every time a charge sale is made, there are a number of things to be done.. The inventory needs to be revised, the salesman needs to be given credit for the sale, the general accounts need an entry, and, most important, the customer needs to be charged. A central records device has been developed in which much of this work is done conveniently. The salesman places on a stand the customer’s identification card, his own card, and the card taken from the article sold – all punched cards. When he pulls a lever, contacts are made through the holes, machinery at a central point makes the necessary computations and entries, and the proper receipt is printed for the salesman to pass to the customer.

But there may be ten thousand charge customers doing business with the store, and before the full operation can be completed someone has to select the right card and insert it at the central office. Now rapid selection can slide just the proper card into position in an instant or two, and return it afterward. Another difficulty occurs, however. Someone must read a total on the card, so that the machine can add its computed item to it. Conceivably the cards might be of the dry photography type I have described. Existing totals could then be read by photocell, and the new total entered by an electron beam.

The cards may be in miniature, so that they occupy little space. They must move quickly. They need not be transferred far, but merely into position so that the photocell and recorder can operate on them. Positional dots can enter the data. At the end of the month a machine can readily be made to read these and to print an ordinary bill. With tube selection, in which no mechanical parts are involved in the switches, little time need be occupied in bringing the correct card into use – a second should suffice for the entire operation. The whole record on the card may be made by magnetic dots on a steel sheet if desired, instead of dots to be observed optically, following the scheme by which Poulsen long ago put speech on a magnetic wire. This method has the advantage of simplicity and ease of erasure. By using photography, however, one can arrange to project the record in enlarged form, and at a distance by using the process common in television equipment.

One can consider rapid selection of this form, and distant projection for other purposes. To be able to key one sheet of a million before an operator in a second or two, with the possibility of then adding notes thereto, is suggestive in many ways. It might even be of use in libraries, but that is another story. At any rate, there are now some interesting combinations possible. One might, for example, speak to a microphone, in the manner described in connection with the speech-controlled typewriter, and thus make his selections. It would certainly beat the usual file clerk.

“President Roosevelt’s letter to Vannevar Bush, written in 1944”

The real heart of the matter of selection, however, goes deeper than a lag in the adoption of mechanisms by libraries, or a lack of development of devices for their use. Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.

Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency. The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than by indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

In one end is the stored material. The matter of bulk is well taken care of by improved microfilm. Only a small part of the interior of the memex is devoted to storage, the rest to mechanism. Yet if the user inserted 5000 pages of material a day it would take him hundreds of years to fill the repository, so he can be profligate and enter material freely.

Most of the memex contents are purchased on microfilm ready for insertion. Books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers, are thus obtained and dropped into place. Business correspondence takes the same path. And there is provision for direct entry. On the top of the memex is a transparent platen. On this are placed longhand notes, photographs, memoranda, all sort of things. When one is in place, the depression of a lever causes it to be photographed onto the next blank space in a section of the memex film, dry photography being employed.

There is, of course, provision for consultation of the record by the usual scheme of indexing. If the user wishes to consult a certain book, he taps its code on the keyboard, and the title page of the book promptly appears before him, projected onto one of his viewing positions. Frequently-used codes are mnemonic, so that he seldom consults his code book; but when he does, a single tap of a key projects it for his use. Moreover, he has supplemental levers. On deflecting one of these levers to the right he runs through the book before him, each page in turn being projected at a speed which just allows a recognizing glance at each. If he deflects it further to the right, he steps through the book 10 pages at a time; still further at 100 pages at a time. Deflection to the left gives him the same control backwards.

A special button transfers him immediately to the first page of the index. Any given book of his library can thus be called up and consulted with far greater facility than if it were taken from a shelf. As he has several projection positions, he can leave one item in position while he calls up another. He can add marginal notes and comments, taking advantage of one possible type of dry photography, and it could even be arranged so that he can do this by a stylus scheme, such as is now employed in the telautograph seen in railroad waiting rooms, just as though he had the physical page before him.

All this is conventional, except for the projection forward of present-day mechanisms and gadgetry. It affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.

When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined. In each code space appears the code word. Out of view, but also in the code space, is inserted a set of dots for photocell viewing; and on each item these dots by their positions designate the index number of the other item.

Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space. Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outranged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by its patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior.

The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only at the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.

Thus science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race. It might be striking to outline the instrumentalities of the future more spectacularly, rather than to stick closely to the methods and elements now known and undergoing rapid development, as has been done here. Technical difficulties of all sorts have been ignored, certainly, but also ignored are means as yet unknown which may come any day to accelerate technical progress as violently as did the advent of the thermionic tube. In order that the picture may not be too commonplace, by reason of sticking to present-day patterns, it may be well to mention one such possibility, not to prophesy but merely to suggest, for prophecy based on extension of the known has substance, while prophecy founded on the unknown is only a doubly involved guess.

All our steps in creating or absorbing material of the record proceed through one of the senses – the tactile when we touch keys, the oral when we speak or listen, the visual when we read. Is it not possible that some day the path may be established more directly?

We know that when the eye sees, all the consequent information is transmitted to the brain by means of electrical vibrations in the channel of the optic nerve. This is an exact analogy with the electrical vibrations which occur in the cable of a television set: they convey the picture from the photocells which see it to the radio transmitter from which it is broadcast. We know further that if we can approach that cable with the proper instruments, we do not need to touch it; we can pick up those vibrations by electrical induction and thus discover and reproduce the scene which is being transmitted, just as a telephone wire may be tapped for its message.

The impulses which flow in the arm nerves of a typist convey to her fingers the translated information which reaches her eye or ear, in order that the fingers may be caused to strike the proper keys. Might not these currents be intercepted, either in the original form in which information is conveyed to the brain, or in the marvelously metamorphosed form in which they then proceed to the hand?

By bone conduction we already introduce sounds into the nerve channels of the deaf in order that they may hear. Is it not possible that we may learn to introduce them without the present cumbersomeness of first transforming electrical vibrations to mechanical ones, which the human mechanism promptly transforms back to the electrical form? With a couple of electrodes on the skull the encephalograph now produces pen-and-ink traces which bear some relation to the electrical phenomena going on in the brain itself. True, the record is unintelligible, except as it points out certain gross misfunctioning of the cerebral mechanism; but who would now place bounds on where such a thing may lead?

In the outside world, all forms of intelligence, whether of sound or sight, have been reduced to the form of varying currents in an electric circuit in order that they may be transmitted. Inside the human frame exactly the same sort of process occurs. Must we always transform to mechanical movements in order to proceed from one electrical phenomenon to another? It is a suggestive thought, but it hardly warrants prediction without losing touch with reality and immediateness.

Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his record more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursion may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.

The applications of science have built man a well-supplied house, and are teaching him to live healthily therein. They have enabled him to throw masses of people against another with cruel weapons. They may yet allow him truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience. He may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good. Yet, in the application of science to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome.”




Hacking capitalism: A nomadic hackbase is trying to usher in techno-utopia
by manisha  /  July 2

“Hacking is more than just ‘geeking out with computers. We see it as a determination to solve problems the non-typical way, ‘hacking through’ them,” says David, co-keeper of the hackbase Cyperhippietotalism (CHT). We’re sitting in Quinn’s pub in London, at the heart of Empire, discussing alternatives to soul-sucking nine to fives. “The other day, somebody asked me what a typical day looks like. I have no idea, do you have some sort of a routine where you wake up everyday and go to work?” he asks, much to my amusement.

Set up in 2011 in the island of Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Cyberhippietotalism or CHT describes itself as a “tactical post-capitalism research project, building hackbases (live-in hackerspaces) [as] free, sustainable lifestyle infrastructure”. What it offers is an integrated space for work and co-living, aiming to create a blueprint for self-sufficiency using open technology. The goal is to reduce dependence on money and trade, effectively facilitating a lack of dependence on capitalistic modes of production and the routine that comes with it. David describes his project in quasi-utopian terms: a space surrounded by ocean, providing greener infrastructure and free time to pursue “creative technological and art projects” at minimum cost.

“We are trying to survive and thrive in off-grid barren lands of Canarian deserts/mountains — working with architecture experimentation, new energy systems, water, communications, planning, as well as shopping, trying to grow food, working on our van, cooking, exploring. We document our processes, writing them down as strategies and tactics,” explains David. “I wanted to establish an autonomous network of spaces where you wouldn’t necessarily need to own or rent a place in order to move seamlessly from one hackbase to another in this self-organised autonomous network. I saw it as a lifestyle — this was the kind of life I was already living and wanted to expand on.” The hackbase, a term David claims to have coined, draws from the Roommate Anti-Pattern of the classical hackerspace design with additional nomadic live-in infrastructure. He explains that while hackerspaces are “hobbyist” places one goes to during breaks from a job, the hackbase aims to reinvent the basic life & work infrastructure by eliminating the separation between the two. “It’s important that I have the free time to do my struggle, and that the struggle doesn’t get hampered by the necessity to work, to labour in a capitalist system of exchange.”

There are currently 1317 active hackerspaces all over the globe, and 355 awaiting execution. CHT, however, was one of the earliest hackerspaces in Europe to provide live-in hackerspace infrastructure in an attempt to “deploy postcapitalism”. “Capitalism cannot work due to internal inconsistencies: both societal and ecological. In capitalism, the majority of the workers labour for their own subsistence; however, I believe advanced technology is ushering in the end of work. People who used to work in factories previously will now be redundant, causing job cuts and leaving them with no means to pay for basic food and shelter anymore,” he says.

In 1995, Jeremy Rifkin’s seminal work, The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era was published, addressing along the same lines, the impending worldwide unemployment with the growth in dependence on information technology and automation. Drawing on Marx’s hypothesis of the “last metamorphosis of labor” where “an automatic system of machinery” replaces humans in the economic process, Rifkin argues that, “technological innovations and market-directed forces [..] are moving us to the edge of a near workerless world”. He predicted the elimination of millions of blue-collar nine-to-five jobs in favour of automation in three developmental stages of the capitalist economy: agricultural, manufacturing and service sectors.

Similarly, in Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015), Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams identify the crisis in capitalism’s ability to provide employment to all. They argue that ‘there is a growing population of people that are situated outside formal, waged work, making do with minimal welfare benefits, informal subsistence work, or by illegal means’.

In recent decades, with job cuts resulting from austerity, the end of work due to automation has entered common parlance, much to the chagrin of Rifkin’s critics. A recent report by McKinsey found that existing technology was capable of automating 45% of activities people are paid to do. Since the 2000s, China has lost 2.4 million jobs due to automation, while in the US, 88% of the 5 million axed factory jobs have been to make way for the increased productivity of robots.

Last year, the UK has provided some of the most striking instances of this. Capita, a British company with an FTSE 100-listing, which collects the BBC licenses among other contracts, axed 2000 jobs, investing instead in automated technology for higher profits. Following suit, Foxconn, the supplier for Apple and Samsung, cut 60,000 jobs in favour of automation. Last December, Amazon announced the new automated check-out system, which will effectively eliminate employees from the purchasing process at stores.

But the industrial jobs, mostly assembly line processes, are tedious, and their elimination should be resulting in a shorter work week, not a job crisis. David Graeber, author of The Utopia of Rules, calls them “bullshit jobs”, explaining how technological advancement failed to free us from work. Currently writing his new book by the same title, Graeber defines it as a job “so completely pointless that even the person doing it won’t try to deny it, at least, if they’re absolutely sure their boss isn’t listening”. This presents a necessary counterpoint to the dystopia of advanced capitalism where robots displace the working class: “Seems to me if you want proof that a society’s economic organisation is completely irrational, it’s that it sees the prospect of unpleasant work being eliminated as a problem”.

At a seminar in London at the University of Westminster early this year, Nick Srnicek proposed four solutions towards the end of work to a sceptical audience: full automation; a reduced working week; universal basic income; and the end of the work ethic (where unwaged labour is valued less than waged labour). A reduced working week would mean less time spent commuting, and thus a greener option in the face of climate change. When Jeremy Corbyn (of the Labour party) announced four new bank holidays during his election campaign, Nick posted on Facebook: “It’s not a 4 day work week, but more free time is always a good policy.”

CHT is one response to this current crisis of labour under capitalism. “The project aims to build an environment that provides subsistence based on the double ideas of liberty,” says David, referring to Isaiah Berlin’s concept of positive universal liberty, and negative liberty i.e. liberty from external interference, here work under capitalism. “If we can get a system together where we don’t need money or have the need to participate in capitalist exchange, where we have the technology needed to work alongside people who inspire or with whom we can collaborate, then we’ve effectively won.”

The germination of the hackbase concept is influenced by cyber anarchist culture that surrounded the hacker scene in Slovenia during the turn of the century. Cyberpipe was an early European hackerspace set up by techno-libertarians in 2001 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where David had moved to study at university. “I briefly collaborated with them before starting this,” he says. “In Ljubljana, I had organised my flat-shares around this concept of sharing space and equipment- having a nice living room with servers, instruments and creating a semi-public place for people to come into, which naturally evolved into wanting to create a hackbase in around 2009.”

If the nine-to-five routine is absent, what is life in a hackbase like? David chooses not to define it. He says, perhaps romantically, “There is nothing like life in a hackbase. A hackbase is a place of struggle, of hope and optimism in the face of capitalism, a communal subsistence effort.” It is the blurring of margins between work and life, and the abundance of free time, that adds to its appeal, but life inside a hackbase is more structured than ‘normal’ life, he argues. “Your work has immediate ties to your current situation because you’re building tools to support yourself-in that moment personally, and in a universal, replicable way.”

The location in Lanzarote was chosen for strategic reasons: it offered a cost-effective rent plan in line with their initial capital; accessibility in terms of the major airport in Arrecife; and of course, the appeal of the place itself. “It’s much easier to say to somebody, come live and work with us in the Canary Islands,” he laughs.

The hackbase is set up for subseasons that last for a few months, and planned using their collaborative web platform . Generally nomadic in nature, each subseason operates as a temporary camp to experiment and explore the territory on the island. The first three subseasons were in a rented house on an island, but since 2014, they have been fully nomadic, experimenting with the camp infrastructure while trying to buy their own land.

However, in the absence of a subseason, the base has the collectively-owned infrastructure needed to set one up for those interested in visiting: this includes camping gear, diesel generator, solar, tools, network equipment, and more. A working map is curated by members to find and develop spaces on the island to inhabit. Among their latest acquisitions last year is a 1984 Volkswagen van for mobility to other islands in future subseasons. There is also a music studio in development.

CHT attempts to insulate itself from external control through self-funding. Each resident contributes €100 per week, which includes living costs, energy, tools for maintenance and investments in the base for the next subseason. “Hackbases have to be seen as a vehicle for providing subsistence, and the foundation to accomplish this. I reject the start-up vehicle as it’s not one that would give you the freedom needed to do important things,” says David. Over the past five years, over 150 individuals have stayed at and contributed to the base.

Their last subseason in January introduced an initiation process for newcomers with guidelines. However, since the base is “radically open”, there is no vetting involved. So what happens when you violate the rules? “Pain”, he says simply.“When you’re in the middle of the desert, there isn’t an option for somebody to not take care of water, food, power. We allocate responsibilities to ensure that each need is overseen. If a person shows up they need to be able to function in this kind of setup. For example, we get water from a mountainous area 10 km away- if the person in charge of this fails to ensure there is enough, then it will be both an impediment to the work we want to do and also potentially life threatening.” What provisions does this provide for the mentally ill to subsist in this setup, I ask. “That’s a big problem for us,” he admits, “because this is interesting in terms of who we get to the base, and we need to look at this better as a project and present this better for future subseasons.”

Their acquisitions however, point to the fact that they have yet to remove dependence on money. Their strategy to achieve that goal is through analysis and representation of their expenditures. “If you see CHT’s logo, it’s a pie-chart of our expenses. We look at what we have been historically spending money on- the big ones are rent, food, investments in the base. We see which is easiest to kill off and work towards it. We’ve minimised rent costs through nomadic camping. The next big expense is food so we’re following up on possibilities for that,” he says.

Since the current infrastructural resources needed for their work requires monetary investment, they have to remain open to money as a medium of exchange. “We don’t want to be completely closed off from the outside and make our own computers because it’s silly at this point. We won’t be completely self-sufficient right away so we proceed step by step. At this point, a lot of the stuff we need can be acquired through trade: that can be through money or favours. We minimise the stuff we buy and maximise on the stuff we can either produce ourselves or are able to obtain in non-capitalist exchanges.”

The need for reversing a capitalist system enticing skilled hackers with high-luxury (and high carbon footprint) lifestyles therefore seems central to their goal. However, David argues, “I reject the notion that we are just a fairer version of a system that is shittier to live in but nicer. We are trying to create a freer place to subsist and work: life in CHT is better because the weather is considerably better, you have five times more free time, a better lab, better social dynamics, and are creatively and intellectually more challenged.”

Over the past few years, however, there has been a significant growth in collectively-owned spaces for radical discourse and work. I ask him if the blueprint offered by CHT has been replicated. “Yes and no. Some projects take up parts of it but don’t share the political foundation that is central to what we do.” Their website curates a list of similar organisations, with an analysis of overlapping areas of differences. Among the ones he mentions is the Performing Arts Forum (PAF) in St Erme, France formed four years ago. “They bought a monastery for half a million euros, I think, and now it’s co-owned by a group of 30–40 people. They have better organisation and infrastructure than us. That being said, they charge 30 euros a day for rent and food, while we’re at 13 euros a day.”

It seemed absurd to be discussing the end of money, work and capitalism in London, which has a trade surplus of $100 billion, home simultaneously to 251 overseas banks and Generation Rent. David, however, is indignant, “We often hear, Oh you cannot escape capitalism. But capitalism is just a system that predominates the reality of most people. A person in London works for 8 hours a day and has almost no free time while at CHT we work for 10 hours a week.”

But the option of quitting jobs and switching to a hackbase lifestyle on the Canary Islands isn’t accessible to all, nor is the idea of ending all work realistic. Even Guy Debord, graffiting “Ne travaillez jamais” (Never work) on a Rue de Seine wall, was complaining by 1960, “I am overwhelmed with work”. Besides, the broader crisis of capitalism is also its inability to provide meaningful work to replace bullshit jobs taken over by automation. “We’ve compiled a list of ‘non-shitty’ jobs, to provide labour to relatively non-shitty clients and institutions that still pay money,” David offers, “And we’ve also set up a workers’ co-operative we’re looking to expand.” Despite being a work-in-progress, CHT’s organisational framework appears to be striving towards what had previously seemed to be an impossible goal: the gradual minimisation of capitalistic modes of subsistence. And it is because of this that it appears as one of the many urgent answers to a system in crisis.”


Homespun Financial Services Will Never Disappear
by Kim Wilson

“For decades, “formalization” has been the hue and cry of financial inclusionistas. A manifesto has emerged, blending fact, fiction, and wishful thinking into a declaration: formal services, supervised by regulators, are better bets for the world’s poor than informal services. What we should be reviewing is not whether the service is regulated but whether it is safe, legible, useful, fair, dignified, and familiar. Familiarity breeds contentment Let us start with familiarity, an element often under-rated by inclusionistas. As a person, rich or poor, you likely do what your family and friends do when it comes to money services. If they are using Western Union to transfer money, then you will use Western Union. If they are using hawala, so will you. If they are purchasing clothes from the local shop in installments, you will too. You want to make as few financial decisions as possible. Money management is intimidating, and thus fatiguing. You want to turn to sources you can trust, that are there for you when you need them, and that seem familiar. In finance, familiarity breeds contentment.

Speaking of family, let us take a look at Our Family Social Credit Union, with its 511 members in 22 states. If you deposit $5 along with a 25-cent handling fee, you can become a member – with one more condition: You must be part of the Cain family. Manley and Lucy Cain started the credit union in the 1950s. Today, family members find its services crucial and turn to Sue Cain, who manages OFSCU, when they need to borrow for a new car, prepare for a new baby, or fund college expenses. That this pool of family funds is state-regulated seems less important than members’ familiarity with the service and its procedures. We may already know about Rotating Savings and Loan Credit Associations (ROSCAs), distant cousins of the credit union, which are ubiquitous in some parts of the world. For instance, in Egypt, finding an adult who is not part of a gam’iya (the generic name for the local ROSCA) is a challenge. In Syria, I met rural Bedouins routinely saving $1, as well as urbanites saving $5,000 a month. Rich and poor, members in such clubs used the same formula – the rich using the gam’iya to fund purchases of second homes and the poor using it to buy sheep. Every member regularly put in the same amount of money and each meeting a different member took the money home. This went on until everyone had a turn. One paper indicates clear rejection of formal credit on religious grounds in favor of the gam’iya. The rich of course use formal credit and have various savings and investment accounts. These local clubs thrive in the US as well. Harvard Square thrums with the ROSCA system, with money in yellowed envelopes passing in and out of cab windows. Haitian taxi drivers use the Sol to save up for their children’s school or to buy a second cab. Logan airport booms with similar action: Ethiopian taxi drivers depend on their Iqub as a cash-lumping device.

But not all clubs of these kinds work in the same way. For instance, New Jersey, sub-clubs selfunify to form their Tanda, the generic name for a ROSCA in parts of Mexico. In this version, privacy is crucial. No single member of the Tanda knows the identity of all members. He or she only knows sub-club members. The manager works to protect the secrecy of its membership, and even she does not know the identity of many sub-club members. Accumulating savings clubs (ASCAs as we call them), where members borrow from pooled savings, flourish in other parts of the world. In villages in lower Assam, one of India’s northeastern states, individuals take part in multiple ASCAs, with households in one village belonging to an average of four such clubs. The ones I visited had formed as silk-weaving clubs. Members deposited weaving income into their Xonchois (their term for an ASCA). They then borrowed from their Xonchois to purchase musical instruments, each member owning and mastering a different one. Members performed at local ceremonies as a troupe, earning money as they did so. New income was churned back into the ASCA to upgrade musical instruments, to purchase weaving equipment and raw silk, or to fund important family events. The ASCA need not be confined to picturesque scenes of bamboo-rimmed ponds and rice paddies. The concept has gone cyber.

Take Puddle, which functions as an online ASCA. If you are on Facebook, you are eligible to join. Through Paypal or another payment service, you can deposit as little as $10. The rules of your club (who can borrow at what interest rate for which purpose) are determined by the Founder of each Puddle. If you don’t like the rules or the people in your Puddle, feel free to convene a new one. In just two months, Puddle has established 60 financial clubs with 300 members. Thus far, members have used funds to start a coffee business, purchase a bicycle, and buy furniture. But is folk banking – banking with neighbors and co-workers – really enough? Don’t people, however poor, want real bank accounts? Don’t they want to watch their savings grow without their neighbors leaning in and demanding a piece of the action? Don’t they want their interest to compound while they sleep, or to dip into an overdraft facility every now and then? Naturally, they would want a fairly priced home mortgage or a student loan. Yes, of course. Folk banking is not enough. Poor people want more but the More that gets served up to them is typically not better, however formal it may be. The More they get is often fee-laden, unfamiliar, or simply unsafe.

The 1999 Ugandan banking crisis wiped out smallholder savings. It was a formal system. The successive collapses of the Soviet and Russian banking systems fleeced depositors, leaving them unnerved by the memory and the prospect of vanished savings. Again, they were formal systems. How would you feel if you were a formal, low-income saver today in Ukraine? In Cyprus? A little nervous, I imagine. Even without formal sector collapses, the poor must often choose between high-priced formal credit or none at all. Banco Compartamos, dedicated to serving the poor and a member of the SMART Campaign (in which participating institutions pledge fair pricing), is famous for its APR well above 70%, and above 100% if tax is taken into account. With all its subsidies, Compartamos still does not bother to offer savings services. What kind of inclusion is this? It’s the kind that goes for the Achilles Heel of the poor – debt on your doorstep and in your face, offered at any price. That Compartamos is regulated probably does not matter to the millions of users gathered into its fold. That it seems slightly familiar – local in a groupish way – probably does.

Wild profiteering masked as “inclusion” aside, how does trust evolve within folk banking, mobile money, or regular banking? With savings, transfers and insurance, the user must believe that someone, some institution, or some system is controlling the underlying conditions of trust: Safety, usefulness, legibility, fairness, dignity, and familiarity. In a well-run financial system, these elements can be found 4 outside of the user’s immediate control. And if not found outside the user’s immediate control, the user reels them in closer to home: Into the local hawala, into the folk-banking cash box, or closer still, beneath the mattress. With credit, users are far more elastic in their demands. The service need not be so safe, useful, legible, fair, dignified, or familiar. It only needs to exist, at least up to some undefined threshold of abuse – an abuse of trust – at which point users fight back as they already have in India, Nicaragua and the United States; and as they might still in Chiapas. When faith in formal services crests, users refocus on the familiar safe-havens of the ROSCA, the neighbor with spare cash, and the mattress.”

ceremonial Fijian necklace made of sperm whale teeth

by D. Graham Burnett  / 2013

“Sperm whale teeth vary considerably in size and shape, but their characteristic form is a slightly flattened and bow-curved double-tapering cylinder not exceeding thirty centimeters in length—which is to say, they tend to look something like a fat banana. It’s not quite that simple, though, since many of the larger specimens display a thickening at the gum-embedded end that gives them more the appearance of a spade or wedge, and a conical indentation (a pocket known as the “pulp cavity”) is often seen at the base of the root. There are also almost always a few runty little hook teeth in the mouth of these whales (presumably to aid in grappling slippery squid, the primary prey of the world’s largest predator). Between forty and fifty of these sundry choppers are configured, well spaced, in two rows along the narrow lower jaw of a mature Physeter macrocephalus (in a full-grown animal that jaw may push fifteen feet in length). When the maw is closed, each tooth has its own pearly little sheath-pocket in the upper tissue of the mouth. This peculiar anatomical adaptation gives the palate of a gaping sperm whale the appearance of a giant pink cribbage board. The ivory pegs stand at attention in ranks below. We are talking here about actual teeth, composed of tree-like ring layers of the dense, calcareous material known as “dentine,” and then coated outside with a final finish of “cementum”—a hard connective tissue that functions like the enamel on our own pearlies (sperm whale teeth only show a little cap of enamel at the tip, and sometimes not even that). In addition to serving as the raw material for scrimshaw, New England’s most distinctive folk art tradition, sperm whale ivory was not infrequently used in the nineteenth century as a substrate for human dentures.

Elsewhere, however, the teeth of Physeter macrocephalus played other roles. Here is the Pacific adventurer William Lockerby—an intrepid beachcomber and man of fortune on the cannibal island of Fiji—scribbling in his journal on the 16th of May, 1809: “I went about ten miles up the river Embagaba to a village where I was told there was a large lot of Sandlewood [sic]; but the owners wanted a large whale’s tooth for it, and I had not one to give.” Lockerby’s text offers one of the earliest references to the use of sperm whale teeth in Fiji as tabua—valuable exchange items, currency-like in their capacity to store value, secure trade, and symbolize wealth. Were these tabua-teeth money? It turns out to be a philosophical question. But philosophy requires an armchair, and those were in short supply in that particular environment. The undernourished rapacity of tars-on-the-make militated against metaphysics. Even money-metaphysics. A calloused pragmatics of give-me-this (for-that/or-else/just-because) generally sufficed for their purposes. And so the many roughnecks working the archipelagoes of the Pacific in the China trade (pearls, bêche-de-mer, precious woods) and the boatloads of sailors dropping anchor for wood and water (and sometimes women) soon learned that one did well to bring along plenty of sperm whale teeth to Fiji, where, generally strung on a woven fiber strand, they seemed to function as the coin of the realm.

Under the proper circumstances, a single tooth could “buy” a canoe, for instance, or a large and tasty pig (welcome fare for scurvy jacks). The same teeth could be used for other purposes as well—as blood money paid in compensation for one of those unfortunate deaths that were all too common on the beaches of the Pacific; as a bride-price for the transactional alliances by intermarriage that often preceded, and sometimes followed, such violence. Given the number of whaling vessels plying the South Pacific for sperm whales in those years, there was no shortage of tabua changing hands across the surf at Rewa or Lakeba—effecting a brisk trade in the sundries of sun-struck life. Back in armchairs at the various colonial metropoleis, trickle-back accounts of the weird exchange systems at the margins of empire (cowrie shells, iron nails, red cloth, sperm whale teeth?) occasioned considerable, and not infrequently troubled, reflection on money—what it was, how it worked, and where it came from. It was one thing to comment condescendingly on the bizarre fact that Fijians seemed to treat a bit of cetaceous fang as more valuable than diamond, but quite another to begin to worry (goaded by the wry defamiliarizations of Karl Marx) that every Englishman was a fetish-worshiping primitive, beguiled by the smoke-and-mirror potency of the shilling, ever only a tinselly reflection/reification of his own sweat. Some distinctions were urgently in order.

The earliest efforts at a proper anthropology of money were born in this context. Some of these were little more than drawing room exercises, concerned primarily with colorful anecdoting as to the myriad exotic tokens of exchange in use among the savages (elk bones! wampum! mill stones!). But others worked hard, sifting experiences at the imperial periphery for clues about the kinds of creatures we are, and about the kinds of evolutionary/civilizational processes that had (presumably) led to the existence of something called an “economy”—a high-visibility and often distressing feature of life in Europe and America in the second half of the nineteenth century. Take, for instance, R. C. Temple’s 1899 lecture to the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, “Beginnings of Currency,” in which the ramrod-backed British superintendent of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands dutifully reported his painstaking fieldwork trying to figure out the value of every domestic artifact in his jurisdiction in terms of coconuts—a project that led to the striking discovery that an eighth-of-a-rupee coin was valued at sixteen nuts, and a one-rupee coin at merely a hundred nuts! But the mutton-chopped colonel did not snicker at his subalterns. He drilled down, asked questions. The origin of the discrepancy lay, he ultimately decided, in the fact that the smaller coins were used in the making of one kind of body adornment, and the larger ones in another—and that the former sort of necklace-thingy was preferred. Nothing irrational there, he decided, and, working from this case study and others, he went on to offer a set of criteria for distinguishing money proper (abstract, metrically divisible, portable, not in itself useful for anything other than serving as a medium of exchange and/or a token of value) from mere “currencies” (like salt or rice or, say, coconuts) that could be used as all-purpose commensurators of value, but were themselves, in situ, actually useful/necessary to life.

These marked, he argued, stages in the great upward marching parade of human development, which proceeded in the direction of greater abstraction. Debate followed (e.g., exactly how useless did something have to be to count as money? What about gold? What about an inedible chicken? etc.). The broad consensus to emerge from this imperial era of money-think affirmed, on the basis of empirical observation, the basic tenet of the early conjectural histories of economic life to be found in the writings of John Locke and others: namely, that money arose out of barter; that it was a technical innovation for streamlining the primordial business of “trade-you-my-fish-for-your-whatever.” Such primitive quid pro quo-ing could become difficult if the parties could not arrive at a workable deal in whole units of their tradables, and so it stood to reason that clever savages might settle on a commensuration of their respective goods in terms of some third good—some token-like doodad of widely recognized, and ideally more-or-less fixed, value. Voilà—the first step on the long march to a truly abstracted unit-value for everything.

Perhaps. But it was the exchange systems of the island Pacific—like tabua in Fiji and kula in the Trobriand Islands—that occasioned the deepest rethinking of this entrenched just-so story about the origins and nature of money. The Polish-born British-Austrian ethnographer Bronislaw Malinowski, marooned in Melanesia during World War I, studied the circulation of necklaces and armbands among the native populations of a small archipelago northeast of Papua New Guinea. What rules, principles, “prices” governed these exchanges? Nothing that could map comfortably onto the impersonalized abstraction of a “market” for “goods.” There was too much weirdness in it. Not enough tractable quid pro quo. On the contrary, this was an exchange system manifestly preoccupied with persons, status, and obligations. The real coin of the realm was, in a way, invisible—and it was political (and social) power. In the interwar period, the French sociologist Marcel Mauss elaborated a searching account of such “gift economies” in his celebrated 1924 essay The Gift (1924), where he explicitly discussed “Fijian money, cachelot teeth,” and said that this currency, like Trobri and kula items, needed to be understood as inextricably rooted in cultures of endlessly reciprocal giving—a perpetual, precisely judged, community-constituting pageant of respect, deference, ambivalence (and even contempt), all effected by means of thing-gestures.

In light of such ethnographies, a rethink of money itself was in order. Rather than the ur-story lying in truck and haggle, perhaps it lay here, in these tokens of esteem—which had been, over time and across the beach, repurposed as mere units of stuff-exchange. The barter story of the origin of money had met an alternative in the gift story. And there were interesting political implications. After all, the barter version of things implied a primordial state in which you and I had already agreed that this was yours and this was mine. Barter starts there. With things, with private property. Money is simply the symbolization and streamlining of this fact—its efficient and functional elaboration in actual social practices. The gift story, by contrast, starts from relationships—yours to me and mine to you. The things (the tokens, the teeth, the coins) come in as a way of working out and articulating who was who, to whom. It is a fetching notion, sympathetic to the minds of socialists, romantics, and left-leaning social scientists. But it has been a hard sell across most of the last century. Capitalism and its savvy theorists have tended to put the stuff first.

Back to the sperm whale teeth. Were they money or not? They could certainly have that feel to a sandalwood trader trying to acquire a lucrative cargo of the fragrant lumber. But it didn’t take long before even those most nuts-and-bolts anthropologists noticed all kinds of un-money-like attributes of the local currency. You couldn’t quite count on your ivories to do what you thought they would do under all circumstances. That troubling randomizer of human behavior—meaning—seemed to inhere in the teeth, and generate various bizarre misunderstandings and conditions. There seemed surfeits of signification in the things—excess powers and unpredictable deficiencies. For instance, while it was clear that some teeth (the larger, older, amber-hued specimens) received special attention (occupying pride of place in family treasuries and occasioning tenderly solicitous polishing), it did not follow, as one might expect, that such noble tabua traded hands at a consistent premium. Rather, for the preponderance of occasions in which the presentation of a tooth was required by custom (the building of a house, a diplomatic envoy, the death of an elder), it appeared that any tooth would do. Moreover, the “market” in teeth often behaved in what appeared a most irrational fashion. How could it be that a tooth acquired for less than one pound sterling in town could, a short distance away, secure a monster porker that would retail locally for ten? Where were the arbitrageurs?

Wrote one sage old missionary, after a résumé of the un-moneylike attributes of a sperm whale tooth in Fiji: “Thus we must infer that, while it is used as a means of barter or exchange, it is evidently something more.” Indeed. And once one began really paying attention (or perhaps merely lying awake at night), the things began turning up in situations that had about them the air of ritual, of augury, of the sorts of heathenish extravagance (clapping, singing, strangling wives) that trouble missionaries no end. Stories were told of executions and ransoms, of pagan rites and dark deeds. Jesus’s quick wit concerning the legitimacy of Roman taxation—picking up a coin, and indicating the head-side, he encouraged his followers to “render unto Caesar” what was obviously his, since it had his picture on it—had from the outset given Christians a very useful (if not uncontested) way of managing the roiling god-power of money. But a Fijian missionary, confronting a tabua, could hardly brush it off with such a glib injunction. The teeth had no face, for starters. And though they were used in some contractual exchanges with the structures of colonial governance, this fragile Caesarish-ness of the tooth did not really solve the problem, since these were hardly mere taxes or salaries—in the tabua inhered stubbornly an air of paganish meaning, which queerly contaminated each act of payment, whether civil duty or market transaction.

All of which pressed the core questions: How might this powerful money-meaning-thing be properly de/re-mystified in such a way as to create an appropriate space for both commercial and spiritual development? How to sequester and sublate—relegate to the past—its improper potencies and implications, while preserving the proper measure of its measure-value as a currency? How might that necessary, beloved, civilizing process of abstraction be hastened, such that the natives might come to see their tabua as mere tokens of value, interconvertible with sterling, francs, dollars, and jars of Marmite at fixed rates? For a wonderfully weird period reconnoitering of this difficult territory, one can hardly do better than to pick up a weathered copy of The Strange Adventures of a Whale’s Tooth (1919), authored by the Fijian old hand and Methodist pastor Reverend Wallace Deane, MA, BD. In fourteen lively chapters, the good reverend sketches a fantastic, sentimental, and picaresque Bildungsroman that lovingly details a sperm whale tooth’s gradual achievement of proper self-knowledge across nearly a century of social upheaval and cross-cultural encounter in eastern Melanesia. And this tale unfolds from the point of view of the tooth itself. Call it an anticipatory plagiarism of object-oriented ontology, a kind of Vibrant Matter novelization of savage money. In 1991, the archaeologist and Fijian specialist Nicholas Thomas published an important book entitled Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific. It deals with  tabua at some length. It is a bit dry. If that volume had been rewritten by the addled lovechild of Ian Bogost and Rudyard Kipling, you would haveThe Strange Adventures of a Whale’s Tooth.

We meet our first-person hero in the depths of the cold southern ocean, still in the mouth of his whale, for whom he expresses the greatest admiration and nostalgic affection (“When the whales were splashing, he would splash the farthest; when they were spouting, he would spout the highest. In the races he would invariably be first, and when he dived, he outdistanced all the rest”). This sort of showmanship gets his host killed off the coast of New Zealand, and our tooth is pried from his “warm couch” to enter the human world as the shared property (one is struck by this) of a pair of sailors named Bill and Dan. These gentlemen subsequently pass their prize to a fearsome Fijian in a paradigmatically fraught shipside exchange, receiving two canoes full of yams and some shell trinkets for their sweethearts back in port. Reincarnated as a tabua, our poor tooth (whose native character from the outset displays some of the shine, pride, and winsome naiveté of a gifted English schoolboy) finds himself quite promptly deployed as the purchase price of a cannibal assassination, and must look on as the victims he has unwittingly purchased are grilled up for a satanic feast. (“The new powers vested in me were grievous indeed to be borne. Had I consulted my own wishes, it is certain that I should not have chosen my present existence.”)

Acceptance of a tooth binds a chief to the request
being made with the tooth 

Over the remaining chapters, the reader threads the overlapping economies of Fiji from the wide-eyed perspective of a circulating unit of cultural/spiritual/material value, even as each of those domains is transformed through colonialism, Christianity, and capitalism. He serves, in turn, as a peace offering, a nuptial consideration, and the touchstone for a religious conversion. He is buried with a chief, and (note the symbolism here) is subsequently brought back to light and life after his time in the sepulcher—whereupon he discovers Christian worship abroad in the land, and charming plantations. He spends some time hanging on the wall of a devoted missionary, where he can enjoy the untroubled status of a curio, deliciously unburdened of his exigent service as a token of extravagant meanings and volatile values. Along the way, changing hands, coming to know himself through the gestures and gymnastics of those among whom he circulates, our tooth develops a strikingly accommodating and capacious worldview. The pluck and jingoism subside, to a substantial degree, and the tooth allows himself some generously cosmopolitan, if still somewhat condescending, reflections on humans and things. He becomes, in effect, a worldly philosopher. (“My readers will pardon me if I indulge in a little dry talk. I must confess to a weakness in that direction, though a whale’s tooth is not supposed to know anything of hard thinking.”)

A member of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces presents a Tabua to Indian Prime Minister Modi during his official welcoming ceremony in November 2014

Tabua still circulate in Fiji. And anthropologists still write about them, tracing how they are regulated by international law bearing on the products of endangered species, or noting how they move across racial and ethnic lines, and stack up in the pawn shops owned by Fijians of South Asian origin. I have one myself, but its strange adventures—what I paid for it, where, and how—belong to another tale. Money, wrote Marx, “makes impossibilities fraternize.” Every money story would bear this out. In this, it has been observed, money resembles nothing so much as language, which is similarly promiscuous, flashing, eclectic, enamored with incongruities. Both pander. Both effect mad juxtapositions. Both string everything together. Both move on suddenly, seemingly without ever having touched that which they momentarily held so tight. Both possess that bewitching capacity to feel at one moment like everything, and at another moment like nothing at all.”