The Barcode is the Hallmark of Today's World



'Contemporary Marksism at the checkout: The secret history of barcodes' Columbus´ Blindness and Other Essays Cassandra Pybus (ed.) University of Queensland Press (1994)

I am not an animal, I am 7F7E5184E

Until recently, zoo keepers have found it almost impossible to distinguish between individual otters. Tattoos are useless because of their thick hair and dark skin. And ear tags are often torn off in fights. Today, the records officer for the Melbourne Zoo simply holds a scanner a few inches away from an anonymous otter and triggers a ripple of identification: the scanner reads a unique ten digit number (like a barcode) inscribed on a chip inserted in the otter's shoulder; the number is relayed to the zoo's computer which is then able to retrieve information about the individual otter's breeding, health, provenance, etc; this number is recorded in a databank of all `chipped' animals at Central Animal Registry in Springvale South; and the information system used by this registry is supported by the Captive Breeding Specialist Group (part of the World Conservation Union). The otter slithers back into the water, its presence now recorded in these expanding rings of registration.

This little scene of animal record keeping is one of a multitude of scans that maintain today's global net of information management. The net is growing -- how far will it go? In film culture, the future looks decidedly sinister. It has now become a convention in futuristic scenarios like the planet gulag in Alien 3 that humans are identified by barcodes tattooed on their skin. The barcode might now seem like an harmless mark on your carton of milk, but the expansion of its uses -- video library cards, mail sorting -- suggests that it might be the beginning of a not so brave world, a world where machine scanning has replaced human consciousness. It's time we humans gave this matter some consideration.

Marking culture

What are we considering? At first glance, the object of our concern seems trivial: the little marks printed on items whose circulation is regulated. Marks by themselves are minor things: postage stamps, signatures, price tags, etc. But the explosion of this new mark, the barcode, into so many features of our daily exchange, requires that we take seriously the nature of our marking culture. The challenge is to make the barcode more than just a binary pox that must inevitably disfigure the objects supporting our lifestyles.

A marking culture consists of two main features: the form of the mark and the process of reading. Traditionally, marks have been designed to be read by humans. Today, this is not the case: the barcode has little to offer the human eye. So what does the machine see in the barcode? How have marks traditionally been shown to the human eye? How might humans, in their turn, relate to the barcode?

Keepers of the Touch

The business of making a mark on an object to distinguish its identity has a venerable history. Late medieval Europe had its own version of the barcode: the hallmark.

In fourteenth century England, the increased trade with Europe introduced into the markets gold and silver objects whose alloys often differed from the local standards. Given the significance of such objects as reserves of capital, it became important to establish a means of identifying the proportion of precious metal in jewellery and cutlery. Henry III ordered the mayor and aldermen of London to choose six of the most `discreet' goldsmiths to superintend their craft. In 1363, each master goldsmith was required to have his own mark stamped on his wares so that they may be traced to their source. In the halls, persons appointed as Keepers of the Touch assayed the gold and silver items to measure their alloy before stamping them with the mark of the hall. The standard for silver was the Sterling (925 parts silver per 1,000) and that for gold was the Touch of Paris (19 2 carats).

Today, the amount of gold you possess is not such a mark of personal wealth as it was in medieval Europe. Nonetheless, hallmarking is still practiced in the craft of gold and silversmithing. In fact, Australia has recently gained its own hallmark with the establishment in 1988 of the Australian Gold and Silversmiths Guild. The primary purpose of this guild is not to provide the consumer with a guarantee of alloy, but to form an association of workers in precious metal who could reinforce shared standards of craftsmanship. The stamp of the guild -- a kangaroo's head -- therefore demonstrates the recommendation of the maker by this guild.

A member of the guild uses four stamps with the same language as the traditional practice of hallmarking: maker's mark, standard mark, assay office mark and date mark.

<Australian Guild stamps>

These marks tell you who made the object, how much precious metal it contains, the body which is responsible for the maker's reliability and the year in which the object was made. These are all practical and useful items of information. What we are interested in is the form in which this information is presented and how it is read by humans.

The hallmark depicts the head of an animal. Animals such as lions and kangaroos are herd animals, yet the hallmarks individualise them and take their heads from their bodies. That's the way of Western individualism: take the individual away from the group and split the mind from the body.

<leopard's head and kangaroo head>

To a Western eye, the hallmark reads as a symbol of individual responsibility. As such, it's designed to make us trust that the object is of legitimate value. It's for human eyes only -- not so the barcode.

What the barcode tells machines

Barcoding was instituted in the 1960s, about six hundred years after hallmarking. Unlike its predecessor, the barcode does not have a direct role in consumer protection -- its primary function is to monitor the circulation of objects. It governs the travel of objects within shops, libraries, airports and car assembly plants. Typically, the barcode facilitates the pairing of entry and exit operations so that individual items can be tracked by a central computer. This registry provides a data bank on which global operations can be performed that accumulate gross figures, order new supplies, trace overdue items, etc.

At first glance, barcodes appear to be for machine eyes only. Unlike hallmarks, their design has no artistic or conceptual meaning. The only compromise for the human eye is the series of numbers often reproduced under the bar pattern. The bars themselves are designed more for the human hand than the eye. As they are read with a horizontal swipe, their vertical height is merely a range within which the human hand is expected to travel. What the machine eye sees through this swipe is a series of short and long periods of light or darkness. These flashes are registered as a binary code which is then re-constructed according to a symbology based on information theory. So what does a barcode actually have to say for itself?

The symbology employed in Australia is the European Article Number (EAN) which divides the barcode into a number of sections. Let's look at the barcode for a litre of milk:

93 10232 13301 0

a. quiet zone

b. guard pattern (101)

c. country (93 = Australia)

d. manufacturer (five digits assigned by the Australian Product Numbering Association that identify the supplier; 10232 = Pura Milk)

e. centre guard pattern (01010)

f. individual item (five digits allocated by supplier; 13301 for the litre container of milk))

g. check digit (for parity checking)

h. guard pattern (101)

i. quiet zone

The guard patterns are necessary to deal with the variable speed with which the barcode might be swiped. To cancel this human variability, three guard patterns -- two at each end and one in the middle -- are included to separate the different sections of information. These sections correspond roughly to a name such as `McInnes, Susan'. The first two digits signify country (`Mc' = Scotland), the second five, the company name (`Innes' = family) and the last five, the individual product (`Susan' = specific person). Despite the alien look of the barcode, its symbology actually lends itself to a human naming system.

So the form of the barcode is dictated purely for a machine eye. The limit of an individual's involvement with the barcode is simply to hold the object in front of a scanner and swipe the code. The only human meaning is the symbology buried within the code. But given the prevalence of the barcode in our daily lives, does it have anything at all to offer the human eye?

It is to artists that we might look to the way humans have responded to this visual blight on the world. Think of how Geoffrey Smart's paintings of bleak industrial estates have transformed what was wasteland into a thing of formal beauty. So what can artists do to make the barcode mean something to the human eye?

Beauty is in the eye of the scanner

Juan Davila is an Australia painter who attempts to keep alive the transgressive nature of artistic work. The banning of some of his paintings is testimony to the success of his work. A series of his works has featured a barcode in the corner where one might expect an artist's signature. The mystery attached to the mark of the individual artist is now demeaned by the cold industrial presence of the barcode. Through the barcode, Davila reveals the emptiness of artistic authority. The barcode appears to say: `OK, you've scanned the signature, that's all you need to do, now you can go onto the next painting.'

<Juan Davila, e.g, `Retablo' ANG)

The younger Melbourne artist, Anna Nervegna, produces work which reduces the authority of the artist's production to the status of a item on the supermarket shelf. Her barcode paintings were appropriately shown in the `Supermart' exhibition at Blaxland Galleries, Myer Department Store in May 1992. Nervegna's `paintings' have an wooden inset with frame over which is painted a standard barcode pattern. Five genres are titled: `Trompe l'Oeil'; `Still Life'; `Nude' and `Landscape'. They are finally `shrink-packed' and placed on the supermarket shelf. Each work has the same title: `Stroke of Genius'. The homogeneity of the barcode and the title are designed to reduce the authority of the artistic gesture. As such, their message is limited to humans: the reading which a scanner would make of `Stroke of Genius' is at the best a literal one.

<Anne Nervegna's `Stroke of Genius'>

These various uses the barcode have the ostensible purpose of gaining distance from the myth of the artist as hero. They are negative moments that operate with playful disrespect rather than open new possibilities.

There are two reasons why this particular artistic use of the barcode is short-term. First, its strategy is to remove the aura of mystery attached to artistic production: once that is done, and a work of art finds itself on the shelf next to the detergents, there will be nothing left to (un)do. Second, the effect of this use is based on the relative novelty of the barcode in contemporary life. Once the barcode is as familiar as a doorhandle, then such art is likely to disappear.

There are a series of alternative barcode art forms which have not appeared. Take for example the hybrid of hallmark and barcode: the barmark. The printing of barcodes is quite sensitive: a change of more than 0.01 inch will effect the scanning. It serves as a challenge to an engraver to be able to make a pattern that could be read by a barcode scanner. If not already, there is sure to emerge a gold or silversmith who choses a barcode as his or her stamp. The proliferating machine mark may thus be confined within the dimensions of a finite human exactitude.

But given the lack of any obvious positive representation of the barcode in art, we turn to other forms within contemporary marking culture. The most contemporary version of the hallmark is the stamp of approval from the Australian Standards Association (you'll find it somewhere on your hot water service). Until 1988, the Standardsmark took the form of an inverted triangle within which were arranged economically the capitals of the institution (ASA). But this has been changed. What has taken its place? -- a rectangular box with a vertical series of five ticks.

<old and new standardsmarks>

When asked about the reasons for this change, Standards Australia commented that the ticks signify approval and the logo as a whole was designed to be `easy on the eye'. The number five had no official significance. Certainly this mark is neater, but why the tick?

Just a tick

What about this as a hypothesis? The tick is for humans what the barcode is for machines. The tick is a human attempt to keep up with the introduction of the barcode into marking culture. The new Standardsmark, according to this hypothesis, is more or less a barcode for a human audience. Both contain a digital logic: the tick is a human mark that registers the most rudimentary binary response. The modern phrase, `I'll give that a mental tick...' indicates the way human thinking can be modelled on the `visual capture' of computer scanners. This hypothesis might seem a little strange at the moment, but let's run with it to see what shows up. Where else do you find ticks these days?

Almost everywhere, in advertising at least. Supermarkets, car yards, bank loans -- the tick has become a salute of affirmation directed at the consumer. And beyond this, it has become a political symbol of the well-being of society. Your container of margarine has with the barcode its human companion: the tick of the Health Foundation. Similar to the Standardsmark, VicHealth shows itself as a series of ticks -- three ticks are arranged horizontally. The logo was described by VicHealth as a `visual design for a positive health approach'. The tick itself was symbolic of an affirmative attitude, but again, the number of ticks had no significance.

<VicHealth logo>

But more generally, the tick conjures a gathering together of different peoples. The OPDU (Operator's Decorators and Painters Union) recently campaigned for amalgamation with the CFMEU (Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union) with a poster showing its members wearing ticks on their t-shirts; their slogan was `strength in numbers'. Having identified its presence, we should now consider how this domesticated barcode fits into marking culture?

<poster shot for OPDU amalgamation campaign>

The tick functions as both a visual device and a human gesture. Have you witnessed the intense participation of children during their first lesson in the art of the tick (the short downward stroke followed by the unbounded kick upwards, defying gravity, like a spring depressed and then let free)? But as adults, it is also a very contemporary gesture, the consumer salute. In television advertising, the `O what a feeling!' jump for Toyota vehicles has the human body take the shape of an ecstatic tick.

<image of Toyota advertisement>

The Mexican wave shows the crowd to itself as a moving wave of bodies bouncing up from their seats -- a cascade of ticks movements. But at a more everyday level, the tick is a gesture made thousands of times a day by the operator of the supermarket check-out, each time an item is placed before the laser scanning device.

It's possible to imagine today some underground writer hammering out a manifesto of the present, using the tick as the symbol of the end of history. Indeed, the tick is the salute of a virtual democracy: its the last remaining gesture of individual participation in government -- tick the correct box to determine your future government.

  • The hallmark is read by the human eye
  • The barcode is scanned by the machine eye
  • The tick is the human gesture of a barcoded world

We can only imagine the future course of marking culture. Since the implication of the barcode is that it changes the human response from reading a mark to swiping a code, it is perhaps the gesture of the `swipe' which in fact may be the focus of future activity.

Looking into the future of looking

In May 1992, an installation titled `Bristling with information' (or `The hairs are all numbered') was shown in Melbourne's Myer shop window. A supermarket scanner connected to a computer read barcodes that were swiped by viewers over the window. A random access video disc player changed the pace and theme of the images on television screens according to the structure of the particular barcode used. The mystery of the barcode meant that it was impossible for the viewer to foresee the effect of their barcode. In the words of one its creators, Paul Minifie, the barcode became a form of `perturbation' in the round of images. The private dialogue between barcode and computer was used as a source of surprise.

But what next? Might the art gallery of the future be one which dispenses entirely with the act of looking. Imagine a guild of painters which authorises the work of its members with individual barcodes that register the materials, size, title and ownership of each work. Scanners are supplied to gallery patrons who register the paintings seen in their own personal file at a central registry. The reception of the work in the patron's eye will be irrelevant. The taste of the patron is construed purely from a record of their gallery itinerary.

Nothing lasts forever, particularly in advertising. Once this wave of ticks has subsided, what might be the enduring response to this intrusion of the machine eye onto our world? It's too convenient to get rid of. But something's sure to happen -- watch this box.

This article has been written as part of a project grant for the Visual Arts/Craft Board of the Australia Council.