The bar-code is an icon. Inspiring in its aesthetics and the strength of its underlying values. It is functional representation of data in striking visual form. The bar-code stands for many things. One of which may be human subservience to the machine.
Signs and symbols and signifiers are deeply human. Laurent Alexandre and Jean-Michael Besnier write in their published debate titled, ‘Do Robots Make Love?’, that our signs and symbols are a way of entering into dialogue with each other but also of detaching ourselves from the physical environment we inhabit. They allow us to step away from the mechanisms we produce. And one of the things that sets us apart from animals and robots is that we are beings that actually control and create signs – not act as mere vehicles for them.
Many things can become a sign or a symbol or an icon. The graphic representations of computer programs, brands, wayfinding and instruction are well known to us all. And a human being – or part of a human – even an action or a gesture made by a human – can become iconic too. The extended middle finger is as iconic as Jesus Christ. So too the V created with the index and middle fingers spread apart – that unbreakable counterculture symbolism for peace. And the raised clenched fist an immutable offer of support and solidarity – of resistance and revolution.
Whether code, graphic element, organic being or act – an icon is as an immediately recognisable and unwavering representation of set of values. And whilst our control of them may set us apart from the animals we have decided to position below us – that type of cosy and comforting differentiation may actually vanish where robots are concerned.
It is possible that – when Alexandre and Besnier created safe distance between us and machines – they neglected the fact that machines create bar-codes and realistically, only machines can read them. The bar-code is indeed a dialogue to be entered into – just as our human made signs and symbols and signifiers are – but it is not a dialogue we can understand or contribute. It represents something that is not human. And not perceivable by humans. Without a translation – provided by the machine – the bar-code’s dialogue exists beyond the realm of our understanding. Our relationship with the bar-code is one where we seem to be the ‘mere vehicle’.
And we follow its instruction without question. Daily. We are highly leveraged to the barcode’s dialogue and our relationship with it. Everything has a bar-code on it. I spat one out the other day – for example – biting into an apple without looking. The barcode is a ubiquitous and ever-present representation of human subservience to the machine. Which we ignore. Because the idea of it cuts to our core. And hints at a possible future too terrifying to imagine.
In his book titled, ‘You Are Not A Gadget’, Jaron Lanier tells us the type of data the bar-code represents now has more rights than people. In the scramble to gratify our insatiable appetite for new technology and its conveniences we have unwittingly – in Lanier’s words – “turned our world into some stupid giant information system” which we are “just components of”. We are human peripherals. “Reduced and demeaned”. And we have ourselves a new religion and a new submission. Technology has become God (Aitken, 2019).
Kneel before the bar-code – the principal symbolic representation of the new faith.
When working on magazine covers designer Chris Ashworth would always leave the bar-code placement till last. And once the cover type and copy was set and he had all the visual elements ready to go he would just fling the bar-code on and simply , “leave it where it landed”. A small act of rebellion. Against authority and convention. And we could potentially add tech’s overwhelming rule.
One of Jaron Lanier’s concerns is that, “if we don’t create some special zone for humans when designing [and integrating] technology we will end up dehumanising the world”. We haven’t focussed on that space for a long time.
May the crooked ⎮ disfigured ⎮ defaced bar-code become the new middle finger. And the machine remain powerless against our expression of contempt for its unreadable messages. May the crooked ⎮ disfigured ⎮ defaced bar-code become the new icon of resistance. Born amidst a rising contemporary tension fuelled by the injustice of dehumanisation. May it become the new clenched fist.
Fuck the machine.
1. Alexandre, L. & Besnier, JM. 2018. Do Robots Make Love? From AI to Immortality. Octopus Publishing Group.
2. Lanier, J. 2011. You Are Not A Gadget. Penguin Books.
3. Aitken, Phil. Useful Tasks, 5 September – 15 September 2018, Project Gallery, Brisbane.
4. Ashworth, C. 2019. Embracing Randomness & Imperfection in Graphic Design & Typography. Interview with Chris Do, The Futur. 8th March.
Alexandre & Besnier, 2018; Lanier, 2011; Ashworth, 2019
210mm x 297mm (A4 portrait)
02⎮ 06 ⎮ 2020