40 Years on, the Barcode Has Turned Everything Into Information
BY MARCUS WOHLSEN
When Alan Haberman came to San Francisco to upend the global economy—which in the end he did—he wasn't seeking venture capitalists or software engineers. This was the early 1970s, when a computer in every home was still just Steve Jobs' teenage dream. Anyway, Haberman wasn't a geek. He was a grocer.
According to his New York Times obituary, this mid-level supermarket executive needed to convince some fellow respectable businessmen to follow his lead. Haberman wanted grocery stores to embrace the 12-digit Universal Product Code—better known as the barcode—to create a standardized system for tracking inventory and speeding checkout. He took his fellow execs to a nice dinner. Then, as was the fashion at the time, they went to see Deep Throat. And they liked Haberman's idea, these guys with wide lapels who changed the business of how Americans bought food—a change that over the past 40 years has come to mean so much more.
On June 26, 1974, at 8:01 a.m., Sharon Buchanan used a barcode to ring up a 10-pack of Juicy Fruit at the Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. A tectonic shift in the underlying economics of trade in tangible, physical goods of all kinds soon followed. Today, we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of this decisive moment — a moment whose universal impact can be seen in just how banal scanning a barcode has become.
Alan Haberman. GS1 US
ON JUNE 26, 1974, AT 8:01 A.M., SHARON BUCHANAN RANG UP A 10-PACK OF JUICY FRUIT AT THE MARSH SUPERMARKET IN TROY, OHIO
Without the barcode, FedEx couldn't guarantee overnight delivery. The just-in-time supply chain logistics that allow Walmart to keep prices low would not exist, and neither would big-box stores. Toyota's revolutionary kanban manufacturing system depends on barcodes. From boarding passes to hospital patients, rental cars to nuclear waste, barcodes have reduced friction like few other technologies in the world's slide toward globalization.
But putting barcodes on chocolate bars and instant oatmeal did more than revolutionize the economy, or the size of grocery stores. Thanks to bar codes, stuff was no longer just stuff. After a thing gets a barcode, that thing is no longer just itself. That thing now comes wrapped in a layer of information hovering just beyond sight in the digital ether. The thing becomes itself plus its data points, not just a physical object unto itself but tagged as a node in a global network of things. Barcodes serve up the augmented reality of the everyday, where everything can be cross-referenced with everything else, and everything has a number.
Haberman himself knew barcodes meant more than just a better way to manage supermarket inventory. He saw linguistics. He saw metaphysics. He also understood that those deeper abstract meanings held the key to barcodes' radical practicality. "Go back to Genesis and read about the Creation," Haberman once told The Boston Globe. "God says, 'I will call the night "night"; I will call the heavens "heaven."' Naming was important. Then the Tower of Babel came along and messed everything up. In effect, the U.P.C. has put everything back into one language, a kind of Esperanto, that works for everyone."
In the mid-19th century, California's railroad barons drove a golden spike through the preeminence of local trade. For most of the time humans have existed, what the average person could have depended almost entirely on where that person lived. The Transcontinental Railroad created the first physical network to break the consumer economy free from the constraints of location. Unglamorous folks like Haberman built an information network to overlay that physical network with an information network, midwifing the birth of a truly global economy in which technology gained final dominance over geography.
That loss of rootedness is what dystopianists see when they hold up the bar code as a talisman of cultural decay. When everything has a number, can our own commodification be far behind? What happens to individuality when we all become a function of our own data? A barcode tattoo has become a visual cliché, standard signifier of alienation. At the same time, nearly all babies born today in U.S. hospitals get barcode bracelets as soon as they're swaddled.
WHEN EVERYTHING HAS A NUMBER, CAN OUR OWN COMMODIFICATION BE FAR BEHIND? WHAT HAPPENS TO INDIVIDUALITY WHEN WE ALL BECOME A FUNCTION OF OUR OWN DATA?
But for better or worse, the history of civilization is in many ways a history of taking inventory. Writing emerged out of the clay tablet ledgers of ancient Babylon. Phoenician sailors invented numbers as we know them to keep track of cargo.
In 1949, grad school dropout Joe Woodland drew Morse code dots and dashes on a Florida beach, then drew vertical lines down from each character to tease out the first prototype of the modern barcode. Less than a century later, the physical world teems with metadata just waiting for a smartphone to reveal its "presence." Even today's barcodes themselves aren't limited to information about an object's price, owner or location, but can convey instructions to a 3-D printer to create the object itself. That pack of Juicy Fruit that Haberman helped send past the cash register is now in the Smithsonian. Perhaps the next pack of gum to enter the museum's collection will be the one the food fabricator on your counter made for you when you pulled its barcode from an iPhone app and waved it past the scanner in your kitchen.
Barcodes did not merely speed up economic processes but opened up new spaces of economic possibilities, entirely new configurations that indeed changed the world of business but also the cultural and physical landscapes we all share. This simple technology accelerated the pace of globalization, not just by increasing the speed at which trade could take place but also by enabling entire industries to take on new shapes, to inhabit new forms. The evolution of the bar code has expanded the global economy's capacity to evolve.
Metadata is becoming a ubiquitous feature of the physical world, a kind of second nature that will seem as natural to children born today as a video chat on a touchscreen tablet. Sheeted in this second skin of information, we ourselves are already in the process of inheriting and embodying the legacy of the barcode, sending the species spiraling into the new spaces of evolutionary possibility.