Fluid Objects: Reconfiguring Money and the Limits of Actor-Network Theory

by Felix Stalder
A paper given at the Sociality/Materiality conference, Brunel University, UK, Sept. 9-11, 1999

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In this paper I want to analyze an object following Bruno Latour's rules of thumb. He advises us to look to the state of social relations when a new and inexplicable type of objects enters the collective" and alternatively, to "look for nonhumans when the emergence of a social feature is inexplicable" (Latour 1999, p.209). After sketching the network of humans and artifacts that make up my object, I want go one step further and assess how to make use of such a network topology in a full fledged analysis of the object world.

But first, let's look at the object. A few weeks ago, on the 26th of August, this object [image one: the new Mondex card] appeared in the Carrefour de l'Estrie shopping mall in Sherbrooke, a medium-sized Canadian town about one hour south of Montreal. The first sign of this thing's appearance, however, was not as the card itself, but as a street sign, La Rue Mondex, leading the way to the object proper. Unveiling this street sign was part of the official launch of Mondex, a smart card based technology aspiring to be electronic cash. The street sign leads to an object that looks almost like this one [image two: the old Mondex card]. However, this particular object disappeared a few months ago from the streets of Guelph, another medium-sized Canadian town, this one located one hour west of Toronto.

What kind of object is that, heralded in a francophone town as the future of money, while in a anglophone town just a few hundred kilometers to the west it represents the past of money?

Looking around in the Carrefour de l'Estrie shopping mall the first thing we see is that the arrival of this object comes as no surprise. Although it is heralded as a big novelty. It has been anticipated in a lot of places. During the last couple of months, employees of the various financial institutions already supporting Mondex have been walking up and down Main Street. Their job has been to enroll all kinds of actors in the network towards which the street sign points. So far, 600 individual merchants have been convinced to lend their hands to the card, but also a number of ATMs, municipal busses and even parking meters have all been refitted to welcome this new object. It is the active support of all of these actors, and many more, which transform a piece of barely usable technology into multi-functional money. After all, money is simply what people, and parking meters, accept as money. Although it's not easy to make them accept it. Many attempts to create e-cash have already failed.

In order for the mobilization of busses and the parking meters to succeed, the local municipality had to be convinced that letting their mechanical delegates join the Mondex world would be useful for them. The prospect of cost savings won the administrators over.

Each node, each human and non-human actor, must be fitted carefully into the network. Technically, it functions as a closed circulatory system. Only authorized cards can accept Mondex value. The party receiving money, a parking meter or a clerk at the register in the shopping mall must be appropriately equipped as well as the one dispensing money. For money to circulate, an intricate capillary system must be put in place which must not be interrupted or opened at any moment. The nodes in this system are pieces of technology such as cards, transmitters, readers, phones, ATMs, parking meters etc. Each of those nodes has any number of human beings associated with it: the card holder, the clerks in stores and banks, the public servant collecting the money from the parking meters and freeing the slots from the occasional piece of chewing gum that someone puts there thus interrupting the flow through the system. Each node, furthermore, has a complex legal framework which defines the relationship among humans and non-humans. New socio-technical networks keep lawyers busy.

While the transformation of electronic impulses into money is made locally through every completed transaction in the shopping mall, the better part of the actions happens a few hundred kilometers away in Toronto. Here on the day of the launch, Sherbrooke is present as a virtual tour to be taken in a downtown hotel. This incorporation of one locale into the other reflects the relationship between the two. Seen from Toronto, the real life event is little more than an somewhat artificial field test. In Toronto, the network that is announced on the street sign in the shopping mall, is a set of offices in a banking high-rise.

This office complex is a joint venture of the leading financial institutions which pooled their resources a few years ago to establish what can now be seen in Sherbrooke. The tiny real life network is of such vital interest is for Toronto because another network which has been established more than two years before in Guelph just broke down. Various crucial actors did not perform according to their assigned roles. People didn't want to become users, instead they became skeptics. Even open hostility broke out on the university campus where activists had been warning potential users of what they saw as the hidden properties of the chip.

The activists in Guelph had a difficult time mobilizing nonhuman support for their claim that the chips was an actor in a dubious scheme set up by self-serving banks. Some computer scientist, on the other hand, had the necessary resources to mobilize the chip itself to substantiate their claim that this chip was an unreliable actor. In a laboratory the in Netherlands, the black box of the chip suddenly sprang open and revealed what it was supposed to conceal. The code was cracked. This made banks in New Zealand nervous. They wrote up a memo which became an important actor in a drama played in Canada. Here a civil rights group, The Electronic Frontier Canada, published the memo on a web site and got threatened with a copyright infringement suit.

Under the strain of a unruly actors, most importantly users and merchants unwilling to play their roles, members in the Toronto-based consortium began to doubt their own commitment to the network. The institutional core of the Mondex network in Canada was beginning to disintegrate. Not entirely, but enough to interrupt the flow of resources necessary to maintain the fragile associations in the streets of Guelph. The project was deemed too expensive and terminated. Yet, at the same time enrollment in the Mondex networks was gaining momentum in Sherbrooke. The crucial difference was made by a brand new actor which promised to change the overall character of the network.

The new actor that reinvigorated the dwindling institutional relationships in Toronto was a new operating system (OS) for smart cards, developed here in London. The new system allows multiple applications to run from one smart card. Hence it opens the circle of actors that can be included into the Mondex world. To achieve this, the carefully constructed black box of the all in one Mondex card had to be opened and divided into three individual actors that could develop along different paths [image three: schema of a chip with a MULTOS OS on it]. Each of the new actors was now able to provide more connection points for additional actors to be enrolled into the network.

The new operating system has emerged as an individual actor relatively recently in an attempt to broaden the number of entities that can enter the Mondex world. The consortium which is now devoted exclusively to this actor's cultivation was spun-off less than two years ago from another London-based consortium: Mondex International. This is the logic center of the network which tries to control two of the most fragile actors in the network: the card technology and its brand name.

The network sketch provided so far is not complete, important actors such as hackers, competing chips and so-called end users have only appeared most briefly and others such as government agencies and privacy advocates not at all. But it's enough to see the outlines of a very flexible geometry of an heterogeneous network that spans multiple continents and roughly a decade of work to assemble it. This entire network is now being squeezed between potential user and the parking meter in order to entice the user not to drop a dime put to push in a card. But why and with what effect?

Arriving at this point, the usefulness of a descriptive tool, or as Bruno Latour calls it, a "recording device" (Latour 1997) such as Actor-Network Theory, begins to be exhausted. No matter how closely we trace the actors, if tracing is all we do, the we will end up with the somewhat dire view provided by theories of chaos, evolution or self-organization: the factors may be contingent, the effect of their interaction, however, is assumed to be mechanically determined by their configuration. This is not enough. If we want to retain a critical perspective, we will have to introduce some colour into the circulatory system we have just traced and see which elements of the network respond to it. What indicator might be appropriate cannot be deduced from the network itself. It needs to be decided by the analyst in relation to the question he or she wants to answer. The goal of the analysis cannot be to merely account of for all actors, particularly since it's so difficult to determine what exactly ALL actors are, but must be to offer a reading that privileges certain connections over others by assessing their importance. But importance is always relative in regard to something and this something is shown by the indicator colour. ANT's a priori that society is ontologically flat is an excellent starting point, but a weak ending of the analysis.

Let's introduce some colour, say, in form of the question of question of trust, and see how it is distributed throughout the system. Trust, as a rough working definition, is a belief in something that cannot be proven. Which social actors know what about the system and what are the technical actors necessary to gain that knowledge? Now a more textured landscape emerges. Trust is located with one set of social actors, the public, who basically have to believe what they are told about the network. Only very weak actors to verify the statements are at their disposal, for example, card reader to check the balance on the card. An other set of actors, the financial institutions issuing Mondex, assumes no trusts whatsoever. Issuers have an arsenal of technologies at hand with which they can check the state of the network independent of any other actors' claims about it, for example through data-gathering procedures, statistical samplings, software upgrades etc.

In order to create a network through which electronic impulses can flow from a user to a parking meter somewhere in Sherbrooke, Que. provided there is no chewing-gum sticking in the slot certain aspects of the network must be securely locked away into the vaults of Mondex International here in London. For the money to flow directly form one card to another it is paramount that its circulatory system is completely closed, that no-one can insert any money. To keep it closed, certain actors, most importantly encryption techniques and chip configuration, must act in secret. Of the entire network, only one set of actors is visible, while other are carefully black boxed. The network is made opaque. These black-boxed actors are, as always, an assembly of humans and non-humans, technicians who undergo security screenings, computer algorithms which cannot be published and so on.

This topology hardwired into the chips and maintained through the routine transaction on the card. It is too early to say if this topology is stable or not.

There is no necessary connection between tracing the heterogeneous relationships in the actor-network created and mobilized around Mondex electronic cash and highlighting the relationships which define the distribution of trust. While the first part of the analysis requires to follow the actors, to record all kinds of relationships among them, the second step of the analysis requires an evaluation of the traces. The best metaphor I could find for this is the tracer fluid used in medical analysis. Depending on which aspects of the circulatory system are of interest, different types of tracer fluid are used. This fluid to not make up the circulatory system through which it flows, but it augments our vision on the system and enables us to read and interpret its condition. Which types relationships need to be highlighted cannot be deduced from the object of study. It's not obvious from cells isolated under a microscope that we should look for traces of cancer. However, the proper preparation of the object is crucial so that the indicator fluid can flow through the capillary system that is not destroyed by arbitrary cuts. In this preparation excels an approach like Actor-Network Theory. The colour, however, is still missing. The question then becomes: is Actor-Network Theory a sufficiently neutral instrument to prepare for an innovative interpretation and what kind of tools can be used on top, or after, Actor-Network Theory?

Latour, Bruno (1999). Pandora's Hope. Essays on the Reality of Science Studies.Cambridge, MA, London, UK: Harvard University Press
Latour, Bruno (1997). On Actor-Network Theory: A few Clarifications. available at: http://www.keele.ac.uk/depts/stt/stt/ant/latour.htm

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