The bar code next time
Two years ago the FT ran a big series called 'The Future of Capitalism'. Now its running a series of articles under the more apocalyptic rubric of 'Capitalism in Crisis'. Since Christmas there have been more or less weighty contributions by a series of more or less substantial contributors including such FT regulars as Phillip Stevens, Andrew Hill and Martin Wolf, with guest spots by the great and the good including such luminaries as Ed Miliband, Jeffrey Sachs, and Bill Clinton. There must be 25 or 30 articles in the series.
The contributors don't plough any specific party line. However, the basic assumption is that capitalism is a good thing but that it's working very badly. So the FT's 27th December editorial is entitled: 'Capitalism is dead; long live capitalism'. Pretty common ground is that the banking system is in crisis and isn't under effective control, and then there's a fiscal crisis on top of that both in Europe and the US. Whether the Eurozone will or will not survive intact is unclear. Again it is noted that with mass unemployment, income differentials in many of the Western economies at an historic high, and growing regional imbalances, the credibility and the legitimacy of the market are under political threat in a way not seen since the 1930s. The big difference being that in the 1930s socialism offered a credible alternative (albeit not one favoured by the FT) whereas now what the big alternative story might be is simply unclear. And that being the case, the FT thinks - in some ways surprisingly radically, and in some ways not - that capitalism needs fairly serious root and branch reforms. (See, for instance, Martin Wolf in today's FT, 23rd January).
All of this makes for heavy reading. No doubt justifiably. If there is panic on the economic and financial bridge then the FT needs to reflect - and reflect on - what might be done before we all go down. It is, after all, the trade journal for the financial equivalents of Captain Francesco Schettino. At the same time some measure of light relief is afforded by the visuals that go with the series. These take the form of versions of the ubiquitous bar code. So we have the globe with a series of graphs-turned-bar code lines which point to the rise of the East and the fall of the West. We have a melting bar coded Stars and Stripes (this is about American voters losing trust, though I can't post it here - the system only copes with six graphics). We've got a bar code in the form of a ballot box ('The financial sysem is still sickly. So now is politics'). There's a green and humanised set of bar codes over an article on John Lewis and mutual ownership. Most apocalyptic, at least so far, there's a set of collapsing barcodes that seem to stand for the fire next time. And then, finally, there's the generic 'Crisis in Capitalism' barcode with its broken and crumpled bars to the right.
I don't know much about finance and I know even less about bar-codes. (I'm afraid I haven't done the work to research them). Perhaps someone can tell us whether those appearing in the paper actually read for something other than nonsense. (The figures 998671145200 appear several times, but you can see them in the visuals). But from my state of ignorance I am struck by the design. It's interesting. It's variably striking. It's more or less appealing. And clearly it can be played with more or less endlessly. At the same time we also need help from someone who knows their cultural studies to think this well. If the barcode is a symbol of standardisation, then it is being reshaped in non-standard ways in these visualisations. Lines on a graph, stars and stripes, ballot-boxes, these are being linked to the standard, but they don't fit either. Why is the central figure in the John Lewis bar code a symbolic women with men on either side? Not to mention the fire next time. Then again, and speaking of the fire next time, why is it that the fire is on the left rather than the right? What's the charge being carried here? Is it left-right political (in which case look at the generic capitalism in crisis bar code just below it which tells the opposite story) or are we being inserted in a time sequence? If Martin Wolf's 'seven ways to fix the system's flaws' are adopted are we to understand that the future will be made of order and regularity? Is that the implicit take-home message?
I don't want to go over the top and make a lot out of not very much, though I would be interested in thoughts and responses. No doubt the iconography here is lighthearted. So let me end similarly. When I tried to buy the FT last Friday at Lancaster railway station (there's only one copy, you have to get there early) the bar code wouldn't scan. Lifting the paper the salesperson looked at the screwed up barcode. 'They've made a right mess of that', she said. Yes, I thought, quite so. An excellent diagnosis of the current predicament.