Baby’s First ATM

So yesterday my wife, son, and I ventured for the first time into Kids-R-Us, home of the well-behaved toddler, destination of choice for the stark raving mad parent. Our visit deserves a separate post of its own (suffice it to say that it ended with the purchase of 100 plastic balls, each the size of a grapefruit), but what really needs to be said is this: why does a child need a play ATM machine?

Here you see an image (Larger Image) of what the proud parent ahead of me in the checkout line bought their little girl: the YOUniverse ATM toy, complete with a plastic ATM card, an alphanumeric keypad, a functioning screen, a slot that accepts bills, and Baby’s first PIN number. WTF? Seriously, a PIN number.

It’s true that many toys are nothing but thinly disguised training tools, preparing our children for the drudgery of adult labor–play kitchens, play vacuums, play tools–but I think the play banking machine is a different beast altogether.

The machine takes for granted an idea that I will go to my deathbed resisting: that our electronic lives–our database selves composed of PINs, account numbers, credit records, virtually every transaction of our day-to-day lives, stored and aggregated in corporate datawarehouses–are essentially our whole identity.

Without that PIN, we’re nothing.

I am reminded of a scene in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, in which our hero Jack Gladney visits an ATM machine:

In the morning I walked to the bank. I went to the automatic teller machine to check my balance. I inserted my card, entered my secret code, tapped out my request. The figure on the screen roughly corresponded to my independent estimate, feebly arrived at after long searches through documents, tormented arithmetic. Waves of relief and gratitude flowed over me. The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval….What a pleasing interaction. I sensed that something of deep personal value, but not money, not that at all, had been authenticated and confirmed. (White Noise 46)

Written over twenty years ago, this passage still seems fresh–if only we stop to think about it. Automatic Teller Machines have become such a part of our daily life that we forget. “Automatic” now describes us as much as it does the machines themselves.

DeLillo continues, “the system was invisible, which made it all the more impressive, all the more disquieting to deal with.” I think Baby’s First ATM functions as an innoculation to the more disquieting, unsettling aspects of our second, database selves. It’s not a conscious effort by the banking industry, of course (I am not that conspiracy minded). Rather, I think it’s the absurd, logical extension of the reduction of our lives to sets of data owned by corporations.

They Rule: Mapping the Power

Lately I’ve been exploring They Rule, an interactive database of the largest American corporations and their interwoven boards of directors. The site is an example of what creator Josh On (from the Futurefarmers collective) calls “database visualization.”

They Rule opens with these words:

They sit on boards of the largest companies in America
Many sit on government committees
They make decisions that affect our lives
They rule

Quite simply, the site allows you to map connections between various corporations, using members of their boards as nodes, or relay points. It’s Six Degrees of Separation for multinational corporations. One popular map, for example, documents the connections between Halliburton and major media outlets. Aylwin B. Lewis, we find, is on Halliburton’s board of directors and Disney’s board too. Meanwhile William R. Howell sits on the boards of Halliburton and Pfizer. On Pfizer’s board is William H. Gray, III, who in turn is also on Viacom’s board. There is a direct line, then, from a war-profiteering energy conglomerate to the owner of MTV and CBS news.

They Rule makes no claim that there is a grand cabal among Halliburton directors, controlling the mass media. There is no conspiracy here. Nonetheless, it is unsettling to see so much corporate power concentrated in the hands of so few individuals. It seems that above the daily lives of most Americans there is a free-floating network of corporate entities and wealthy individuals to which we have no access. They, in turn, have little accountability to us. Their chief loyalties are to each other.

Another revealing map is Why Citicorp Really Rules, which shows a diverse group of banks, government institutions, media outlets, and consumer retailers, at the center of which is Citigroup, the world’s largest bank. (Not far behind is JP Morgan Chase and Bank One, who will soon be merging into one bank.)

The best part of They Rule is that you or I can create and save our own database visualizations for others to see. That is, we can archive these connections, print the maps, or email them to others. Some of these user-created maps can be truly informative, like the maps I refer to above. Others can be misleading, such Time Warner Has Their Hands in Everything. This map shows how members of Time Warner’s board also sit on the boards of companies like Dell, Chevron, or FedEx. This much is true, of course. What is misleading is the map’s title. Time Warner the company doesn’t have its hands in everything. Its people do. It’s essential to remember that behind every faceless corporate entity there are people. This is at once discouraging and liberating. Discouraging, because you begin to realize that there exists a class of people who seem untouchable, a world unto themselves, making decisions based on bottom lines rather than less tangible motivations, like dignity and sustainability. Liberating, because you begin to realize that power, whenever it is held by mortals, is fluid and transformable. There is space for resistance whenever humans are involved.

They Rule is one front of this resistance.

Mergers and Acquisitions

The recently proposed merger between JP Morgan Chase and Bank One has got me thinking about the ways that multinational corporations work. Never forget that these two “banks” are really corporations — meaning that their primary concern is, always, to make more money. And, ironically, to make more money at any cost. The cost, unfortunately, is almost always measured in human lives. Who can forget the 1995 Chase Manhattan memo recommending that the Mexican government “eliminate the Zapatistas” rebels in Chiapas in order to secure foreign investments? Who can forget? Apparently most everyone.

Multinational banks are not the only corporations that keep the balance sheet of bodies hidden from view. Indeed, we almost expect it from banks. But from a record label? The phenomenal indie band Godspeed You Black Emperor! offers a homemade diagram (full-size diagram) on their website that details how major defense contractors have holdings in record labels like Time Warner, Sony, and BMG:


So in addition to Britney Spears albums, this network of companies produces bombs, missiles, and fighter jets. These corporations form a node that GYBE! calls “Yanqui U.X.O.” — a phrase which is not so difficult to understand once you know the language. UXO is a military term which means “unexploded ordnance.” In other words — a bomb waiting to go off. And Yanqui is Yankee, seen (and spelled) from the colonized’s point of view.

These corporations deal in real violence, but there is also a kind of metaphysical violence going on in the way that their interconnectivity and culpability is obscured. Britney’s smash CD comes out on a Jive Records label. Jive Records is owned by BMG. BMG in turn is connected to the Franco-Belgian oil giant TotalFinaElf. And TotalFinaElf owns Hutchinson Worldwide, a company that makes, through its subsidiary Barry Controls, essential avionic and missile components for the defense industry.

I am reminded of a scene in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Somebody asks the serial killer/Wall Street bigshot Patrick Bateman what he does for a living. She thinks she hears him say “mergers and acquisitions.” Which makes sense, because he does work for an investment firm. What he really says, and what she chooses not to hear is this: “murders and executions.”