A praxeological history of the credit card

Sebastian Gießmann

Towards a Media History of the Credit Card

PDF, 20 Seiten

The paper sketches out a praxeological history of the credit card, with an emphasis on its mediating qualities. Temporal borrowing via credit card is regarded as a highly dynamic neighborhood technology that produces emergent topologies through distributed mobile payments. The formative years of the American credit card (1950–1975) are analyzed along with approaches from ethnomethodology (Harold Garfinkel) and actor network theory (Michel Callon). Cooperative media practices are key to understanding the relation between a neighborhood technology and its social networks, including (1) Dining, traveling, and charging, (2) Accounting for trust and credit, (3) Mass mailing and advertising new ways of payment, (4) Building “co-opetitive” platforms for networks and (5), the digital momentum of credit cards.


It is a rather easy task to picture “giving credit” as an everyday neighborhood social practice. “Could I borrow something?” might be easier to respond to in a cooperative way than “Can I get a temporary loan?”. Nonetheless, it is hard not to help someone who is living close to you. It is a bit harder to imagine that credit cards have been a neighborhood technology right from the beginning, though. But the small plastic machines have been and remain tied to local territories and sites of exchange, even in a highly globalized sphere of digital transactions. Credit cards are a highly mobile medium of cooperation, yet their enabling infrastructural architectures – be they organizational or technical – develop by user interaction, national markets and in correspondence to the legal system. Within the history of credit and debit cards, a rather remarkable transformation of proximity and distance took place in its mediated neighborhoods. This article attempts to trace them.1

My contribution therefore has a rather humble target – following the media practices that have made the American credit card an essential part of our digitized media culture. Rather than taking today’s Visa, American Express, and Master Card networks for granted I am going to return to the initial stages that turned “paying with plastic”2 into an everyday practice. The list of practices is by no means going to be complete, but it attempts to integrate what ethnomethodologists have understood as “reflexivity” of everyday actions. Rather than understanding acts of payment as a routine operation that is becoming a somewhat tacit action, ethnomethodology would insist that even the most common situations rely on a reflexivity of the actors, which is intelligible by their accounts of “what is going on while it is going on.” Actions have to be made accountable through indexical expressions in every interactional setting, as Harold Garfinkel has shown in his seminal works.3 One of Garfinkel’s methodological interventions was his artful method of listing everyday practices. This should not be understood as a merely arbitrary textual device. Rather, it provides a good way of reorientating media history towards the interactional und situational production of all kinds of media. So out of a possibly endless Garfinkelian list of practices, the following are questioned regarding the “accountability” of credit cards: (1) Dining, traveling, and charging, (2) Accounting for trust and credit, (3) Mass mailing and advertising new ways of payment, (4) Building “co-opetitive” platforms for networks and (5) the digital momentum of credit cards.

Listing the interactional practices of credit card usage does not artificially separate their indivisible meshwork. Rather, credit cards “in action” create dynamic topologies that push the payment infrastructures with their necessarily bureaucratic regimes to their boundaries. They establish a “mediality of proximity,”4 in which your account is following you to wherever a credit sign might appear. These practices evolved mostly between 1950 and 1975, although some of them like the “charge-a-plates” have a longer history, as they were already used by oil companies and department stores before World War II. On another note, this article is not going to dig deeper into the world history of credit, capitalism and its media (yet). Nonetheless, Fernand Braudel’s works on the longue durée of economic practices as operational chains form an epistemological background here, as well as recent ethnological approaches like David Graeber’s work on debt and value, and Michael Mann’s analysis on the sources of social power.5

There is a remarkable amount of literature available on historical aspects of the credit card, but its status as a now seemingly older social and bureaucratic medium of accountability and its pioneering digital infrastructures certainly deserves more attention. So far, David L. Stearn’s excellent study of VISA’s computational system’s building has been one of the few books to move into that direction.6 The following four steps “in the footprints of practices” shall add further to this approach and address how these practices relate to payment and credit platforms.

As we shall see, those platforms have developed into a prime mover of dynamic social networks. They even create their own statistical and predictive tools of “social mathematics,” most notably through the scoring of creditworthiness by relating geocode, social stratification data, and personal payment practices. Payment and credit platforms are media neighborhoods in themselves, yet they evolve out of mobile local and regional practices of payment, both on the interactional and organizational level. For the individual, credit cards were marketed as a portable object of trust, giving national and global access to a bank account and thereby mimicking the situation of owing money in a concrete social neighborhood. Yet they also established a new, paradoxical form of organizational proximity between competing banks: They had to work cooperatively together, shaping an interoperational extended neighborhood of debt and payment. Economics has found a neologism for this new mode of capitalism by calling it “co-opetition,” thus describing a mix of cooperation and competition. I will come back to this notion later on.

1. Dining, traveling, and charging

In every good American tale of entrepreneurship there is at least one hero, and an initial magical scene of invention has to be told. So it does not come as a surprise that the story of Diners Card as a New York neighborhood technology has been told as an anecdote ever since the 1950s. By now, we know that Frank MacNamara did not conceive of the idea while lacking the cash (or the wallet) to pay for his business dinner at Manhattan-based Major’s Cabin Grill in 1949. He did not call his wife by telephone to bring in the money, either. The concept rather came up as an everyday idea that MacNamara wanted to put to a test, together with Ralph Schneider as his business partner. In the end, that lovely New York story has proven to be a quite successful PR device that Matty Simons, the first press agent of the firm, has popularized.7 The idea itself was not particularly new, as multiple narrations of Diners Club’s inception have emphasized. But it managed to combine elements that had not been unified before.8

Customer cards had been around before World War II, and big department stores, oil companies, hotel franchises and airlines used them to attract and bind customers: “Following the war, a number of large retailers joined together to form cooperative card operations similar to those begun in the 1930s. In 1948, a number of major New York department stores, including Bloomingdale’s, Arnold Constable, Franklin Simon, Gimbel’s, and Saks, began a charga-plate group; the standard charga-plates they mailed to their customers were usable at any of the cooperating stores.”9

Interestingly, MacNamara’s and Schneider’s attempt to create a Diners Club did not come in the form of a metal “charge-a-plate” but as a small booklet with a business card style “card” on top that would inform about the places of acceptance.10 The entrepreneurs also approached selected potential customers directly, mailing unsolicited cards to “several thousand prominent businessmen with a letter revealing its wonders.”11 MacNamara, Schneider, and Simmons managed to sign up 42,000 cardholders in the first year of operation. Their customers were all willing to pay $18 for the privilege of paying with their Diners Club “card”. The company managed to establish what is now called a multisided platform market,12 starting off with fourteen New York restaurants which had become 330 U.S. restaurants, hotels and nightclubs at Diners Club’s first anniversary.13 Besides the annual member fee, it generated its revenue from the 7% average fee that the owners of those restaurants, hotels and nightclubs had to pay as their part of the bill.

Using credit cards by establishing them as a Travel & Entertainment (T&E) novelty certainly was a success story of the 1950s. It quickly caught the attraction of other contenders. Mostly, they were not able to repeat what Diners Club had managed to do. There was a whole number of unsuccessful attempts to install charge and credit programs in banking throughout the 1950s and 60s, e.g. the Chase Manhattan Charge Plan (CMCP).14 And we should symmetrically name some more credit card ventures, many forgotten, some merged with Diners Club, and a few others on their way to a further economic revolution: National Credit Card, Inc. (1951), First National Bank of San Jose (1953), Trip-Charge (1955), Universal Travelcard (American Hotel Association, 1956), Esquire (1957), Duncan Hines (1957), Gourmet Magazine (1950s), Bank of America (California, 1958), American Express (1958), and Carte Blanche (by Hilton, 1958).15 Only Bank of America’s own Bank Americard, American Express and – partly – Carte Blanche were going to surpass Diners Club in a second wave in the 1960s. A swift computerization of information processing was an important part of this development, as we shall see. And, until as late as the 1980s, a tremendous amount of financial loss and low profit margins, too.16 Losses and low profits stood side by side with new and unexpected cooperative organizational developments in banking.

There has been quite a lot of speculation on the reasons why consumer credit proved to be such a specialty development of the United States, leading up to a veritable “Credit Card Nation” after a fragmented highly local, “wild and innovative” growth of credit card usage.17 Lewis Mandell, the first eminent historian of the credit card, has made the case that after World War II government programs such as worker’s compensation, unemployment and disability insurance paved the way for a rising consumerism – it was government spending that set the mood for credit.18 This Keynesian background, along with the rather stable Bretton Woods financial system, led to a hitherto unknown spread of consumerism in the Western welfare states. The US first and foremost benefited from its wartime economy and innovation in these “thirty glorious years” of capitalism, lasting from 1945 to 1975.19 The American middle class turned to credit once the wartime savings were spent. Consumers asked for more credit – and they got it by a flourishing financial and real estate industry that made credit purchasing the currency of the so-called “Consumers’ Republic.”20

Digging deeper into the history of mentalities and economic exchange usually brings up both rural and urban neighborhood practices of installment and revolving credit that date back at least to the year 1800.21 As David Stearns has convincingly argued, there is also both a political and infrastructural momentum in handling the growing usage and clearance of checks that parallels this development. Handling und regulating this constant flow of paperwork even played a role in the establishment of the US Federal Reserve System in 1913.22 The American geographies of exchange with their long distances called for neighborhood technologies of mediated trust, especially once the mobility of a whole society grows like it did in the 19th and 20th century.23 Suburban shopping centers and credit cards form two sides of a new coin.24

How can we step along those lengthening chains of mediations that create the dynamic and fluctuating topologies of social interaction, “interessement” and “enrolment” of the actors25 and payment practices? And what makes the prestigious Diners Club or American Express card such an effective and attractive medium, one that is mobile, bureaucratic, and cooperative at once? Along with Harold Garfinkel and Michel Callon, some preliminary answers might be given.

2. Accounting for trust and credit

The production of “accountability” is a multifold process, or as Garfinkel would put it himself, a contingent “ongoing accomplishment” in common situations.26 Making things accountable includes “the activities whereby members produce and manage settings of organized everyday affairs [which] are identical with members’ procedures for making those settings ‘account-able’.”27 This includes a reflexivity of intertwined actions that rely on a high degree of social indexicality. Everyday reflexivity is based on explicit gestures and speech acts of showing and “telling the others,” and tacit intercorporeal ways of bodily interrelation.28 Garfinkel uses also his artful way of listing practices to explain the modalities of “accountability”: “In exactly the ways in which a setting is organized, it consists of methods whereby its members are provided with accounts of the setting as countable, storyable, proverbial, comparable, picturable, representable – i.e., accountable events.”29 What seems like a sociological pun does already include the formalities of institutional settings30 and machine automatizations, e.g. of bank accounting. All bureaucratic media, especially files and forms in the case of money and credit, exist to produce a rather rigid infrastructural form of “accountability.” By setting the standards for what is detectable, countable, comparable, and representable they mediate social relations as well as producing them. Making oneself “accountable” in such mixed realities combines the “rigid” bureaucratic media and the performativity of interaction between people, objects, signs, and institutions – including all possible conflicts of “norms, tasks and troubles.”31

Interestingly, the credit card mobilizes the usual bureaucratic and economic procedures to an unknown extent. A highly localized American bank account now extends way beyond the rural and urban neighborhood, because it can be used at every place that accepts the new way of payment. This makes the credit card a cooperative social medium that is changing the geographies of shopping. It creates what ethnomethodologists call a “technology of accountability”32 which is producing new portable neighborhoods that are able to lengthen chains of operations substantially. This spatial dynamic might not be new to capitalist modes of exchange, as one can learn from the seminal works of Fernand Braudel who has shown that the evolution of merchant capitalism in the Mediterranean and Europe has relied on long distance systems of trust.33 In fact, paper-based transactions extended the geography of mercantile circulation and action at a distance, at least from the Middle Ages onward.34 Just remember Marshall McLuhan’s dictum on “Money: the poor man’s credit card” in Understanding Media:

Shortly before the event of paper money, the greatly increased volume of information movement in European newsletters and newspapers created the image and concept of National Credit. Such a corporate image of credit depended, then as now, on the fast and comprehensive information movement that we have taken for granted for two centuries and more. At that stage of the emergence of public credit, money assumed the further role of translating, not just local, but national stores of work from one culture to another.35

On a smaller level, this translation is getting repeated with the interconnection of personal bank accounts, mass consumer credit, networked systems of trust, and digital computing that is novel to American postwar culture. Initial success like the one Diners Club enjoyed early – even on an international scale – created massive back office problems.36

By now, it does not come as a surprise that American Express gained a significant advantage when it started using computers for its billing und bookkeeping in the early 1960s and surpassed Diners Club in 1970.37 By then, it was a step that few banks and other businesses were taking in such a consequent manner, although many of them tried to do so. So while the impact of IT on credit card banking cannot be underestimated, it should also not be exaggerated – the social dynamics of the credit business are mostly external to computerization, yet they were pushing the technological development of cooperative digital computing resources. As historian of technology Thomas Haigh has shown, there was a wide gap between the American computing hypes and the actual adoption of new digital accounting practices.38 This has to be kept in mind, because the laboratory situation of digital networking or “netting,” as J.C.R. Licklider called it,39 has brought up so many different localized approaches in the US between 1950 and 1975, that the successful endeavors enjoy a prestigious historical status. Just consider SAGE for the military purpose of missile defense, American Airlines’ and IBM’s SABRE for airline ticketing, or the now seemingly magic ARPANET for academic resource sharing.40 Out of the early special purpose digital networks, the economic usages likely had the biggest impact for everyday use before the World Wide Web: mass consumer credit seemingly pushed forward the need for digital accounting and trusted transactions. But was this due to mere necessity in data processing, or is there a more specific relation between the history of credit, neighborhood “technologies of accountability,” and the theory of (digitally) networked social media and their platforms? I want to come back to this question in the end.

3. Mass mailing and advertising new ways of payment

In the mid-1960s, there is a peculiar change to be noticed concerning the social realities of credit card usage. Diners Club, American Express and a lot of other “go-it-alone” firms supplied a service that appealed to the white traveling salesman and the upper class, with accounts that primarily referred to this person alone. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s this social background was being transformed, making credit cards a payment technology that could pretty much be used by the whole middle class. Gender gaps were still highly present, most visibly in advertising,41 yet credit by card soon extended its reach into whole families and company usage of corporate accounts. Actual discrimination of women persisted on a wide scale, though. Mortgage lenders and credit cards vendors like Carte Blanche and American Express required men to be the legal holder of credit accounts. But gender roles were also changing quite drastically in a short time: the overall “gendering of the ‘consumer’ shifted from women to couples, and at times to men alone.”42 Changes in the social stratification of credit did not come out of the blue, but responded to the dynamic unsolicited mass mailings of new cards that were addressed to pretty much everyone, including children and dogs.43 This wild and highly dynamic phase quickly brought up issues of legal regulation, and it created a significant demand not just for market research but also for empirical studies of credit card use.

Within this context some details of marketing credit cards to the masses were analyzed swiftly by social research. The young Lewis Mandell prepared an extensive field survey for University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor, interviewing 3,880 “heads of households” in two waves in January, February, April and May of 1970.44 Its carefully prepared forms and computed statistics already show some of the social biases and a stratification that was influential both for marketing and usage. Mandell is pretty straightforward in his brief narration:

“Perhaps the most important explanation of why credit cards are found more frequently among higher income families is that credit cards have been marketed to these people from the beginning. […] In fact, a great number of current card holders first became acquainted with credit cards as the result of unsolicited mailings of cards in the 1960’s. Recipients of bank cards, for example, were chosen from bank listings of persons with above minimum checking or saving account balances over time or persons who were reliable borrowers. The initial mass mailings were deemed necessary in order to get the operation started. A certain number of cards had to be put in circulation at once since the companies had high start-up costs and could not afford to wait the years it would take to build a demand for the cards.”45

Within the credit card rush critics noted that only a fifth of the banks did actually really check the economic background of the addressees.46 Hence, the anecdotes on dogs and children do not seem as unlikely as they sound, and the lax and overhasty mailing campaigns have been confirmed by oral history interviews,47 and they were also part of contemporary cartoons.48

These actions were meant to make the case for signing up more merchants, so that both sides could be enrolled in the two-sided platform market. This marketing device can be traced back right to the beginning of what would later become Bank Americard (which subsequently turned into the Visa association in 1976). Bank of America ran its first market test in Fresno, California, based on the mass mailing technique in fall 1958.49 Side effects of this strategy – namely, credit card theft, fraud and significant losses – had been known to the card business even before the Second World War. Nonetheless, the 1960s rise of the big co-opetitive networks of Bank Americard (the future Visa) and Master Charge (the future MasterCard) involved a race to the bottom. Who could get out more cards to more people in a shorter amount of time? “Network accidents”50 like fraud were taken for granted by the banking industry, which multiplied its marketing efforts. Speeded-up mailings were one massive effort to differentiate the nearly identical services in payment and credit. On the other hand, branding and advertising attempted to establish the credit card signs in the public mind, therefore promoting new forms of making oneself socially and economically account-able by using new ways of payment. A whole media ecology of newspapers, billboards, sports stadiums, radio and TV ads was getting mobilized to install signs of trust in almost every wallet, on almost every merchant’s door.51 Lengthening the new chains of transaction into every neighborhood and every shopping center relied heavily on mass media coverage.

Picture this as an intermedial frenzy that is quite literally targeting the suburban middle class: by mailing ever more unsolicited cards, by repeating the taglines all over again, by showcasing scenes of easy payment. It was a broadcasting situation full of individualized “to whom it may concern” messages, being delivered with plastic credit attached. A highly popular LIFE magazine article written by Paul O’Neil, published in the March 27 issue of 1970, sums up both the social troubles created by the mass mailings, and the skeptical voices on the unregulated circulation of the cards. LIFE’s front cover pictured the traveling salesman “up in the air,” mobilized by credit card wings. The cover served as a reminder of the elite Travel & Entertainment cards, not yet reflecting the reality that the suburban, well-educated WASP families with kids were the main users of credit cards52

O’Neil’s article rather satirically retold the stories of banking competition and its discontents:

In Chicago, during 1966, banks fought each other like jackals to get their cards into the hands of the public only to discover that brigades of thieves, conmen and deadbeats were galloping through stores with them and running up disastrous sums in fraudulent or uncollectable debt. […] Credit cards, and particularly bank cards, have inspired new and enduring types of white-collar crime, have attracted the beady attention of the Mafia, and have revealed a fascinating capacity of dishonesty in employees of the postal system, who steal them from the mails and sell them for prices up to $50.53

Apart from these “network accidents” – which did not come as a surprise to the banks themselves – the American public already regarded computing accounting and credit data as a key technology. It was deemed necessary in handling the substantial paperwork involved in transactions.54 Both BankAmericard and Master Charge already had set up regional computing centers that, given the amount of credit card fraud, were especially important for validating transactions above $50. This would typically require the merchant to call a center, reading out the customer’s card number, which the telephone girl would enter into the computer terminal to crosscheck on the customer’s card account.55 This kind of everyday proof of a person’s economic accountability is what occurs to O’Neil as a likely future of the medium’s automation: “The bank card is an imperfect medium of exchange at the moment because nobody can be absolutely certain that it, unlike the impersonal $20 bill, is always backed by real buying power.”56

Extending chains of financial operation to an electronic domain creates a tremendous necessity for re-mediated trust and new identification practices; certification,57 validation, standardization, legal security, and costly public relations are needed to establish the new neighborhood technologies of credit with mobile users and shifting topologies of cooperation. Interestingly enough, the caption of a cartoon created by illustrator John Huehnergarth (Fig. 2) sums up the situation quite accurately: “In a rush to ‘get their plastic in the air,’ banks randomly fired off credit cards. Computers – key to controlling them – are still trying to catch up.”58

Catching up on the developments was also highly necessary for the government itself. While bank law largely remained a federal issue (leading to different amounts of interest in every state) the mass mailing campaigns got officially banned by the Federal Trade Commission in April 1970.59 This was not only a measure that was directed at the obvious fraudulent practices. Even more so, it addressed “the unwillingness and/or inability of the banks to protect their customers from the effects of their mistakes” which had at least been willfully tolerated within overall card business strategies.60 While numerous lawsuits were fought between banks and customers, and between the big co-opetitive networks Master Charge and Bank Americard themselves, the marketing machinery continued to launch campaign after campaign. LIFE magazine’s entire volume of 1970 was full of them, too.

But how could we understand these formative years on a more theoretical level? Along with Harold Garfinkel it can be said that a new kind of sociality is getting invented that relies on the credit card as a new medium of account-ability in shifting mobile neighborhoods. Being part of the paper-based and electronic bureaucratic process includes a person’s, a family’s or a corporation’s “investment in forms,” as Laurent Thévenot has formulated this kind of social media interaction – in which making yourself accountable is inevitable – so aptly.61

Along with Michel Callon, we might understand the configuration of new chains of payment operations as one way to make a heterogeneous techno-economical network (a) convergent and (b) irreversible in its translations.62 As Callon has shown, this is a significant element of networking practices and, as I would like to add, of the infrastructural platforms they rely on. Convergence is what actors strive for to make heterogeneous cooperation work more smoothly. Irreversibility is what actors need to normalize operations, defining standards, certification practices and common modes of exchange. This is less a static way of “blackboxing” – to which it can lead nonetheless. It is rather a way to deal with fluctuating and dynamic network properties that the actors themselves create while charging, paying, borrowing, trusting and distrusting. In the case of the American credit card, the techno-economical networks rely on a significant organizational form of convergence and irreversibility: the two-sided co-opetitive platform market. What kind of neighborhood technology is it, how did it evolve and what does it mean for a media history of the credit card?

4. Building co-opetitive platforms for networking

The year 1966 certainly was the annus mirabilis for the emergence of the credit card’s infrastructures. American Express, Carte Blanche and Diners Club were well established by then, leading the field of Travel & Entertainment Cards as “go-it-alones”. Few of the other experimental card systems had gained momentum, although Bank of America had managed to establish its BankAmericard program in California, earning its first operating profit in 1961. The extension of operations to the national scale did not start before 1966, when Bank of America offered to license its card to selected banks across the country. This was in fact a brilliant coup since regulations had prohibited the bank to open branches in other states.63

This, in return, led to quickly emerging local associations of banks that did not become part of the franchise. As opposed to American Express and Diners Club who attempted to put up franchises of their own, the local associations in Chicago, Michigan, New York City, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Seattle and Phoenix formed an “Interbank Card Association.” The Interbank members very soon cooperated with the Californian “Western States Bankcard Association” that had created the Master Charge brand in 1966. Both networks joined in 1967.64 In 1968, the results of this rush in organizational changes became visible: “there were now two competing national networks of banks: the BankAmericard franchise system, and the Interbank cooperative system.”65 The Interbank system – recognizable by the black “i” on the Master Charge cards – attracted more members. In response, Bank of America agreed to reorganize the BankAmericard structure into another membership-owned corporation in 1970, calling it National Bank Americard Inc. (NBI).

Both the Interbank Association and NBI quickly proved to be highly paradoxical infrastructures of banking. Clearly, the member banks were competing with each other concerning interest rates, fees and services, bombarding the upper und middle class with mass mailed unsolicited cards. Yet they mostly agreed to cooperate by setting standards for interoperability in analogue and digital accounting, contracting merchants and common advertising early on. This small cooperative core is where Callon’s convergence and irreversibility trajectories play a highly important role. Mixing cooperation and competition leads to what economists call “co-opetition” – a rather astonishing way of enrolling both merchants and customers to mobilize payment and credit on a worldwide scale. Still, competition would also be upheld in the long run by the duality between Master Charge (MasterCard) and BankAmericard (Visa), with American Express and Discover as strong single corporations in a “four hub ecosystem”.66

I cannot get into the full economic and historical details here, but the phenomenon of “co-opetition” is intricately connected to the building of platforms that serve as a common basis for “cooperation without consensus,” to borrow from Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer’s famous article on heterogeneous cooperation.67 The credit card platforms have been understood as forerunners of comparable business models that need to assemble two or more distinct groups of customers, being likely to be very heterogeneous.68 Running such a platform must be something that promises economic surplus for the intermediary actors, a third actor or parasite, if you will. Losing money on transaction costs might be acceptable, if the intermediary profits from the overall relationship.69 Turning platforms into a neighborhood for accountable actions has become one peculiar and highly successful style of informational capitalism. “Platform politics”70 thus clearly predate the era of the Personal Computer and the World Wide Web, and they are highly likely to be indicators for the intertwined histories of socio-economic and media practices. Getting to terms with social media might necessarily involve attention to bureaucratic characteristics of all kinds of platforms. This even exceeds the openly techno-economical variants and may as well extend to a Science and Technology Studies based “platform sociology,” as proposed by Peter Keating and Alberto Cambrosio for the case of biomedical platforms:

“Insofar as they embody regulations and conventions of equivalence, exchange, and circulation, platforms are not simply one among many forms of coordination that include networks or, rather, they account for the generation of networks or, at the very least, they are a condition of possibility for the very existence and transformation of networks. The intermediaries that stabilize networks are produced and reproduced on the platform. Platforms supply networks with conventions, generate novel entities, and entrench them in clinical routines”.71 Put shortly, they provide means of convergence and architectures of irreversibility (Callon), while being themselves battlegrounds of standardization and certification of operational chains, and overall “maintenance and repair”.72

Yet they are also foremost a neighborhood “technology of accountability,” being “active, generative, and opaque” at the same time.73 Platforms provide a veritable playing field for both the irreducible agency and the regulation of their assembled media practices. And they are the bureaucratic writing systems that attempt to stabilize social media interaction, in which “stability” of course is always an unlikely event of orderliness. Or, as Harold Garfinkel would put it: There are usually good organizational reasons for bad actuarial records of “what was going on while it was going on” on a given platform.74

5. Digital momentum: Towards a media history
of the credit card

The co-opetitive networks quickly called out for a standardization of their business, but did not manage to develop interoperability by themselves. Rather, they contacted the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in 1968, which managed to publish the first standards in 1971. While the issues at stake here might seem trivial, they were not taken lightly by the involved actors: card dimension, location of the signature panel, font and format of the embossed characters, an account numbering system for interchange, plus the magnetic strip (whose track features caused a huge controversy in the industry) needed an impartial unification.75 And so did a multitude of other technical innovations in computing and media: optical character recognition of signatures (OCR), automated telling machines (ATM), chips-on-a-card,76 early special-purpose digital networks,77 and security technologies like holograms.78 The card business certainly has pushed the history of digital media forward. Yet, since all of these inventions further mobilize social practices of crediting and indebting, they cannot be seen only as another grand example of sociotechnical “systems building” (Thomas P. Hughes) designed for multi-sided platform markets.

It might also not be enough to refer to American neighborhood transformations only, as Lewis Mandell did in his seminal history: “The credit card has evolved to meet the needs of our mobile, affluent society. Credit has always been available from local merchants, but as mobile customers began dealing with merchants over a larger geographic area, the personal trust that had existed between the merchant and his regular customers had to be replaced with the trust of a well-known third-party guarantor.”79 Issued by these third parties, credit cards serve as “immutable mobiles” – be they trusted or not – for the global extension of payment platforms and their personal accounts.80

Within a world history of credit, the first ANSI standards of 1971 would certainly overlap with the political-economical downturn of the static Bretton Woods system, and the switch back to freely fluctuating exchange rates of currencies. A media history of credit might also account for a different non-hegemonic theory of money. Credit and debt would be at its core, embodying the fait accompli of most systems of human exchange of signs, commodities, and their agency in social cooperation.81 The gifts of the credit card certainly are a case for the innocent anthropologist. But let’s charge that to another account.

1 I am highly indebted to Erhard Schüttpelz, Jens Schröter, and the Working Group “Media of Co-operation” at University of Siegen for the ongoing discussion.

2 David S. Evans and Richard Schmalensee, Paying with Plastic. The Digital Revolution in Buying and Borrowing. 2nd edition. (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press, 2005).

3 Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1967).

4 See Pablo Abend, Tobias Haupts and Claudia Müller, eds., Medialität der Nähe. Situationen – Praktiken
– Diskurse (Bielefeld: transcript, 2012).

5 Fernand Braudel, Afterthoughts on Material Life and Capitalism (Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977); David Graeber, Debt. The First 5,000 years (New York: Melville House, 2011); Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power. Globalizations, 1945–2011. Vol. 4. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

6 David L. Stearns, Electronic Value Exchange. Origins of the VISA Payment System, History of Computing. (London: Springer, 2011).

7 Stearns, Electronic Value Exchange, p. 13. The Wikipedia entry on Diners Club repeats variants of the heroic story, but omits Stearns’ clarification. Compare (last accessed September 18, 2014).

8 Evans and Schmalensee, Paying with Plastic, p. 149.

9 Lewis Mandell, The Credit Card Industry. A History (Boston: Twayne, 1990), p. 25. Evans and Schmalensee: Paying with Plastic, p. 53.

10 Stearns, Electronic Value Exchange, p. 13.

11 Matty Simmons, The Credit Card Catastrophe. The 20th Century Phenomenon that Changed the World (New York: Barricade, 1995), p. 27.

12 Evans and Schmalensee, Paying with Plastic, p. 3, 6–8, 150–52. Compare Jean-Charles Rochet and Jean Tirole, “Platform Competition in Two-sided Markets,” Journal of the European Economic Association 1.1 (2003), p. 990–1029.

13 Evans and Schmalensee, Paying with Plastic, p. 54.

14 Mandell, The Credit Card Industry, p. 30.

15 Evans and Schmalensee, Paying with Plastic, p. 55–56.

16 Evans and Schmalensee, Paying with Plastic, p. 238.

17 Robert D. Manning, Credit Card Nation. The Consequences of America’s Addiction to Credit (New York:
Perseus, 2000); Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic. The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage, 2003), p. 123–124; Christine Zumello, “The ‘Everything Card’ and Consumer Credit in the United States in the 1960s,” Business History Review 85 (2011), p. 551–575, p. 574.

18 Mandell, The Credit Card Industry, p. 22. The enormous long-term influence of government
spending for a multitude of privately owned innovations in America has been shown repeatedly. Compare Kenneth Flamm, Creating the Computer. Government, Industry, and High Technology (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1988); Committee on Innovations in Computing et al., eds.: Funding a Revolution. Government Support for Computing Research (Washington: National Academy Press, 1999); Mann, The Sources of Social Power. Globalizations, 1945–2011, chap. 2–5.

19 Mann, The Sources of Social Power. Globalizations, 1945–2011, chap. 3, p. 46.

20 Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic, p. 147.

21 Mandell, The Credit Card Industry, p. 14–17.

22 Stearns, Electronic Value Exchange, p. 2–6.

23 I do not agree with Mandell’s argument that this explains the European reluctance toward credit cards, though. Compare Mandell, The Credit Card Industry, p. 16, 154.

24 Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic, p. 282–283.

25 Michel Callon, “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the
Fishermen of St Brieuc Bay,” Power, Action and Belief. A New Sociology of Knowledge? Ed. John Law. (London; New York: Routledge, 1986), p. 196–233.

26 Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology, p. 33.

27 Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology, p. 1.

28 See Christian Meyer, Jürgen Streeck and Jordan Scott: “Intercorporeality: Beyond the Body. An Introduction,” Intercorporeality: Beyond the Body. Ed. Christian Meyer, Jürgen Streeck and Jordan
Scott (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015) (forthcoming).

29 Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology, p. 34.

30 Compare Harold Garfinkel, “Good organizational reasons for ‘bad’ clinical records,” Studies in Ethnomethodology (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1967), p. 186–207.

31 Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology, p. 33.

32 See also Lucy Suchman, “Technologies of Accountability. Of Lizards and Aeroplanes,” Technology in Working Order. Studies of Work, Interaction, and Technology. Ed. Graham Button (London; New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 113–126.

33 Braudel: Afterthoughts on Material Life and Capitalism.

34 I am not able to elaborate on the point of form-constant paper technologies and circulating “immutable mobiles” extensively here. Please refer to Erhard Schüttpelz, “Die medientechnische Überlegenheit des Westens. Zur Geschichte und Geographie der immutable mobiles Bruno Latours,” Mediengeographie. Ed. Jörg Döring and Tristan Thielmann (Bielefeld: transcript, 2009), p. 67–110.

35 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man. Critical Edition. Ed. Terrence W. Gordon. 2nd ed. (Berkeley: Gingko Press, 2011), p. 192.

36 This is a reoccuring phenomenon in the history of cooperative media, as JoAnne Yates and Kjeld Schmidt have shown. Compare JoAnne Yates: “Evolving Information Use in Firms, 1850–1920. Ideology and Information Techniques and Technologies,” Information Acumen. The Understanding and Use of Knowledge in Modern Business. Ed. Lisa Bud-Frierman (London; New York: Routledge, 1994); Kjeld Schmidt: Cooperative Work and Coordinative Practices. Contributions to the Conceptual Foundations of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) (London: Springer, 2011), chap. 11.

37 Stearns, Electronic Value Exchange, p. 17.

38 Thomas Haigh, “Technology, Information and Power. Managerial Technicians in Corporate America, 1917–2000” (Ph.D. diss. University of Pennsylvania,
2003), section III. “From Data to Information 1959–1975”. “The question is not why a few companies successfully spent a fortune to push the state of the art. It is why so many more did not.,” ibid., p. 323–324.

39 Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider Papers, MC 499.3, Correspondence 1958–1969. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Mass. Typoscripts, Memorandum to A. H. Eschenfelder (IBM), May 3 (What IBM Should Do in the Field of Computer Networks, p. 1) and May 10 1967 (Burgeoning of Activity in the Field of Computer Networks, p. 1).

40 See also Charles P. Bourne and Trudi Bellardo Hahn, eds., A History of Online Information Services, 1963– 1976 (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press, 2003).

41 Zumello, “The ‘Everything Card’ and Consumer Credit in the United States in the 1960s”.

42 Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic, p. 147.

43 Mandell, The Credit Card Industry, p. 57.

44 Lewis Mandell: Credit Card Use in the United States (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972), p. 5.

45 Mandell, Credit Card Use in the United States, p. 12–13. See also Evans and Schmalensee, Paying with Plastic, p. 72–73.

46 Paul O’Neil, “A Little Gift from Your Friendly Banker. The mails bring credit cards to millions, opening new vistas from crime, chaos and comedy,” LIFE 68.11 (1970), March 27, p. 48–51, 54–57, p. 55. This refers to a study of 84 representative card operations, prepared by Richard N. Salle and Constantine Danellis for the Charge Account Bankers Association in 1969.

47 Stearns, Electronic Value Exchange, p. 67.

48 O’Neil, “A Little Gift from Your Friendly Banker,” p. 50.

49 Evans and Schmalensee, Paying with Plastic, p. 57.

50 Tony D. Sampson and Jussi Parikka, “Learning from Network Dysfunctionality. Accidents, Enterprise, and Small Worlds of Infection,” A Companion to New Media Dynamics, ed. John Hartley,
Jean Burgess and Axel Bruns (Oxford: Blackwell, 2013), p. 450–460.

51 Stearns, Electronic Value Exchange, p. 207–208.

52 Mandell, Credit Card Use in the United States, p. 13–18.

53 O’Neil, “A Little Gift from Your Friendly Banker,” p. 48–49.

54 Compare. Stearns, Electronic Value Exchange, p. 30–39 for “A Typical
Transaction in 1968”.

55 O’Neil, “A Little Gift from Your Friendly Banker,” p. 56.

56 O’Neil, “A Little Gift from Your Friendly Banker,” p. 56.

57 Compare Lawrence Busch, Standards. Recipes for Reality (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press, 2011), chap. 4.

58 O’Neil, “A Little Gift from Your Friendly Banker,” p. 49.

59 Evans and Schmalensee, Paying with Plastic, p. 73.

60 Mandell, The Credit Card Industry, p. 53.

61 Laurent Thévenot, “Rules and Implements: Investment in Forms,” Social Science Information 23.1 (1984), p. 1–15.

62 See also Michel Callon, “Techno-Economic Networks and Irreversibility,” A Sociology of Monsters? Essays on Power, Technology and Domination. Ed. John Law (London; New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 132–161.

63 Stearns, Electronic Value Exchange, p. 26.

64 Evans and Schmalensee, Paying with Plastic, p. 59–64.

65 Evans and Schmalensee, Paying with Plastic, p. 64.

66 Evans and Schmalensee, Paying with Plastic, p. 178.

67 Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer, “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907–39,” Social
Studies of Science 19.3 (1989), p. 387–420.

68 Rochet and Tirole, “Platform Competition in Two-sided Markets”.

69 Evans and Schmalensee, Paying with Plastic, p. 244.

70 Tarleton Gillespie, “The politics of ‘platforms’,” New Media & Society 12.3 (2010), p. 347–364; Joss Hands: “Introduction: Politics, Power and ’Platformativity’,” Culture Machine, Issue “Platform Politics” 14 (2013). URL:

71 Peter Keating and Alberto Cambrosio, Biomedical Platforms. Realigning the Normal and the Pathological in Late-Twentieth-Century Medicine (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press, 2003), p. 324. Emphasis added.

72 Stephen Graham and Michael Thrift, “Out of Order. Understanding Repair and Maintenance,” Theory, Culture & Society 24.3 (2007), p. 1–25.

73 Keating and Cambrosio, Biomedical Platforms, p. 326.

74 Garfinkel, “Good organizational reasons for ‘bad’ clinical records”.

75 Almarin Philipps, “The Role of Standardization in Shared Bank Systems,” Product Standardization and Competitive Strategy (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1987), p. 273.

76 Mandell, The Credit Card Industry, p. 143–152.

77 See also Stearns, Electronic Value Exchange, p. 71–108, 135–156.

78 Compare Jens Schröter, “The Age of Non-Reproducibility,” Film and Media Studies (Acta Univ. Sapientiae)
5 (2012), p. 7–20, p. 13.

79 Mandell, The Credit Card Industry, p. 154.

80 Compare Bruno Latour, “Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together,” Representation in
Scientific Practice. Ed. Michael Lynch and Steve Woolgar (Cambridge, Mass.; London, England: MIT Press, 1990), p. 19–68.

81 Graeber, Debt. The First 5,000 years, chap. 3. Graeber’s reading of Keynes is cutting it to the point: “Money is credit,” ibid., p. 54.

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Sebastian Gießmann

ist Leiter der Werkstatt Praxistheorie «Geschichte und Ethnographie der kooperativen Medienpraktiken» im Sonderforschungsbereich «Medien der Kooperation» an der Universität Siegen. Aktuelles Forschungsprojekt zur Mediengeschichte und politischen Ökonomie der Kreditkarte und des digitalen Bezahlens.
Weitere Texte von Sebastian Gießmann bei DIAPHANES
Tobias Harks (Hg.), Sebastian Vehlken (Hg.): Neighborhood Technologies

Neighborhood Technologies expands upon sociologist Thomas Schelling’s wellknown study of segregation in major American cities, using this classic work as the basis for a new way of researching social networks across disciplines. Up to now, research has focused on macrolevel behaviors that, together, form rigid systems of neighborhood relations. But can neighborhoods, conversely, affect larger, global dynamics? This volume introduces the concept of “neighborhood technologies” as a model for intermediate, or meso-level, research into the links between local agents and neighborhood relations. Bridging the sciences and humanities, Tobias Harks and Sebastian Vehlken have assembled a group of contributors
who are either natural scientists with an interest in interdisciplinary research or tech-savvy humanists. With insights into computer science, mathematics, sociology, media and cultural studies, theater studies, and architecture, the book will inform new research.