Lana Swartz, ’09, is joined by Aswin Punathambekar, ’03, to discuss Swartz’s new book New Money: How Payment Became Social Media (Yale University Press). New Money frames money as a media technology, one in major transition, and interrogates the consequences of those changes.
Lana Swartz is an Assistant Professor in Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and a 2009 graduate of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies master’s program. Prior to New Money, she published Paid: Tales of Dongles, Checks, and Other Money Stuff (MIT Press). Aswin Punathambekar is Swartz’s colleague at UVa’s Department of Media Studies, where he is an Associate Professor. He graduated from the Comparative Media Studies program in 2003 and is co-author of the upcoming (provisionally-titled) The Digital Popular: Media, Culture, and Politics in Networked India.
The following is a transcript generated by Otter.ai, with human corrections during and after. For any errors the human missed, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aswin Punathembekar 00:47
And we thought we would kick it off with a few questions for Lana about tracing the trajectory of the book, where it comes from and how her thinking has evolved. That’s all right. Should we get started?
Lana Swartz 00:58
Sure. Yeah. I mean, the other thing, just by way of introduction, I wanted to say was, you know, when asked when, and I talked about this, we were initially imagining it, just the, as we understood it as kind of a closed group conversation with CMS students, which I’m totally excited for it to, for all kinds of people, some of whom I know, some of them, I don’t to be here. But we do. Because we, you know, we’re both alumni of CMS, we do want to make sure that are kind of initial and primary audience are the graduate students. So we’re going to kind of have that lens in mind. And we want to also be sure to answer questions and talk both about the book, but also about the trajectories of both of our careers, as to CMS folks from two different eras, really, and different arrows from the present, who have made academic careers and are now in the same department somewhat, you know, quite fortuitously. So yeah, so in addition to the book, I do want this to take this opportunity to have a kind of broader conversation. One of the reasons why I asked, you know, asked him to be my interlocutor on this is that, you know, we are colleagues now and I’m really respect his work, and I think he will, will, will bring kind of an interesting, others flip sides of the conversation. But also, you know, when I was a CMS student, we got the word that that Aswin had just gotten a tenure track job. And he was the first CMS alum, as far as I knew, to get the tenure track job. And as part of our process and selecting, you know, working up to the thesis, you know, we were asked to read papers, read prior theses from previous CMS students and, and I, one of the ones that I read was Aswin. So I was always, I’ve been a big fan of Aswin. Since before he had a tenure track job. And since I was a CMS student, so I hope we can do some meta stuff here, but not too much. I guess. I think
Aswin Punathembekar 03:03
there’ll be a lot of fun. I already instructed Andrew to delete every possible copy there is of my master’s thesis.
Aswin Punathembekar 03:10
No, it’s so good.
Aswin Punathembekar 03:12
Yeah, let’s get going. So I guess one of the two ways in which CMS really shaped my thinking, and I’m sure the same for you, Lana is a to think comparatively, which meant quite simply to think across media forms, to think across historical moments and to think across cultural contexts. And the other key sort of phrase that has stayed with me is to think about media always, as in transition. do with those two things in mind, I thought we could open the conversation by having you reflect a little bit on the conjuncture in terms of when you began thinking about this topic itself, as a project you wanted to pursue, and sort of have a temporal bracket of sorts. So it was around 2007, or eight, when you started actively imagining this as a dissertation project, and eventually a book coming out of the financial crisis that we were plunged into at that moment in the US. And now here we are in 2020, at a very different political conjuncture, but which has also some serious financial and political ramifications as well. So with these two bookends in mind, could you just start off by telling us a little bit about how that moment led to your even beginning to imagine this as a viable long term project?
Lana Swartz 04:24
Yeah, I absolutely agree. And have found that the term media in transition, which I when I was in CMS, I was sort of like a medium transition. It’s the name of the books that you know, Thorburn and Henry wrote and that’s they have our conference, blah, blah, blah, what does even mean? But then again, and again, it’s something I come back to and and this kind of analytical tool that says, Okay, let’s look at moments of media change. We’re not interested so much in New Media for the sake of newness. We’re in Interested in moments of, you know, disjuncture, and and shifting and if we really zero in and focus in on those moments of change, you know, what do we learn. And that really is the primary analytic for my entire book. Like every there is one kind of big historical chapter that looks at moments of media change and looks at money as a payment, or rather looks at money as media, and then kind of touches down at key moments of change. But then every other chapter that follows examines the moment of newness, but also all of the things that kind of lead up to that moment of newness. So absolutely, I think and I think we’ll likely kind of circle back to that as we chat. But to answer your question, and I think this kind of is interesting to think about the kind of historiography of transition. So you, you mentioned that I started conceiving of this as a dissertation project around 2007 2008. And that’s actually not true. I, I started conceiving as it as a dissertation project, probably closer to 2011 2012. So you know, I finished CMS in 2009, I had written a thesis on counterfeit luxury goods, and kind of regimes of ownership and authorship. And then, I started my PhD, the following year, 2009 2010, probably wasn’t in the thick of it, and until thinking about dissertations for another couple of years, but it’s it, absolutely. The moment that the dissertation is born out of is the 2008 2000, or 2007 2008, financial crisis, and a variety of other media changes that happened at that moment. And it really is only retrospectively. And this is why I speak of, you know, historiography that 2008 becomes 2008. So 2008, probably wasn’t 2008 until 2010. Although maybe 2020 might already be 2020. So thinking about like, when we become aware of moments as being moments, all that being said, I started thinking the year 2007 2008 marks an important moment for thinking about money as a communication technology because of a few, you know, interrelated
Lana Swartz 07:16
factors. So we did, as you mentioned, had the 2008 global financial crisis, which I really believe ignited a moment of kind of rethinking money. So suddenly, we had broad based global movements that sort of said, you know, what are the, you know, like, why should traditional governments and traditional financial systems be the primary producers of money? Are there other ways to do the economy? And of course, you know, thinking about occupy and those sort of things that wasn’t really till 2012 2013. So, like, the way history moves is interesting. And so yeah, so we have this moment where we were kind of collectively rethinking the economy. I always go back to this one onion article, which, you know, sometimes it proves to be true, that onion kind of like speaks the truth. But that says, you know, it was a headline that said, the US economy or global economy grinds to a halt, as everyone realizes that money is nothing more than a shared delusion. And they this article describes this like sudden awakening, just like rippling across the populace, where suddenly a bank robber is like, why am I robbing the bank? This is so dumb, and someone about to have their house foreclosed upon is like, Oh, I don’t, I don’t have to leave my house. That’s awesome. But then, and then they’re like, well, cool. Now that we know this, what are we going to do? And there’s just a moment of like, oh, wait a minute, money actually serves like a pretty useful purpose for deciding how to broker goods and services and how to figure out how to communicate in an economy. And so I kind of think there’s this like moment of awakening, but then this moment of, of like, okay, when the rubber hits the road, how are we actually going to think about building new systems that might be alternatives to the thing that we’ve suddenly realized maybe we don’t want so that’s, that’s there’s that that that factor and then also 2007 2008 was the emergence of the iPhone followed quickly thereafter by Android. So, so suddenly, we were carrying around in our pocket, you know, these what had previously been like fairly sophisticated computers that do a lot of the things that we need to kind of do money with. So have some kind of universal address book, hat like such as Facebook, which that year is also the one Facebook kind of has the tipping point of becoming this like truly kind of mass scale
Lana Swartz 09:50
Lana Swartz 09:52
and keep a count of records. So you know, various, you know, if you have an Excel spreadsheet and you have a way of transmitting information And you have a way of contacting someone you kind of can like do money. And that’s, that’s pretty much all you need, in many ways and hold. And then the hard part is a system for authorizing and making that the information kind of socially guaranteed to be valuable. And then of course, we have m paisa, which was the, you know, the first large scale mobile money system. So there had been attempts to do mobile money and mobile payments for the long time. And mostly in Kenya, but also in other parts of sub Saharan Africa, we had the video proof of concept. So suddenly, and so I traced that as a moment where a lot of the innovations that kind of became FinTech became crypto became all the things I kind of study in my book. Were kind of born. So by the time I finished the dissertation, which was in 2000, I don’t know 14, did I finish? Yeah, no 2015. You know, I had been able to kind of follow along with the cohort of people who were trying to rethink money from a bunch of different angles, who all got interested in it around the same time I did. So as a fortuitous time to study transition as it happened.
Aswin Punathembekar 11:12
Yeah, I mean, that’s a great start. And I think what you’ve captured is the difficulties involved in mapping a moment as it unfolds. But then when you finally get to the end of a dissertation, and you turn it into a book, you have that space to then step back and carefully historicize it and then up to that moment, but you do beautifully in the book. And I’m just going to read out a couple of sentences as a way to get deeper into it. So at the very beginning, what I really like is the way you set things up, offer a very clear argument beginning. And then you offer this wonderful structure for the whole book. He said, this is a book about the cultural politics of transactional technologies. It offers a new way to think about money as a communication medium dependent on particular technologies. And then you go on to say that each chapter takes up an essential mechanism of payment, and explain how it explains how it works, which you do beautifully, how it got to be that way, how it’s changing, and what implications those changes may have. Until, right. And I read this, and I thought, especially in what you just explained, it could not have been obvious as a PhD student in the Media and Communication Department, that you could very quickly and easily situate the question of money and payment within Media and Communication Studies. It’s not obvious at all to begin with, right? And you turn to James Kerry and some other domains of media theory as a way to then think through a structure give it a theoretical scaffolding. So could you then take us to that next step? Which is, once you propose the dissertation, did your advisor say that’s crazy? And then be how did you sort of how did you work your way through different disciplines to then come up with this framework, and ground yourself in media Communication Studies, instead of going off into cultural anthropology or sociology or so on? Mm hmm.
Lana Swartz 12:54
Yeah. So I, um, so as I mentioned, I was coming off of a CMS thesis where I was studying counterfeit luxury goods, so like fake bags, fake Louis Vuitton bags, and shoes, and that sort of thing. And I was studying the fan communities who come together, who are really kind of connoisseurs of the fake, mostly entirely online. And they, you know, they’re These are people who use global you know, really kind of interestingly, like global supply chains. Today, they’re using things like WeChat and Taobao to like order direct from, you know, folks in China who are making like, the best fakes. And in many ways, these fakes are like, better than the real. And they say things like, because they have like better stitching, they’re actually handmade, whereas the real, the reels are no longer actually handmade. And they say things like, you know, anyone can walk into any, anyone with $2,000 can walk into a Louis Vuitton store and buy the real version. Only I because I have the social network, the technical savvy, and the depth of expertise, to understand what makes a perfect fake, can buy the perfect fake and I’m part of this community, etc. And so I was really interested at that moment in studying kind of marketplaces, as a culture and kind of the and and the online communities that are that come up around markets, and also the, the Oh, and I’m quite familiar with the Reddit group that just got posted. There’s a few of those. So I need to do, I would love to do an update to that project sooner rather than later. But we’ll see. And also kind of the technologies that people use to kind of do markets so I was really attuned both through CMS but also through an interest in kind of sts science and technology studies and infrastructure studies. To look not just at the way ideas information communities circulate, but the actual infrastructures that allow them to circulate. So I I became pretty interesting In economic anthropology at that moment, and was reading quite broadly in the kind of ideas around the culture of, of economic practice, and then was attuned to thinking about, you know what those infrastructure like how infrastructure played a role. Fortunately, I went to University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for my PhD. And fortunately, I happen to be co located just about an hour away from Bill Mauer, who’s a economic anthropologist at UC Irvine, who had been studying payments and was really kind of the, like, I became really interested in payments and payment systems and the infrastructures of economic practice, and then just an hour away was the only other person in the world who at that moment was actually interested in it. And we met and we were able to just, you know, have these long, intense sessions where we were just geeking out about the things we knew about the Visa, MasterCard network, or the you know, the intricacies of the way various payment infrastructures worked. And at the time, we sort of talked about ourselves as like a field of two, that is no longer true. And that wasn’t even true at the time, but it was, you know, the people we knew. So, and then the other thing I really had to do, though, and Mary’s very sweet to say, you know, you know, this kind of official pedigree of like, you know, who’s anthropologist who’s not, I did have to say, though, you know, I’m not an anthropologist, my training is not going to be primarily anthropology, my training is going to be primarily in communication.
Lana Swartz 16:32
And then, and then the question of, like, communication versus Media Studies is another one. But, but nevertheless, I, I had to really almost use my training and use the title of my PhD as an oblique strategy to think about, you know, what kind of contribution I could make. So, so what I came to think about was this idea that, you know, money is fundamentally communicative, you know, a transaction is a trans moving action, a movement across a movement from one account to another. And whether that happened, then, and then we have to attend to the media, or the kind of infrastructures or technologies that that allow that transaction to take place, or enable that transaction take place. And then what and then ask questions like, what are the politics of those infrastructures? So while bill and others are, are thinking about it from like, you know, at one point, Bill, and I were having kind of these conversations, and he, I realized he brought to bear all of this, I was always intimidated, because he’s a very senior scholar, super genius. And he knew all this stuff about the anthropological record, and I didn’t, but then I realized, oh, wait a minute, like he’s not thinking about it in this kind of media studies and communication way, and I actually am, and all the ways that I had kind of been taken, taken for granted about my training worked were a totally new way to kind of think about this. So, so yeah.
Aswin Punathembekar 18:05
But especially when you say that one of your goals in this book is to, you know, move beyond the taken for granted, notice that money is something that’s symbolic and expressive. And it’s really fantastic how you take what you just said, the transaction, and then you work it out in each chapter. And just for those of you who don’t have the book, yet, each chapter works out a different dimension, a different sort of a different logic of transaction that say, with one chapter offering a really wonderful short history. I mean, this is really a model for how to write a short history. Then you go through and say, you know, questions of identity, politics, memories, publics, and then finally futures. And what I like is the real nice narrative thread, you have this notion of transaction, and you draw so fruitfully on James Carey. And what you actually managed to pull off, which is brilliant, is to achieve a sort of synthesis between the ritual and the transmission views of communication, that we all sort of cite endlessly, but never quite bring those two things together in our own analytic frame, which you do really well. So I guess that leads to the next questions. And there are places which I’ve bookmarked in my copy, which I’m going to return to every now and then you talk a little bit about infrastructure. But I wish, I hope we can talk a little bit about the citizenship part and really get into. And there’s one bit on page 107, where you have this really evocative line about getting paid. That the task for those who hope to design how we get paid in the future is to figure out how to maintain all the things that cash and so on. And I was wondering if we can talk given our current context and also 2008 2009. Have you also had a chance to reflect on not getting paid, and how that also figures in these kinds of transactional transactional spaces that we all inhabit, given the global financial crisis and given what we’re all sort of building No,
Lana Swartz 20:00
yes. And I think that that question really points, a helps B plate really specifically to what I hope is one of the key interventions of the book, which is we tend to think about the politics of money, the politics of getting paid and not getting paid in terms of quantity and distribution. So who has money? Who has not enough of it? Who has too much of it? And these are sort of economic questions. But there are also kind of communicative questions we can ask about the technologies of money that we only really see if we become attuned to thinking about money as media money as a technology. So I argue in that chapter about getting paid that one of the, you know, that, that, that not having access to the money that you have, and not being able to use the money that you have, is as good as not having any money at all. And so, so, and I use the example of a and I think, you know, this is a case I had to write about, because I kept coming back to it again, and again. But so I’ll just kind of briefly tell that story. A story of a woman who named Ethan Alexander, who was a cam girl, online sex worker, who had a medical emergency, you know, very common, a very catastrophic reaction to a very common medication, and found herself unable to work essentially. And, you know, she doesn’t, didn’t have health insurance, this is before the Affordable Care Act, and found herself kind of in pretty dire straits in the kind of American healthcare system. And so, what her community did, which is what communities have always done is they kind of pass the hat to try to raise money to defer the costs of, of her of her crisis. And it being, you know, the 20 teens, it was done through a crowdfunding campaign. And it the platform is one that is no longer no longer exists, but was specifically geared towards health care expenses. And so because she was, you know, minor celebrity had a lot, you know, had plenty of Twitter followers, she was able to raise money fairly quickly. And one of her friends who his personal community set off, tweeted, I will offer a free pick set meaning pornography to anyone who donates $100 or more to Eden’s campaign. Eden’s own Twitter account, there’s some question about whether or not he was the one who tweeted it, because she was in the hospital, it doesn’t matter, retweeted that. And then suddenly, even got a ton of messages stating that her cat, her she had violated the terms of service of the, of the platform, the and all donations, this Oh, and her, her campaign had been suspended, and all donations had been refunded. And then there was, again, kind of a, you know, huge backlash, she had enough Twitter followers for it to be the kind of cause of the day, and another crowdfunding campaign stepped in and said, Oh, you know, we’ll be happy to help you, we’ll step in, and we’ll, and that one also no longer exists, but they were trying to kind of make their name off of being the helpful platform, the good platform and this kind of moment. But that’s not you know, something, most people have the x, you know, the ability to do, we’re not all able to kind of wield an army of Twitter followers to do customer service on our behalf.
Lana Swartz 23:31
So, when the, you know, people were sort of examining and offering various hot takes around what had happened, you know, even supporters somewhat, you know, rightly said, you know, kind of blamed the, the crowdfunding campaign as being like a group of tech bros, who felt like it was their right to create, you know, make moral evaluations of who should be able to get money and who shouldn’t. And then the crowdfunding campaign said, Oh, we will try to say like that what actually happened was, when she retweeted the offer for pornography, it became a transaction for pornography, rather than a transaction for crowdfunding. So it became this kind of financial moment. and we are required by our underlying payments processor to not accept an allow donation or transactions for pornography, that’s, you know, part of a thing. We’re like a taboo list. And then, and then the payments processor. We pay said, Oh, actually, we’re not the ones prohibiting it. It’s our Visa MasterCard network underneath us prohibiting it. So is this kind of passing the buck of who made the rules that that ultimately prohibited sex work from being transactable on this site? And, and so what I did and what I think was really important and my kind of training allowed me to be able to do this was to say, Okay, what really happened here? Why are the rules the such as that they are. And what I learned is that basically in a kind of old system of payments acquiring merch individually or merchants are able to acquire payments. Well, I’ll say acquirers meaning like the banks that serve merchants are able to kind of acquire payments on behalf of merchants according to a particular set of risk logics and risk appetites. And if you are considered a high risk merchant, meaning high risk for chargeback meaning high risk that the customer that you have is going to say I want my money back, then you will get charged more for your payments. So there seems to be belief, I have not seen any actual evidence, this is actually true that the selling of pornography of any kind produces a higher rate of chargebacks. And the reason for this might be that people say like, oh, it wasn’t me that bought that subscription, it was my kid or, or you know, Sorry, boss or spouse, I didn’t make this transaction etc. Or it could be that historically, pornography, especially online pornography is pretty scammy. And you might like sign up for you might think you’re doing a one time payment, but it winds up becoming this recurring payment. But for whatever reason, it is received wisdom in the payments industry, that if you want to receive payments, for pornography, you have to pay more. But in the platform economy, everything sort of becomes one size fits all and rather than there being this kind of bespoke risk model on an individual merchant basis that you know, creates a market for risk in the payments acquiring system, it becomes a what becomes like a way of pricing variable kinds of transactions, becomes a one size fits all prohibition as inscribed in terms of service, there is no real way for for any kind of platform to write a bespoke kind of or even variable governance system, it seems. So they just say all the things that used to be a little bit more expensive or a little bit strange or a little bit outside the norm for the way we do payments are just gonna be completely prohibited. So it’s this importing wholesale without really considering it, of one risk model into this a new kind of risk model that created this misalignment that created what was also what could have been a quite catastrophic situation for this person for Eden, and indeed, is a catastrophic situation for countless people who suddenly and without real with without any real ability to predict it, suddenly lose access to their payments.
Lana Swartz 28:01
So, for me, I really have been interested in how like, people are not just didn’t denied money, like just don’t have you know, enough money, but rather are denied access to the money that they have. And and what are the reasons, like actual reasons that that happens for I mean, another example is like in the United States under using EBT, which is our kind of welfare cards, you, you can only use your EBT payment card to buy certain kinds of merchandise. So if you walk into a store, you can’t buy a hot chicken be even though we’re just re chickens are a loss leader for supermarkets, and are really great for, you know, some working person who may have a family they want to feed, you know, such as most people who receive welfare.
Lana Swartz 28:52
Lana Swartz 28:54
they often you know, so so you can’t buy a hot chicken. But you can buy a hot chicken that has been chilled and placed in a chilled refrigerator system. Because that is no longer hot food that becomes cold food and therefore, you’re able to buy it using your EBT card. So what interests me and kind of thinking about the code, like social justice questions or political questions of payments is not just or money is not just how you have money or if you have money, but how the money you have works and how the way it works. Re inscribes or produces new kinds of injustices, new kinds of inequalities and, and thinking about those inequalities as questions of access and questions of kind of informational and communicative you know, sticking points.
Aswin Punathembekar 29:47
Yeah, you have this really evocative line at one point in that chapter where you talk about the profound implications of what you call losing the citizenship of a transactional community and that line is really gets to the racialized and gendered sort of dimensions of what you’ve just laid out so, so wonderfully well. And I was wondering if given that you started this project in LA, and you were going back and forth between Irvine and other spaces, and La itself was a space, this notion of losing the citizenship of a community, of transaction of moving across spaces and moving over time. I was wondering if there’s a link between migrants, migration, immune systems, that were part of your thinking at the time where others, perhaps in your community have economic anthropology, meats, Media Studies, or others working on it? Or how have you seen that emerge? And asked that, in part because there’s this really amazing piece that you have about memory, and he said, money is memory. And those three words money, memory migration really come together in very powerful ways for me, and I wanted to ask you to reflect a little bit on those three key words.
Lana Swartz 30:53
Yeah, so when I think about money as memory, I come at it from a few different perspectives. So I think about you know, it’s, it’s interesting that the idea that money is memory is something that occurs across many different fields of scholarship, who are not at all in communication with each other. So for example, economists, like kind of game theoretic economists talk about money as memory, because in in a kind of game theory, context and kind of an economic experiment, you can, you can either have a tally system, so like a system of, of keeping accounts that everyone can see a kind of memory system, or you could have a money system, meaning tokens that people exchange, and in a cot in a economic experiment. Either way, the whether you have a memory system or a money system, it kind of produces the same outcomes in gameplay. So in that sense, like money is a literal like, exit memory, which is a term that actually Nancy Boehm I got from Nancy Boehm, a science fiction book, Nancy Boehm wrote, but it’s this kind of collective memory or external memory system, that we use to remember in a, you know, economic sense. Our transactions, you know, I have, we have transacted, I have paid, you know, you have the money, and I don’t, and we both remember that that transaction has occurred. But then anthropologists who are not at all in communication with, you know, this particular stream of game theory, we’ll also write that money as memory and they mean that yes, it is this way of keeping track of our entire obligations, but they mean that in much more of a, a kind of a sense of kind of socio, that kind of socio cultural dimensions of that. And, and so, you know, Viviana Zelizer and economic sociologists talk about these kind of like spheres of exchange and networks, well, they all there’s like some people, there’s like, some people say network, some people say spheres, some people say circuits, etc. But the way that money kind of traces the tessellations of our inter obligations to each other. And then thinking about the question, I mean, I would love to kind of, you know, hear your perspective, and just because you’re have thought so many fascinating things about this, but I’d love to, you know, kind of hear how it intersected for you on the question of migration. But I will say that many economic anthropologists had have studied money systems as they relate to remittances and as they relate to kind of like, development. And, and very few, very little attention had been paid to the kinds of meaning and politics of payment systems in the United States as though the and this I think, is an error that you know, so we tend to repeat again, and again, as scholars, but as though economic transactions in primitive societies are more meaningful, and economic transactions in the West are, you know, so much more economic and so much more uncoupled from, you know, social aspects. And so I wanted to kind of resocialize Western money and northern money and, and, and demonstrate the contours of the kind of inequalities inscribed there in
Lana Swartz 34:24
So, so yeah, um,
Lana Swartz 34:28
yeah, I want to hear what you have to
Aswin Punathembekar 34:30
I can chime in as well. But even before we get to that, I’m also mindful of the time and yeah, we can take questions. So keeping in mind that we wanted this to be oriented to at CMS grad students and other early career scholars and PhD students listening in one of the other bits of your book that I thought was worth reflecting on a little bit was the sheer range of methodological tools you had to pull together. The were crossing across these different theoretical domains. So in one sense, as a good Media Studies scholar, you really pulled together different kinds of artifacts and read them as texts, you do this really close thematic analysis of advertisements, like credit card sort of surfaces like these, that I’m holding up to the screen. But you also sort of trace process. So it’s almost like I read it as a process geography kind of book, where you’re going through the lifecycle of a certain kind of transaction that gets going. And then you’re going to follow it through to lifestyle. And along the way, you’re going to do deep dives into different moments to have moments of interaction and which institutions which actors are then come into play, which networks get activated, and so on. So could you say a little bit about that dimension of your project? What were some of the challenges? Did you have to learn new methods? Or did you have to retool some methods to bring, as Dalton said in the chat window, to bring this communication perspective to a very new object that median income studies has not tended to take into account?
Lana Swartz 36:10
Yeah, so I mean, in some ways, I think this circles back to the question of learning about an object as a community formed around it. So you know, I came to thinking about money at a time when a lot of people were thinking about money, and kind of a lot of people were reimagining the infrastructures of money. I mean, the term FinTech basically, came of age during the writing of my book. Certainly, cryptocurrency and all of that emerged during the writing of my dissertation, and then book and so I was effectively thought of myself as an ethnography offer. But I was an ethnography of communities who were rediscovering or rather, we’re discovering there, the genealogy and the history of the thing that they were interested in. So like me, lots and lots of, of entrepreneurs, artists, activists, said, you know, we need to read, you know, I’m fascinated by money. I’m not sure why, but I’m fascinated by it. And I, and I’m, and I’m desperate to rethink it. And so let me now Now I have to suddenly learn everything about the way the Visa MasterCard network works, or like the way the Automated Clearing House works. And so like, like them, I thought, okay, like, how do people? How do people in this industry learn about these, like, really boring systems? And the answer to that was, they go to industry boot camps, like, where you learn, you spend one week doing a super deep dive in how, how these kind of legacy systems work, and everybody else around me was either employed by a legacy system, like a big bank of reeds, MasterCard, etc. And they were I was literally doing the employee training, that people who work in this industry do, or they were learning about them, because they wanted to, like disrupt and revolutionize them. And then there and I was sort of there learning about the thing, but also doing an ethnography of all the people around me. And then, like many of the people around me, there was the opportunity to kind of discover histories I joke that I am, unfortunately, or for better for worse, like probably one of the world’s experts on the Diners Club card, which was the first third party universal third party payment card that emerged in the 1950s and 60s, and to kind of, and, and so so Diners Club still exists. It’s more popular in some countries than others. But it has gone through a number of different mergers and acquisitions, and is now I think, most recently owned by discover. And it was purchased by discover for its international network. But during many of these kind of transitions, its company archive was lost. So another thing that I’ve learned about is that many large companies have their own archives have their own library and have their own archivist. And those can be tremendous, tremendous sources of information for thinking about the kind of history of technology and history of business. But Diners Club have been lost. At one point, it had been outsourced to a company that now I think, also no longer exists called the history company know the history factory, that was meant to be a steward of various corporate archives, but somebody stopped paying the Diners Club bill at some point. And this kind of went off and, and smoke so I wound up doing kind of, and this is something I’ve learned a lot about from Kevin Driscoll, who’s my partner, but also a media historian, which is the kind of eBay archives that kind of eBay histories where you set up your eBay alerts and you buy everything that you know for a couple bucks that relates to kind of the early ephemera of the thing you’re interested in. So through that, I discovered for example, that early Diners Club cards, had these kind of books. And this is actually I have a very short piece, which I’d be happy to send anybody, which is in my edited collection from MIT Press called pave, about the Diners Club, about the Diners Club and the way that the card itself was one innovation, but really, in order to find how to use a Diners Club, find a way, the way to the only way to use a dyers go card was to know where it was accepted. And the only way to know where it was accepted was to have these kind of guidebooks that told you where and you could look up like any town anywhere in America, and know that your card will be accepted there. And so I, so I kind of begin to realize from kind of looking at the books, which I only learned about because I found them on eBay, that they were kind of the key innovation. And they were the kind of key Wayfinding tool for the transactional community of, of the Diners Club card. And so in the short piece that I wrote for MIT, the MIT book, I kind of compared it to the Green Book. So the, you know, the Negro motorist screen book, which helped, you know, African American travelers navigate the segregated United States and find safe harbor while on the road. And I then discovered just by kind of pivoting into kind of more traditional historical approaches, you know, just like newspaper archival searches, that in the African American press of the mid century, of which there are many African American newspapers, there is a lot of talk about how, you know, on the road, there was no way to pay for anything, except through something like a Diners Club card, because, you know, there were no major bank networks, there were a you know, you couldn’t go to bank America on any corner and pull money out of an ATM, they hadn’t been invented yet, it was pretty hard to get a merchant to accept an out of town check, because they would be pretty hard to kind of track down. You know, it was easy to do check fraud. And so the Diners Club card basically allowed people to travel and be accepted to kind of book places, you know, pay for hotels, pay for rental cars, etc. And in African American press, there was a lot of talk about how African Americans were not really able to take advantage of the innovation of the Diners Club card, because they faced a new kind of de facto discrimination when they showed up, they, you know, to pay for their motel room, and the clerk said, Oh, Diners Club card, well, if you could just get cash, we’d be happy to give you a room. And so these kind of new layers of privatization on top of the kind of transactional technology of money created new opportunities for new and innovative kinds of discrimination and racism. So and the only way I would have known about that, or the only way I was able to figure that out was by kind of circulating around and around through the kind of pivoting between eBay history to more traditional forms of history. And the only way I really began to think about the Diners Club was from pulling from the kind of ethnographic ethnography of industry contexts. So you have to kind of constantly be pivoting between different kinds of approaches. And just sort of, I mean, I think back to a piece actually read and CMS which was
Lana Swartz 43:27
the Fis cher, Mike, Michael Fischer and George Marcus’s, like multi sided ethnography, which just encouraged you to think about everything ethnographically whether it’s historical work, or other kinds of like, you know, looking deeply at documents, and and follow threads, however they need to be followed, I also begin to think of myself as doing like an ethnography of PDFs, because so many of the standards of these systems, whether they’re like the Visa, MasterCard guidebook, or like any number of cryptocurrency white papers are inscribed as PDFs. So like engaging with that. That network of of kind of non human actors that guide these spaces was also like a really important part of my work.
Aswin Punathembekar 44:14
I’m glad you referred to Marcus and Fischer. Yeah, word of historical anthropology. And the idea that I think I read the same article to may have been in miracles class, about multi sightedness not being just endlessly sort of multiplying the number of sites, but to think of each site in a very, very careful way and how that each site is implicated in a network of other forces and factors. Some humans are non human. And I guess I’ll close by saying that one of the real pleasures of your book is you you manage to intersect with so many different emergent subfields platform studies, critical infrastructure studies, media, industry studies, critical race studies, and so on. And you managed to Pull those threads into chapters as and when you need to get into certain crucial conversations that are ongoing, but at the same time managed to stay focused on this narrative thread about transaction. And that is no easy task. So I guess I’ll end with this question about transport writing your first book, it’s a monumental thing to do. So congratulations, again, it’s such a great achievement, and to do it so beautifully is really no mean task. And so can you tell us for everybody listening in, especially grad students, early career scholars make struggling their way through that first book? What were some of the challenges? What were some of the pleasures? And if you could even give us like a glimpse into those moments of sheer joy, where you realize, that’s it? All the bloody years? Now I get it after eight long years? Yeah. Tell us a little bit about that process?
Lana Swartz 45:56
Well, I’m not sure if I have felt
Lana Swartz 46:01
Arctic release just yet that I got it done. I mean, it’s, I got it done. Right, I got it done. But I don’t know that I always feel that I got it done. Right. But I mean, I, I also just have to say, you know, when you mentioned kind of the litany of, of sub emergent subfields that I draw from, and a big part of that is the network of people who I have had the tremendous, you know, good fortune and privilege of, you know, being exposed to some of whom are here today. And, you know, certainly kind of Kendall Square between my CMS time and my Microsoft Research time, has been incredibly, you know, important to the kind of formation of my intellectual life. And as it emerged in this book, and I guess, that both of that happened kind of before and after the dissertation, um, but I would say, I, you know, in the exciting structure of the book, for me are one of the, the exciting ways of untangling a puzzle was to kind of think about following through the actual mechanisms of transaction. So getting paid, kind of processing those payments, paying, and then the kind of data that emerges and test leads out from there, and then actually being able to look and deeply attend, and I could go on for quite some links in the book and could go on, and, you know, chattering about it for even longer about the actual material processes that underlie the way the, the way transactions actually function in the kind of like baseline, Visa, MasterCard payment system. And breaking the book down into a chapter that, that chapters that examine each of those processes, and really giving myself permission to not spare, or, you know, to be willing to kind of give the technical detail as much of a close read, as I, as I felt they needed was really freeing. I often am frustrated, frankly, by, by scholarship that talks about algorithms or talks about, you know, technologies as though they were all one thing or as though like, you know, algorithms, what are they we don’t know, but they’re bad, which that’s nobody here. But But I think that that tends to be a problem. And so like, really, really digging into the technologies themselves. And then exploiting them out was something though, yeah, I’m glad there’s Sorry, I’m monitoring the thing on the side, um, you know, that that was a gift allowing myself the time and the space to really unpack the technologies and, and treat them, you know, as though they were cultural texts and cultural artifacts, which they are, was something that I, I was very, I’m grateful to be able to have had. And I’m grateful to readers who are willing to spend the time to actually read some of the boring stuff that I find so fascinating.
Aswin Punathembekar 49:20
No, not boring at all. If anything, I think it’s the richness of that detail. that then allows the reader to then step back and really come to terms with the fact that it’s out of these details, that the social life of transaction really emerges. And what’s what’s held together throughout, is what you just said, which is we said what becomes newly material, that’s another phrase from your book that really stayed with me, and you and you sort of do the, the attention to the material dimensions of different, more different processes, like you said, of paying, getting paid, paying somebody been mowing somebody, something And so on, while not allowing those material dimensions to somehow over determine the social, so the both of those things remain autonomous in your framework. And you managed to do manage to hang on to both of them, without necessarily sort of, you know, making facile directionality arguments about this leading to the other, you know, it’s in that sense, it is, I think, an exemplar of doing the kind of conjunctural work that a Stuart Hall might say, like, have put everything into context, keep the two things together in one frame, and see where the story leads you. Right, which allows you to, I think, be really open to new insight, rather than going in and saying, This is what Ben was doing. So yeah, I couldn’t recommend this book highly. And, honestly, this is sort of an exemplar of media and transition. All of you on this, go get a copy a lot. I will, when when, when a book tour happens when a white book tour happens, we come to wherever you are inside the book for you. But I
Lana Swartz 51:00
did have someone on Twitter offer to buy a signed copy of the book via Bitcoin. And then yeah, so I’m open to that. But then in the DMS, they were like, Oh, actually, can I not give you a Bitcoin? Because like, I don’t know if you know, this, that bitcoins pricing is like, highly variable. And so why would I pay for a book? I’m like, the talk. Um, so yeah, I was hoping for the book.
Aswin Punathembekar 51:24
Yeah, I’m sure there are lots and lots of questions, waiting in the chat queue that Andrew can, perhaps moderate or Scot, depending on who wants to take that go. But please, everybody join me in congratulating Lana again on this, on this terrific achievement? And yeah, thank you.
Lana Swartz 51:42
Yeah, thank you all for, um, you know, allowing us to do this kind of experimental chat. I hoped it was a little bit, you know, I know, we all have zoom fatigue. So I hope something a little bit more interactive was more interesting. And thank you so much for Aswan for asking such insightful and, and very kind questions.
Aswin Punathembekar 52:03
Let’s Yeah, let’s
Scot Osterweil 52:03
Yeah, let’s see what else is there? No, in keeping with the spirit of this, let’s start with see whether there are questions from the students first before before I go to the chat list, or the QA that Thomas you have here? Is that you raise your hand? Yes, go ahead.
Tomás Guarna 52:22
Um, hi, I’m Tomas. I’m a first year CMS grad student. And so I’m interested in Well, obviously, you look at me and transition, which is what we weren’t supposed to. And I’m interested in how to how do you study the ship isn’t like novelty and continued continuity? I feel that sometimes we’re like saying everything is new. And it seems as we’re saying, like, everything is the same always. Mm hmm.
Lana Swartz 52:43
Yeah, so the a phrase that I had to excise from the book, because I use it too many times was, but there is a longer history here. And, and so I do think that kind of looking at the new and then situating, the new, we’re looking at this moment of transition, which you know, is new at any given moment, and then doing this kind of genealogical work to kind of figure out what are the necessary histories that need to be known. And then I have found it really useful. So I think about money, one of the analytics, that that kind of money. Money, as a object of study has gotten me is to think about the way money creates kind of shared futures. So we only use a form of money, and accept a form of money, because we believe it’ll be worth something tomorrow, or the next day or the next day. And we are and that is, you know, a kind of performance of the, of the acceptance of the authority of whatever, bodies authorize that value of that money. So, you know, I might feel a lot of anxiety about the death of American democracy, but I’m still willing to accept, you know, and use US dollars as payments, because I don’t feel that much anxiety about it. But nevertheless, I get questions from interviewers, I’ve gotten questions from multiple different journalists this week about people, you know, moving all their money into bitcoin ahead of the US election. So it so that kind of analytic that kind of way that money creates a shared future or a sense of a shared future among those who use it became a way for me to kind of think about future. So how do the people who use a shared money form understand a shared past? What do they not know about that shared past? What do I need to know about the shared past to understand this like moment of change? And then how does that give an object project into a future and what what kinds of like what array of possible futures are made available by the object of study and the community that surrounds it? And so your whatever you’re talking is going to be very different. But I think whatever your topic is, will yield its own ways of structuring shared paths and shared futures and understanding these kind of like shared presence. And as long as you are able to endeavor to think analytically about all of that, you’ll kind of I think that’s like a pretty useful way to kind of deal with that question.
Tomás Guarna 55:25
Scot Osterweil 55:30
Diego, I see your hand up.
Diego Cerna Aragon 55:33
Oh, yeah. Ah, thank you, Anna and asked me before the conversation, I have a question as somebody who is also interested in the kind of like intersection of media and economics. And so how does somebody from your size engage with economists? Because economics is this really well, fence field, or at least it seems to be this really well, fence field? That is really worth but the practitioners and scholars in the field? And and at least in my experience, it seems to be that basically kind of like media size US, okay, there are these like, it’s farms that are only looking at the corporate dimensions of the economic practices, right. But there is more to it. Right, I want to get from, from the front of your conversation is that there is all this like, material semiotic a mention of the practices of economic right, and that this dimension has, like actual consequences in our economy. Right. But how do we show them that this that this dimension has is important? Right? That’s what I keep pondering about.
Lana Swartz 56:48
Yeah, I mean, I guess my answer to that is to use the language of economics is to say, what is the utility of convincing them? And there may indeed, be utility. But the, but then ultimately, they kind of what is the outcome that you want to have? Like? To what extent, you know, I’ve definitely had the feeling that I really wanted to be more respected by the economists that I’ve interacted with. But I ultimately don’t get anything of that much use to me from being respected by economists. And, and then if the question is, okay, economists have tremendous power, and they’ve been able to marshal their kind of like, weird, non empirical way of doing theory into a kind of like, political power. You know, maybe that’s useful, but then do you have to go through them to get what you need, or to do what you need to do? So I think it’s like, you know, figure out what you want to get out of it. And then, you know, go on from there. I will say, for me, and this is unique to my case, economists, a very small group of economists are some of the only people who are have historically been interested in payment systems, because they’re interested in two sided markets. And so there are, like, people who want to geek out about payment systems, who are in the field of economics, and they’re excited to talk to me, because I’m one of the only people who shares that interest. So and who is like reading their papers from 20 years ago? So I do think that I do think that that, you know, you find common ground that you want to stand on with those disciplines. And then you figure out why you want to interact with them beyond that. I mean, I don’t know, I’m, I might be too early in my career to give you more of a of an answer than that. But I think kind of like living in and performing your confidence. I, some of you will know what I’m talking about here. But I, I know, I have met economists in my life, literally. Who are who I have now turned this, like, there’s a particular economist that I know and I turn this mantra where I say what, what his name is not as one but let’s pretend same as as one where anytime I do anything in life, I say, what would as when do what would as when expect, what kind of like privilege would this economist expect to be like, dropped at their feet? And then that gives me the power to say, you know, like, what I try I try to use that too. empower myself to behave as an economist would. So you know, it doesn’t always work, but most of the time doesn’t work. But it’s um, it’s important to kind of destabilize the kind of accepted regimes of academic authority.
Scot Osterweil 59:53
Kelly Wagman 59:57
Hi, thank you for the talk. I have kind of an analogous question, which is, what has been your interaction with the like tech enthusiasts, Silicon Valley dudes who want to remake payments? And have? Have you had any discussions about your work? Or do you hope to like change minds? And if so, how? And?
Lana Swartz 1:00:17
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. So I started, as I’ve mentioned, like in this space, when the space was kind of gearing up, and early on, you know, there weren’t that many people interested in. In this kind of, I mean, there were, but it was a smaller community. And so early on, I was invited to give lots and lots of talks to like FinTech groups and Bitcoin groups and that sort of thing. Some of which sat at the intersection of academia and activism. And so which didn’t. And the, that was like a important like ethnographic opportunity for me to kind of try to figure out how to be a critical expert in this space when he when in fact, I was quite early on in my work. And it sort of speaks to the question of like, empowerment and authority were like, they didn’t know what they were talking about, either. So I could kind of like Marshal my own ability to end and also really think about what could be interesting for these groups, like, what could I bring to bear. And then an interesting thing happened, which is, I wasn’t saying anything. That was like monetizable, or that was like, fed the hype machine. And if anything, I was kind of a hype killjoy. Early on, and they were like, Oh, no, we don’t invite her again. And then a kind of interesting thing happened, where like, we all ride these like waves of hype cycles. And suddenly, it’s like, cool to be critical about these things again, and so now, fortunately, corresponding with my book, but also unfortunately, corresponding with a global pandemic, I’m now getting lots of new invitations to kind of be the kind of critical voice which they kind of now decide that they, they need to have, I’m just cool. And then the other piece is that, like, asking the question, like sincerely asking a question, like, what do industries? And what are, you know, activists and you know, people who want to try to make change from one direction or another? What do they actually need to know, has proven to be a really useful analytic for me. Like, I found myself studying industries, but the industry isn’t very interested in learning about themselves. And so I had to kind of think for whom is learning about this industry? Interesting. Is it interesting to people? Is it interesting to users of payment systems, whether which we all are? And then I had to think, like, maybe not really, so like, what is interesting? And to whom? And then how do I kind of use that to kind of put it all together to create a book that is kind of interesting to someone. And so now, it’s an interesting thing, where I think, you know, the industries are interested in hearing critique, but they’re also interested in hearing about history. And then I, I do hope that the kind of like users at large are interested in, in learning about how these kind of systems actually work and thinking about ways that people kind of sit at the intersection of user and perhaps like, change maker can kind of think past the kind of easy stories about like, all good, all bad, and kind of dig into some of the the kind of details, I think, one of the most important things to me to kind of communicate to at least the kind of startup community and the kind of crypto community has been to really attend to and really think about how much human labor and of course, you know, you can hear traces of all the interlocutors that are some of whom are in this room that I’ve had over the years. But, you know, that, that, that did repeat new kinds of disintermediation of financial transactions via things like blockchain don’t suddenly make things happen by magic, but rather, are when they work if they work, which they usually don’t. They’re the outcome of a lot of like human effort and, and to try to get the industry to think about how discovering hidden systems and how important they are through the process of remaking them doesn’t mean doesn’t have to mean re submerging them as though all of the kind of infrastructural care work that went into producing them was instead kind of this like the outcome of a
Lana Swartz 1:04:48
you know, technological magic. That makes sense. So, so yeah, I think like always keeping in mind who, who would care and like and like what your different audiences are and what you can tell them and and then think about. And then also think about, like, what the key takeaways would be for the kind of most empowered stakeholders?
Lana Swartz 1:05:12
You know, might be for you.
Lana Swartz 1:05:16
But yeah, having to be like, what do I really, and I bringing to anybody has been like a really, really useful way for me to figure out what I could actually bring to anyone
Scot Osterweil 1:05:33
affects Um, so I, unless I see another question from a student, for the sake of, since this is recorded, it’s sort of my job to sort of read questions out loud, just so that they get heard. The chat, by the way, is full of your fans, and all sorts of I’m not surprised all sorts of flirt sort of enthusiastic, supportive comments, I actually sort of do see one genuine question there from Mary gray. Which is, do you consider platforms like venue as re socializing of money?
Lana Swartz 1:06:08
Yeah, so if we think about Venmo, so Venmo, is talked about, as you know, for almost probably most of you know, what Venmo is, oftentimes, when I talk to international audiences or you know, older, like adult audiences, you’re adults, but you know what I mean, I have to kind of explain what Venmo is, because it’s something that’s like, very widely used among people under 30 in the United States, but not at all used beyond that. And it’s basically just makes payments into a social feed. So you can you attach annotations to your payment. And then you can also surveil the payments that other folks in your network are making or in public are making. So it is often talked about overtly as a payments, I mean, as a social media system as and this attempt to, you know, make money into something that is social, sort of make money social. And in fact, I remember having a conversation with a very well known payments consultant at a big payments industry trade show, and she was like, you know, people have been trying to make p2p kind of peer to person to person transactions happen for 20 years. And who knew, all it would take would be to be able to add emojis to it. And I was like, Yeah, but also You’re right, like, Who knew that money sort of like wanted to be social, and, and that by like, like, allowing us to kind of surface the sociality of money would kind of make it something that would, you know, people actually wanted to do and use. At the same time, of course, you know, when we say money is social, it can kind of only be social in the kind of Silicon Valley meaning of the term. And so when you when you hear people in those industries, faces talk about money as social, what they really mean, if they’re like saying, oh, we’re doing social payments, what we really mean is that they’re doing payments, whose main, you know, Mountain monetizable, monetize ability comes through social media data. So there’s this like, interesting intersection where, you know, Silicon Valley, rediscovers that money is, in fact, social, only through the process of enclosing that sociality as something that can be commoditized. For in one way or another. I am though, I will say and I just want to give a quick plug to this, I am really excited about Tim Long’s new book about I forget what it’s called, but it’s basically about how social data might be the next like, big bubble, because like, there’s only so many ways we can do predictive analytics to drive more advertising. And that, you know, might be kind of like the big lie that undergirds like all the systems that we like and enjoy. So I be very curious to see if we ultimately do have some kind of crash around that. And then, you know, what happens? How do we think about the sociality of money and sociality of other, you know, other platforms that we’ve invested so much of our lives in? If we they suddenly are discovered to be less profitable than we imagined?
Aswin Punathembekar 1:09:16
Yeah. Yeah. And the I mean, to
Aswin Punathembekar 1:09:20
me rigorous Mary’s question also sort of prompts the observation that the default publicness at the heart of platforms, like when Moe and many others and default publicness has been written about quite a bit, right. Is that something that becomes the focus for you when it comes to thinking about both the challenges but also the real risks of that mode of publicness?
Lana Swartz 1:09:47
Aswin Punathembekar 1:09:48
What’s at stake when communities that aren’t in the windmill ecosystem, don’t get or don’t become part of the imaginary of Silicon Valley Tech Bros. Right. And so here I’m thinking back to our brief back and forth about migration meets payment systems. And I’m wondering if this I don’t know this much, but I’m wondering if there’s real opportunity there to do some deep historical work where boundaries zones, and I’m looking at the big balls work here, in sense that when a group of migrants land on the shores of some space, and when there is simply no commensurability, between different forms of money that are circulating in that community, both of which happen to be marginalized within the American racial system, what happens then? So I’m wondering if that sort of deep historical work is also crucial if we are to recognize the very real limits of the imaginations of Silicon Valley, other kind of tech spaces like Accra, in Ghana, Bangalore, India, you know, what sort of state driven initiative, so yeah, not to put you on the spot? Because,
Lana Swartz 1:10:54
yeah, well, so in terms of, I’ll just give a quick shout out to an art piece called public by default by an artist named Hang Do Thi Duc, which is referenced in my book where she looks at kind of the humans of Venmo. Where and she uses she downloads, like all Venmo transactions from 2017, using their public API, and uses it not to, you know, find terrorists or stop fraud or whatever, but instead, to kind of paint these portraits of the people and the kind of human lives behind the Venmo transactions. And I think that her and her piece is meant to be cautionary, so it’s meant to say, you know, look at all the things I can learn about you through Venmo. And hear all these compelling reasons and so easy to just change your settings, so just do it. But at the same time, the piece like really straddles this line where she shows how kind of like poignant and like real, these like moments of transaction are. And it perfectly for me oscillates between the, um, you know, the very real sociality of payment and money, but also the kinds of dangers of of living in this, like newly public way of kind of publicly doing transactions. And the other piece I want to mention about that, though, is that for me, in some ways, the advertising pieces is the main way we think about monetizing the internet. But actually the primary uses of payments data, at least four payment apps winds up being operational. So like predictive analytics that like the kind of Eden Alexander story, I told, prevent against alleged fraud, alleged violations of Terms of Service and that kind of thing. So they wind up being these kind of like, like they are used, the ultimately transaction data is used to power and animate the transaction systems themselves. And so then the problem then becomes these moments when they stop working, they they break down, you can’t access your money, you can’t pay with your money. And, and so, and, and those those, you know, ruptures happen because of the data produced by the systems themselves. So I think in some ways, like, it’s not so much that the data is, or the transactions are viewable or survivable. But then like, how they’re used, and who makes sense of them. I mean, if you think about Venmo, Venmo is the most public of, you know, transaction systems. It’s the only one that I know of that has like a really solid public API, whereas others, like, you know, Facebook and Google tend to be more like data hoarders. So like kind of what happens, like what kinds of what kinds of degrees of publicity and privacy are, are useful if and for what ends. But to your question about transaction transactionality. that this isn’t exact, I do think I absolutely think more work needs to be done along the historical lines you describe, but the thing It reminds me of is his two anecdotes that one up in the book, which is the way that people continue to use money systems that are based in one place, even as they transit to the to another place. So my students always tell me about how when you know what I teach classical money and technology where we lay all this out. And again, and again, they say, it’s so interesting, I’ve heard this exact same story again, and again, that when I was in study abroad, or when I went abroad for the summer, my friends and I in my friend group had one designated person who handled the money meaning handled the money of whatever locale they were in trafficked in euros or pesos or whatever. Whereas we all settled up in the background using Venmo. So we were all living in the kind of this micro transactional community and we had one kind of envoy into the, you know, transactional world around us. And so this kind of experience of being this like fumbling.
Lana Swartz 1:14:55
maladapted user of a foreign money was like Something they didn’t really get to experience because they were primarily living within the kind of safe harbor of something they understood, which was Venmo. And all those Venmo transactions were settling up on cloud computers that were assigned to United States, and therefore, they may have left the United States, but their money never did. And similarly, there are, you know, with WeChat, if we think about, you know, China, you know, there is a, a Chinese restaurant, across the street from the University of Virginia, where we chat is accepted. And WeChat pay is accepted. And and Chinese students will look at WeChat, to see the kind of moments to see the specials of the day, and transact entirely with WeChat in this with this restaurant and amongst themselves. And similarly, WeChat can be used at all Caesars owned casinos in Vegas. So when I was at these money trade shows, in Vegas, I saw large groups of Chinese tourists transacting entirely in WeChat, except for with gambling, because you’re not allowed to use it to buy gambling chips. That’s the one prohibition fully remaining within the kind of communicative world and transactional world of China even as they traveled beyond. So I’m really interested in how payment and this kind of goes back to the Diners Club thing thinking about like payment as a Wayfinding tool payment as a tool of geography, remakes, geographies, in ways that don’t simply map to territoriality, like what does it mean to be somewhere? And, and what does it mean to be somewhere even as most of your communications, including your financial communications, are happening somewhere else, so to speak?
Aswin Punathembekar 1:16:46
Absolutely, there’s a history to be told as a story to be told about, like you said, with the person who handles money for all the study abroad, students mediating personas, perhaps Money, Money handlers, and I’m thinking about the grocery stores that I relied on, and the grocery store owner who could mediate for me, basically remittances for, you know, through the 90s, which have now disappeared from a certain kind of cultural geography and the geography of urban sort of, you know, cities, with WhatsApp with WeChat, and so on. So this is interesting. So that’s what I meant when I said, How do we recover that those kinds of imaginaries of relationships across space being sustained by networks of payments, that tech bros in Silicon Valley in either have the interest nor the inclination to grasp that form of sociality? Right. So that’s what I was doing to Vivek and wondering if Bengali Harlem has stories about payments and money, as a crucial form of sociality, for the kinds of people who landed up in Harlem at the turn of the century, but not so.
Lana Swartz 1:17:48
Yeah. Well, one thing I will say about Harlem, I just wanna say one thing about Harlem at the turn of the century, rather, Harlem in the well, Manhattan in the postbellum period, is that in the United States, the state issued currency was not fully consolidated until well after the Civil War. So if you were entering Manhattan, whether as an immigrant from the hinterlands in the United States or from anywhere, you suddenly had to navigate all very communist monetary ecosystem, and David hanken, who’s a historian has a really great book called city reading, that’s about all the different forms of reading the largely illiterate population of major cities had to do and meaning he means New York in the 18th and 19th century, and being able to say, Okay, this banknote is real, this bank note is fake, this bank note is real, but it’s from a bank that went out of business, this bank note is actually issued from a private bank, that would be good in Philadelphia, but probably isn’t good in, in New York, and having to kind of end or be like, this one’s probably not good. But I guarantee someone else will take it was a crucial way of being street smart. And I think, and this is kind of like a big takeaway that we didn’t really talk about from the book is that, you know, people often ask me what the future of money is, and I don’t think state issued currencies are going anywhere. I don’t think cash necessarily is going anywhere. But what I do think where we’ll be seeing is a new period of monetary plurality, where we will be having to negotiate many, many different forms of money both in the kind of rails, the systems that power them, but also like these mediated forms that they take, but also the kind of tokens of, Oh, it’s my knees, not look at the chat. Okay. I’m saying so. And so how do we live in a world of plurality? How do we negotiate that plurality? How do we deal with deprecated money forms?
Aswin Punathembekar 1:19:45
I underlined sentences we say that a plurality could mean your transactional life is very gated omnivorous, constantly shifting between different monies, different communities. Yeah,
Lana Swartz 1:19:55
yes. And I think learning to live with pote plurality will be the kind of key political question of our kind of monetary lives in the next in the coming decades.
Scot Osterweil 1:20:08
Yeah. We have two very thoughtful questions in the q&a. Do you guys have time to stay past 630? Or do you need?
Lana Swartz 1:20:17
Let’s do can we, um, so I should probably go for family reasons. But maybe if you can just read the two questions. And we know we can say like, five more minutes, but if anybody needs to go, please don’t I will, you know, bye. Thank you so much for coming. Yeah.
Scot Osterweil 1:20:34
Thank you, I have to disappear at 630. But the questions, one is from Radu, it’s when studying money, I tend to go to the heavy emergence of microtransactions and video games. How can we think of this the same way we regard dollars in society as a way of getting us a product or good? Are they a commodity in themselves? So that’s one like, Okay, second question. Thanks for a great talk. Sorry, for the long question. Exploring money as media, I was wondering about your take on the similarities of oppressive economic sanctions, impacting citizens of certain countries, denying them the use of global financial system, and the new global social media excluding and D platforming certain people and views, this idea of legitimize exclusion of the international scale, targeting millions of citizens denying them access to the increasingly centralized forms of transaction, whether it’s money or knowledge, and of course, for access to knowledge, one needs to engage in financial transactions as well.
Lana Swartz 1:21:25
I think I mean, that’s a those are both super interesting, really astute questions. And I think they really speak to like the heart of what I’m trying to argue in the book, which is like, especially this idea of legitimize exclusion. And you know, deep platforming, via access to money, and money, you know, financial systems, kind of speaks to this idea of like, not, the not having access to money, or to be able to pay and be paid is as good as like not having money at all. And so like, really, really developing a political imagination around the rails of money, rather than just around the
Lana Swartz 1:22:05
Lana Swartz 1:22:05
economic distribution of money is really important. And to kind of speak to the Daniels question, you know, that’s where we come in, like, we don’t need to be economists, we need to study the things that we study with the tools that we have, because we have really important things to say, and economists would never think about the way that it you know, it’s not simply the sanctions themselves via, you know, economic relationships, it’s the way that sanctions are enacted via, you know, PayPal, Visa, MasterCard, and like banks, that that do the work of transactional communication via what we call media systems via what we call technology systems. So like, we look for that, like, look for how our are, we have the ability to ask questions that are being obfuscated or simply treated as like, like, treated as, as the, as something lesser than the big picture, but reality, like that’s kind of where the inaction of these policies actually live, and what that looks like. So yes, absolutely, I think, and I think that that’s really complex, and we need to, like spend a lot more time thinking more about it. And similarly, I mean, I think we could say, you know, that microtransactions, and video games are actually quite similar, you know, like, what are the, you know, what are the ways that that new monies are designed as products and the kind of like, both the rails of them that transmit them around the information systems that allow them to exist? And then like, what are the kind of political economies of money themselves? So if we can use something like microtransactions, to enquire after the Political Economy of a new money form, we can develop an apparatus that allows us to apply that to a, you know, to living with global money plurality, as it relates to, you know, economic sanctions in the way that they’re deployed via particular infrastructures. So, yeah, I think oddly enough, those are two questions that kind of hung together, I guess.
Scot Osterweil 1:24:20
Yeah. And you were brilliant in sort of wrapping them up that that, that well, so yeah,
Lana Swartz 1:24:25
but I mean, I will. The final thing I’ll say about writing this book is that it’s kind of like a first book on a topic and that you have, as economics, economists would say, like a first mover advantage, but there’s so much more work to be done. And kind of like opening it up for more conversation is like a huge part of what I hope the work of the book is.
Lana Swartz 1:24:47
Lots of unanswered questions.
Scot Osterweil 1:24:49
Thanks so much. Thank you.
Yes. Thank you all. Thank you, Aswan. Thank you so much. This is
Scot Osterweil 1:24:56
so many both wonderful to have you both back.
Lana Swartz 1:24:58
Yeah, it was really fun.
Aswin Punathembekar 1:25:01
Lana Swartz 1:25:02
Yeah, and I hope this format was some, you know, was interesting for you guys. So, all right Take care everybody.
Lana Swartz 1:25:11
Aswin Punathembekar 1:25:11
Lana Swartz 1:25:12