On Cards, Card-Based Systems, and the Material Cultures of Computing

(My talk from Systems We Love, December 13, 2016)

Introduction: Why Card-Based Systems?

Thank you for having me here today! My name is Amelia Abreu, and I live in Portland, Oregon.

I’m a lifelong systems geek, and so happy to be here today amongst you all to talk about a type of systems I love, and I suspect many of you may also love: cards. I’m a design researcher, and I primarily work with engineering and security teams on improving the UX of developer tools.

In most of the conversations I have about systems, I feel like I have to push the present over future — yes, this will be better on the next release, but what doesn’t work now?

What’s more, we end to stress the abstract over the physical — thinking more about ideas than their physical iterations, and the relationship between the two. This approach conveniently overlooks some things, and leaves little room for historical context. As evidenced, we see, by the hardware antiques roadshow we’ve seen, and loved, today.

I want to talk about some historical, material and tactile aspects of systems. What things have we been doing with our hands, with our brains, for centuries? How do cards facilitate and automate what human brains do to process and play with information, how does this persist, and why?

Cards are a form of automation- they are uniform for processing but contain unique data. They mostly function as a bounded set, but one can add or take out values. You can demonstrate a lot of order theory with a deck of cards.

Card games have been around since the third century, are still in use, functioned as the first printed currency. Cards, not only as data storage, but as physical objects, have provided the architecture for other systems. Card schemes operate largely on an open source basis.

And let’s look at the technical specs: cards require no battery life and are higher resolution than most contemporary displays or monitors. They are, in fact, unmatched in performance by many standards.

So I propose that we look at cards as technological systems, and delve into their material history to explore that. I, for one, have been seeking historical context, seeking to look back across generations over the past few months.

Technology, Material Culture and History

What do I mean when I say that cards are part of technological systems?

Michel Foucault gives four definitions of technologies: technologies of production, and technologies of symbols, technologies of power, and technologies of self. Cards function in all of these realms.

To speak first to technologies of production, we need no introduction to the very persistent metaphors of cards in computing. Recently, I helped a teenage friend pick out a graphics card for her computer, and I was struck by how simple and elegant, how persistent the metaphor was.

If you think about the metaphor of cards in computing, what do you think of?

I think of Hypercard, I think of graphics cards, I think of my early memories of prying open my Texas Instruments Speak and Spell so I could switch out the cartridge. I think about punchcards, which were in use for over 100 years.

Cards might seem antiquated as a technology of production, but they’re still very much in use. I’ve used cards in my everyday work and life. When I worked as an archivist, we still had card files we used for reference, indexes that hadn’t been digitized. As a UX Designer, I love doing card sorting. When I taught students how to design databases, cards illustrated those purposes.

Let’s also speak to the second definition: sign systems. Card decks, and the games we play with them, are highly symbolic little systems with data models, random number variables, statistics, icons, complex (and often customizable) architecture, manuals and documentation, and standards all their own. While the term “relational database” was termed in the 1970s, cards, for millennia, have functioned as such.

So let’s delve into this material culture and history! Hopefully I have made a case for at least attempting think about how this long human legacy of cards impacts how we design systems and what we use them for. But how do you do that?

“Material culture” is an approach developed as an offshoot of anthropology and archeology, as a way to understand the relationships between human actions and material objects. “The relationship between artefacts and social relations irrespective of time and place… systematically explore the linkage between the construction of social identities and the production and use of culture.”

What do these material objects say about our own human actions?

Started in Third Century, CE, now we’re here

“Money Cards” ca. 800 CE

So, where do cards as we know them originate?

In researching this talk, the earliest recorded instance I could find of cards was of what are referred to as “Money Cards”: a three suited deck of stiff paper cards similar to MahJong. These are often credited as the first paper currency.

The first account I could find of Money Cards (given that I can’t read Chinese), was via the 19th century anthropologist W.H. Wilkinson, from the Tsin dynasty (about 290, CE), where one player ”flung into the river the minecups and yii-p’u of his subordinates, remarking, ‘Yii-p’u is a game for Drovers and swineherds.’

Mind you, this isn’t the first person to be on record as playing a card game — but the first to get so mad at the cards and the game that he threw them into the river. Talk about timeless themes in technology!

The early accounts of cards in China have all sorts of interesting social and political elements, like how (from another of Wilkinson’s accounts) “in 951 T’ai-tsu, the “High Ancestor” of the Later Chou, assembled his nobles to play together for embroidered rugs and damask and gauze of sorts.” This is notable not just because it’s people getting together to play cards, like you and your buddies do, but because they’re also trading in textiles, likely representative of regional trade and commercial production.

And I swear that I wasn’t looking for gender dynamics in this history, but I found them. I notice that mistresses come up in early accounts of card games, such as this account: “Yang Kuo-chung, brother of the notorious Yang Kuei-fei, mistress of the Emperor Ning Huang, played yii-pcu with the imperial gambler in the palace A. D. 750.” The male players often attribute the source of the games to women- women who of course are nameless across history.

Cards and card games are mentioned in early Buddhist texts, and other historical documents from ancient to early modern China. And this is significant to note because their history is often overlooked. Scholars of printing technology often start their chronology with fifteenth century Europe, when what I’ve described here is significant in its own right. It’s another tireless trope in the history of technology: white men claiming credit for things.

Carding: Textiles, Cards and Hardware in Early Modern Europe

Hand Carders, via Etsy

So, despite what I just said, I’m going to skip ahead a millennia, and pick up this history in early modern Europe. And what I want to emphasize is the hardware.

Automation, especially for manufacturing textiles, was an urgent need in early Modern Europe. Thus, there was a sudden demand for industrialization, for new kinds of machines to perform the codified processes of making fabric.

The earliest English usage of “card”, dating to the fifteenth century, is in “carding” textiles, the repeated action of smoothing fibers and making them uniform. (I’ve done a version of this myself, unraveling an old cashmere sweater and wrapping the yarn around a piece of cardboard so I could use it again for something else. It’s a tedious process, and I realized very quickly how machine labor would be nice for this.)

In the production of textiles, we can see this relationship between what is soft, what is hard, and what is codified — what needs to be standardized and automated. As folks such as Sadie Plant argue, these little processes, these metaphors, are still present today in computing:

“Textiles themselves are very literally the software linings of all technology… it is their microprocesses which underlie it all: the spindle and the wheel used in spinning yarn are the basis of all later axles, wheels,and rotations; the interlaced threads of the loom compose the most abstract processes of fabrication.”

When we de-emphasize the mechanics, the materiality, we lose some things along the way, including that everyday connection to human work and human cognition.

Bouchon’s loom via

What follows is a bit of a continued hardware roadshow. Here, we see a reproduction of Bouchon’s loom. This history of textile production isn’t altogether unfamiliar in what we learn about the history of computing. Many of us know the story of Babbage’s Difference Engine, and the role that Jaquard’s loom served as a precursor.

However, an earlier device, the Bouchon loom, from 1728, was the first to appropriate] the cards used in textile production for computing. One of Bouchon’s assistants is reported to have replaced “the paper roll with a set of punched cards attached to one another in an endless loop”. These cards were, most likely, repurposed from a role in wrapping textiles.

Jacquard picked up this loop and ran with it, and his loom used a slightly more elegant paper roll.

Playing Cards/Catalog Cards via

Meanwhile, elsewhere in France, other folks were interested in building modern democracy, and part of that was building a national library. (Let’s not forget that a cornerstone of democracy is access to information and the records of government). It was 1789, and the folks at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France wanted to index books, maps, and other items, so they devised a card catalog.

Their first cards? Playing cards. It’s a nice reminder that the structure of data in a card catalog, or any other database, isn’t so different from playing cards.

Korsakov’s Ideoscope, via

Next, here’s another often overlooked, but extremely fascinating bit of hardware, Korsakov’s Ideascope.

In the early part of the 19th century, a police statistician in St. Petersburg who also dabbled in homeopathy (I think I know this dude’s 2016 equivalent, and he lives in Southeast Portland), pieced together some textile manufacturing equipment, including cards, for his own purposes — to search data. The result was the Ideoscope, which he adapted for, as you may guess, both police work and homeopathy.

Cards and time, buddy

These previous machines, and their use of cards, give us a nice foundation for thinking about how we came to what we see as early computing. By the time that Charles Babbage started work on the Difference Engine in 1832, he was aware of the physical possibilities and limitations of working on cards. His famous quote was “It’s only a matter of cards and time” — the unspoken element of this is human labor.

Thus, when Hollerith set out in 1889 to build the Census Tabulating Machine, his greatest innovation in processing was to avail the labor of women to physically create, keep order, process, store, and preserve data in cards.

Cards, in a form close to what Hollerith conceived, were used in computing for over a hundred years. What technology could we hope to create with that sort of enduring legacy? It’s also important to note that this was a history that was gradual in adoption, and often subject to a broader social history. As the film Hidden Figures shows, card-based computing often worked in tandem with human computational work.

It’s easy to overlook that card-based computing was so prevalent for so long. But every so often, if we scratch beneath the surface, it’s apparent. Most of what we know in terms of best practices for building and maintaining data centers is based on storing punched cards.

Lastly, it’s interesting to note the physicality of cards. I knew that my mother worked as a “computer operator” at the Federal Reserve Bank in the late 70s and early 80s, and I only recently asked her what that meant- did she work with punched cards?

No, she responded, hastily. “I wasn’t allowed to apply for that job because I’m left-handed”, she said, implying that this was just a bit of common knowledge, the direction that a card reader worked. Thanks Mom, for reminding me that automation and accessibility are often at odds.

Conclusion: The Cards that Define Us

I haven’t talked about Foucault’s last two definitions of Technologies: Technologies of Power, and Technologies of Self. This is because I think that we can grasp these pretty easily by looking in our wallets, or around our work and life. (I’d like to note that your ID cards and credit cards are governed by the standard ISO/IEC 7810 which was established in 1985.)

If we want to think about Power, we can look at the way cards function in our everyday lives as “boundary objects”. Swipe your Clipper card, and you can get on the train. Swipe a key card, and you can get into your workplace. If you have a Platinum AmEx, you can go to a special lounge at the airport. Communication scholar Lana Swartz has written about the Diner’s Club card, one of the earliest nationally accepted charge cards, and how it created a new kind of human geography.

If we want to think about technologies of self, look to our IDs, our business cards.

Or look to Pokémon cards, which Mimi Ito argues teaches kids a kind of algorithmic thinking that’s necessary for survival in our current culture. Pokémon, she argues, teaches:

skills and dispositions to be able to access and draw from a highly dynamic and unstable informational environment that is too massive for them to internalize. Kids don’t have to memorize the 500 Pokemon in order to play. They know that universe of information is out there, and they access it flexibly and opportunistically as the need to know arises.

In other words, card systems continue to shape our daily actions as we modify them to suit our needs.

I want to conclude on this note about the enduring qualities of cards. Perhaps the cards that I value the most are the handful of index cards on which various friends and relatives have written down recipes and passed them onto me. These are little bits of data, and I’ve kept them with me for decades, and I hope to keep them with me for decades more.

I’ve had dozens of email addresses that are now inactive, created several webpages that are now only partially accessible via the Wayback Machine. Social media platforms have come and gone, and with them, my data. Cards represent a relationship, they represent an interaction, and they demonstrate this in a persistent, tactile and material way that’s been unmatched by any other technology.