As BBC Radio 4’s series ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ draws to a close, speculation is rife as to what will be the 100th object: the defining icon of our era. I’d like to make a strong case for the American Express card.
To begin with, there’s what it’s made out of. Plastic must be the defining material of the twentieth century. Plastic in turn is made out of oil, which must be the defining mineral asset of the twentieth century.
Embedded in the plastic is a small strip of ferrous oxide and a silicon chip. These features make this artefact not only machine-produced but also machine-readable and machine-programmable. Both unique characteristics of late machine-age technology.
As well as the maker’s mark, the artefact bears the name of the user. This name is embossed in the material itself. It is also encoded in the magnetic strip and the silicon chip. This degree of personalisation makes the Amercian Express card emblematic of one of the key features of the late industrial age, the ability of corporations to mass-customise products and services.
Of course, the card itself is useless without the network which supports it. This interdependency of node and network is characteristic of nineteenth and twentieth-century technology, from the railway to the telephone, from the Internet to distributed computing and the cloud.
Lastly, there’s the name. We are living at the end of a time which will probably be known as The American Century, an era when America was the filter and amplifier through which all culture was experienced.
For these reasons, I nominate the American Express card as Radio 4’s 100th Object.
Rare roast beef on good bread, Plymouth Gin, thunderstorms, Autumn, a long sea voyage.