10 March 2022

The Crypto-Secessionists

Islands as fintech laboratories

Isabelle Simpson

Islands have played a key role in the development of the modern global economy as trading and military outposts, tax havens, and nuclear test sites serving colonial powers. In addition to their status as strategic economic and geopolitical satellites, islands are also special places that “have long been regarded as ideal sites for experimentation, in fiction and in reality, with their straightforward boundedness presumed to provide unambiguous limits to scope, ambition, and (if all goes wrong) contagion.”1 Today, so-called Small Island Developing States are at the center of the development of central bank–issued digital currency. Their governments’ efforts to capitalize on digital currencies—as well as the accompanying discourse of fast-tracked economic development and democratization of the financial system promoted by the states and the technology and political entrepreneurs who court them—reaffirm the role of islands as sites of experimentation, this time as fintech laboratories. ...

8 February 2022

Prisoners of the Dream

Inception and Coors, capitalism and pandemic dreaming

Matthew Spellberg

During the first pandemic lockdowns, thousands of vivid dreams were suddenly shared across the internet and among friends. Though some of them had to do directly with COVID, many were simply intense and mysterious, in the way dreams often are. Yet for some reason, people felt newly impelled to convey them to others. The dreams were soon compiled into databases, written up in newspaper articles, and eventually integrated into scientific studies. This phenomenon may turn out to be a significant event in the history of the social imagination. For thousands of years, and in many cultures, talking about dreams has been considered hugely important. But in modernity, dreams have been regularly denigrated. ...

14 October 2021

Street Views

Urban photography and the politics of erasure

Kim Beil

City streets seemed eerily empty in the early years of photography. During minutes-long exposures, carriage traffic and even ambling pedestrians blurred into nonexistence. The only subjects that remained were those that stood still: buildings, trees, the road itself. In one famous image, a bootblack and his customer appear to be the lone survivors on a Parisian boulevard. When shorter exposure times were finally possible in the late 1850s, a British photographer marveled: “Views in distant and picturesque cities will not seem plague-stricken, by the deserted aspect of their streets and squares, but will appear alive with the busy throng of their motley populations.” ...

14 September 2021

Melchers’s Ghosts

The maladies of postwar Germany

Monica Black

In the spring of 1953, a former Nazi named Anton Melchers, who in the Third Reich had been a newspaper editor, war reporter, and—according to his brother—talented propagandist, was admitted to the university psychiatric clinic in Heidelberg. His brother, a former high-ranking SS officer, brought him there because Melchers had stopped eating. At the clinic, Melchers reported hearing voices that accused him of sexual immorality and intimated that he would be “paraded” in the streets. Melchers was also preoccupied, his brother said, with anxieties about being “rounded up and taken away” as punishment for his National Socialist past. ...

27 April 2021

The Enemy as Sociologist

American exceptionalism as diagnosed by the Nazi propaganda magazine Signal

Sara Krolewski

Long before Donald Trump was calling for America to be made “great” again, the Nazi propaganda magazine Signal wrote of an American people “which was once great.” “American reality—gone with the wind,” proclaimed the subheading of a 1943 article on the industrialization of agriculture in the United States. Writing in usually flawless English, Signal’s editors criticized what they saw as a degenerated, yet still alarmingly strong, United States: a land of abundance and possibility, now riven by greed, vice, and conformity, and spurred on by ceaseless imperialism. ...

1 April 2021

Two Lives, Simultaneous and Perfect

Éric Rohmer and the erotics of chastity

Becca Rothfeld

By all accounts, Maurice Schérer led an oppressively virtuous life. He never cheated on his wife. He was sober, refusing both drugs and alcohol, and he attended Mass each Sunday. Though he could have afforded a car, he never bought one, and he considered even occasional taxi trips an undue extravagance. In his old age, when he was suffering from painful scoliosis, he continued taking two buses to work in the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris each morning, then the same two buses back home each night. He cherished quiet enjoyments: classical music, visits to museums, nights at home with his family. He was born in 1920 and died in 2010, but he never owned a telephone. ...

16 March 2021

Bottled Authors

The predigital dream of the audiobook

Matthew Rubery

Everybody seems to listen to audiobooks these days. As a recent marketing campaign put it, “Listening is the new reading.” What was once a niche entertainment has grown into a billion-dollar industry thanks to the emergence of digital media, smartphones, and an online marketplace that makes it simple to download just about any title you want. Listening to a book is not the hassle it once was. (Take it from someone who remembers fumbling with cassette tapes while trying to steer a car.) The mainstreaming of audiobooks has been one of the twenty-first-century publishing industry’s greatest success stories. ...

4 March 2021

On the Wire above the Ruins

Funambulism in postwar Germany

Yuliya Komska

A dab of lipstick. Blondish victory rolls, deflated from exertion and wind and the gravity of defeat—the wartime German colloquialism describing the hairstyle, Entwarnungsfrisur, or “all-clear hair,” might be more apt here. Her clothes, by contrast, are flawless. A short-sleeved shirt, prim and neat, is tucked into dark hotpants. Over that, a gauzy white pinafore billows in the wind, baring the long, strong legs. A token pinup riff on the naughty schoolgirl look. Or, in the eye of lyrical upskirter Max Frisch, “a Degas seen from below.” ...

18 February 2021

A Boy with a Knife

On remorse, forgiveness, and a near-murder in the West Bank

David Shulman

I know something about remorse; less about forgiveness. I have a story to tell in which both of these figure.

It begins with an olive harvest in October 2015 in the village of 'Awarta, southeast of Nablus, close to the infamous Hawara Junction and to the village of Yanun. There are grave sites in 'Awarta considered sacred by Muslims, Jews, and Samaritans, though the names of their occupants vary; one shrine is linked to Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the Priest, and another, to the west of the village, to Ezra the Scribe ('Uzair). ...

11 February 2021

Trading in Atoms for Bits

The long history of digital currencies

Finn Brunton

All forms of exchange necessarily depend on differences in voltage.
—Fernand Braudel

The history of digital cash consists of scientific discoveries from the 1970s, hardware from the 1980s, and networks from the 1990s, shaped by theories from the previous three centuries and beliefs about the next ten thousand years. It speaks ancient ideas with a modern twang, as we might when we say “quid pro quo” or “shibboleth”: the sovereign right to issue money, the debasement of coinage, the symbolic stamp that transfers the rights to value from me to thee. ...