Media @ McGill

The Will Not to Count: Technologies of Calculation and the Quest to Govern Afghanistan

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Ali Karimi


In my dissertation, “The Will Not to Count: Technologies of Calculation and the Quest to Govern Afghanistan,” I examine the history, politics, and technologies of numerical information in Afghanistan. In the four chapters of this research, I look at four specific mediums: the street sign, the identification card, the price tag, and the clock tower. I show how these mundane everyday technologies function as infrastructures of power and control. The street signs (street names and house numbers) allow the state to render an abstract territory into controllable and calculable spaces. Identification cards allow states to track individuals for administrative purposes. Price tags are used to build trust and bring objectivity to business transactions and give more control to states, consumers, and merchants. My last case study is on clock tower in Kabul that was the first mechanical medium used to bring precision to time measurement and popularise temporal order in the city. My critical investigation of these technologies of numerical information uncovers new aspects of Afghanistan’s long history of attempts to build functioning state institutions and form a modern and stable economy. 

Chapter 1. The Street Sign: Control and Calculation will discuss street signs and their critical function as tools for geo-codification of territories and expansion of state surveillance. Geographical organisation and order lies at the heart of modern state-building as they can render abstract territories into concrete, calculable, and controllable geographies. Standardised addressing in cities facilitate state surveillance, fosters communication and commerce, and enables the circulation of information and commodities. In addition to examining the role of spatial inscription in modernisation process, I will also show the cultural aspects of place naming by exploring how the state has used toponyms to popularise a nationalistic version of the Afghan history.

In Chapter 2. The Identification Cards: From Tribesmen to Citizens, I study how print was employed to fight the oral culture of the country and extent the authority of the state over the population. I look at the medium of the identification card (including national ID, birth certificate, passport and etc.) as a key instrument of producing national identity and creating of a citizenry. The question of ID documents is a serious challenge in Afghanistan where, according to one estimation, half of the population have no official papers with which to establish their identity.

Chapter 3. The Clock Tower: Tyranny of Time. Time measurement is one of the central features of the modern life and the most important asset in a capitalist culture. In Kabul city, clocks or wearable watches were rare before the 20th century. To help the residents with time measurement, the city used a cannon that would be fired at noon every day. In the 1910s, a clock tower was built in the city that for the first time brought precision to the issue of time-keeping. In this chapter, I will seek to assess the material and cultural aspect of time-keeping in Kabul by focusing on the clock tower and other technologies of time measurement.

Chapter 4. The Price Tag: Disciplining Consumerism. In most areas in Kabul city, as well as cities in other underdeveloped nations, price tags do not exist in stores and people rely on their bargaining skills to purchase everyday goods. If there is one medium which can embody the whole culture of mass consumption and modern commerce that is the price tag. The price tag depersonalizes commercial transactions and that is the main reason mass consumption was made possible. In Kabul, similar to other Muslim cities, there was a traditional government post called Muhtasib who was responsible to regulate business transactions, including price control. In the early 20th century one store was opened in Kabul that introduced price tags for the first time. It was a move towards modernisation of consumption and creating of a non-personal culture of business transaction. This chapter will examine the price tag as a medium that is critical in shaping a modern mode of consumption and establishing objectivity and trust in the market.