Dammit, I'm a Man!
Coming to work I heard on NPR that today is Bob Seger's 60th birthday. OK, this isn't quite as epochal an event as the day when Natalie Portman turned 18 (ah, yes, I still remember where I was when I heard that wonderful news) but, anyway, Happy Birthday Bob. Wrote quite a few good songs that I've heard fifty or sixty thousand times. Classic Rock is ingrained deeeeeep in the Pittsburghian airwaves.
I was pulling into the parking lot as I heard the news, and after I parked I got my new temporary parking pass and stuck in up on my dash. I got a nasty card under my windshield the other day because my old temporary pass was faded from the sun and the numbers close to unreadable. So they threatened to tow my car. Rather a stern motivational technique, especially for the rather laid-back company I work for. Compared to other places I work this place is positively mellow.
So I used the parking pass to identify that I am allowed to park there. I then entered my building, where I used a swipe card to unlock the turnstiles and let me pass within. Reaching my desk, I logged on to my computer with a company-generated user name and password. I was early, so I entered my password to check my Yahoo mail, and then accessed two mainframe programs I use by entering two different logon ID's and two different passwords.
Now I'm writing this, after accessing Blogger by entering a user name and password. I have to run to the bank today to make a deposit before I do some light shopping, so I may check my bank balance first, requiring me to enter my social security number, a password I generated, and a password the bank chose for me. For kicks I may check my Neteller account, requiring me to enter an account number, a password, and a "secure" password they select.
And so, in the course of a few hours, I will have proven my identity on about a dozen occasions, using slips of paper, passcards, and a bewildering array of alphanumeric combinations. The amount of information you need to keep track up just to identify that you are who you are is just staggering. And getting worse every day. Computers can't recognize you by sight, and as online security these days seems to be about as effective as the prison guards on "Oz" were sites require users to jump through an increasingly complex series of hoops in order to ensure that they're dealing with the right person.
These layers of security are due in large part to your hackers and cyberthieves and basic bad guys looking to hurt you in some way. Which is why, though I'm usually opposed to capital punishment, I've got no problem with putting a few heads on spikes in this matter. Because it costs ME time and money. It inconvieniences ME. You may say, aha, Mean Gene, you're a hypocrite! The death penalty is wrong when it affects someone else, but when hits home you want to run to Home Depot to buy lumber for the gallows. I disagree with your assessment. I am not a hypocrite. Its just that, in this one, narrowly defined instance, I behave in an incredibly hypocritical fashion. So don't tar me with the epithet "hypocrite" just because I do something hypocritical. It isn't fair.
But back to my point, which is that even moreso than in the past our identities are bound up not in our names or our faces but in a constellation of random numbers assigned to us by various government agencies and monolithic corporations. I've seen this issue on both sides, as I used to work for a bank and had to verify customers' identity over the phone. They couldn't just tell you their Social Security number or PIN#, no no. WE had to be the one who chose the question for them to answer. So we'd ask when their most recent deposit was, or the amount of a certain check, and if the poor soul on the other line couldn't come up with that particular answer, they were outta luck. So I would get into arguments with people who were armed with thousands of fascinating facts about themselves but couldn't supply the one tidbit I needed to reveal their info.
I understood the absurdity of the situation, but I also understood that I could be fired on the spot if I broke with the protocol. This was one of the main reasons why I hated the job and nearly went loco. Arguing with someone about the fundamental nature of personal identity is fine if you're an actor in a play by Camus, but sitting in a cubicle doing it for 8 hours at a stretch is a drag, man.
But while the Internet provides us with countless locks that must be accessed by numerical keys, it also give us mountains to race up and then shout from at the top of our lungs. Like the blogs so many of us keep, which I'm sure many of us do because it gives us a chance to speak in our own words, and create something unique that proves to the world that we exist. Even if all we create is a mess.
Which is why I close with what Bob Seger created back in 1978, a song that, I think, celebrates that primal urge to stand out as an individual, and make our voice heard:
I take my card and I stand in line
To make a buck I work overtime
Dear Sir letters keep coming in the mail
I work my back till it's racked with pain
The boss can't even recall my name
I show up late and I'm docked
It never fails
I feel like just another
Spoke in a great big wheel
Like a tiny blade of grass
In a great big field
To workers I'm just another drone
To Ma Bell I'm just another phone
I'm just another statistic on a sheet
To teachers I'm just another child
To IRS I'm just another file
I'm just another consensus on the street
Gonna cruise out of this city
Head down to the sea
Gonna shout out at the ocean
Hey it's me
And I feel like a number
Feel like a number
Feel like a stranger
A stranger in this land
I feel like a number
I'm not a number
I'm not a number
Dammit I'm a man
I said I'm a man