Sunday, February 19, 2012

Public Bathrooms & Private Barcodes

As you no doubt know, there are powerful, yet unspoken rules and societal norms associated with public toilets. Among them is the strict requirement that men, shoulder to shoulder before stand-up urinals, must always keep their eyes straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge the persons on either side. More about this and my violation of this taboo in a moment.

Late in 1949, when Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland filed a patent for Classifying Apparatus and Method, the era of the barcode was born. When David Collins of GTA Sylvania developed the Kar Trak method of keeping tabs on railroad cars in the early 60’s, this movement and the science back of it began to pick up momentum. By June 26, 1974, after the National Cash Register company installed a test system at Marsh’s Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, Clyde Dawson lifted a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum from his shopping basket and Sharon Buchanan, the check-out clerk, scanned it; the pack of chewing gun is now in the Smithsonian Institution, since it signals the initiation of what has come to be called the universal product code method of product inventory. Although conspiracy theorists and some fundamentalist Christians initially viewed this development with alarm, as a potentially threatening and intrusive surveillance technology or the “sign of the beast,” in reality the barcode method of machine-readable representation of data has been booming, ever since.

Barcodes are now used all over the world to identify, track and evaluate products and procedures of all kinds. Barcodes are, after all, remarkably proficient. They enable the recognition and storage of mountains of data in just a few seconds. With one swipe, one can record data and store it for retrieval at a later time, often for purposes unknown to the consumer/user. Somewhat disconcertingly, these tiny lines and numbers also help the check-out person to record your purchases, update the store’s inventory, calculate individual and total prices, add the appropriate taxes, delete any available discounts and even electronically wish you a happy day - all without ever thinking, adding, subtracting, making eye contact or interrupting his/her personal cell phone conversation!

On the Athens side of our recent three-month visit to the States, I am busy filing receipts and the various bits of paper associated with this international traveling business. In many instances, barcodes accompany my paper records. How easy and convenient has this magical, digitally encoded and computer recognizable, but illegible to the human eye recording system become. Where would we be without barcodes and what would we do without them?

Although you may think it a bit ineloquent of me to share this, I recently observed barcodes on the urinals in the men’s restroom at a Texas airport. While I am not certain exactly how and why they were being used in that precise location (Perhaps it has something to do with original shipping or recording how often the toilets are serviced, etc; I’ll check it out on Wikipedia!), I am convinced that these easy-to record electronic ink blots stuck on the top of urinals have something to do with the presumption of enhanced efficiency.

Barcodes and universal product codes provide a reliable and speedy assessment for everyone. And, after all, isn’t everyone interested in accurate and swift assessments – the better to do our “personal business” and move on with our lives?

Although our human brain does not (yet) have computer chips and scanners to enable swift and easy assessments, for millennia, long before digital and cyber developments, humans have been using short-cuts to help assess the value and “place” of other persons. We often too-easily fall back on ethnic, racial, gender or age stereotypes and, by scanning the “data” from our previous prejudices and limited experience, we evaluate, assess and store unthinking and often overly-generalized “facts” about another person.

While I may be unable to avoid using barcodes and universal product codes, I am praying that, in this year ahead, by God’s grace, I can be a little better at making eye contact with others and seeing them for all of their uniqueness and value – in the supermarket lane and, perhaps, even in the public toilet!

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