Feel Like a Barcode?


What if you got a check with a barcode where your name should be?

We’ve all felt like a number at one time or another; in a sweaty line at the DMV, in the center of a seething lecture hall, or perhaps, in the sickly silence of a crowded ER waiting room. One man, however, knows what it’s like to feel like a barcode.

In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Lee Berton recounts a tale of woe wherein he, the protagonist, received graphic proof of how the government sees him by an antagonist with which we can all identify, the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS owes Mr. Berton $1,200 in wrongfully assessed taxes from 2008. Last December he received a check. However, in the familiar space where he expects to see his own name was a barcode.

As anyone who’s ever had to call a Government office can imagine, Mr. Berton spent a long time on the phone trying to suss out this error. After finally connecting with a human voice, he was promised a solution. Weeks later, another check appeared in his mailbox. Another check with a barcode in place of his name.

Mr. Berton writes, “Again I spent hours on the phone with IRS recorded voices to find out what I should do with it. Last March I finally reached a Mrs. Lincoln, who assured me that in her 13 years with the IRS this had "never happened before." Both she and Mr. Mason blamed computers for the mix-up.

Mr. Berton is still waiting for his check. He was told after returning the barcoded checks that he would have to wait in line behind the other ‘screw ups.’ I dare not venture a guess as to number of screw ups in line before Mr. Berton.

In America, when a child is born we give him or her a name. We do not assign a number or a barcode. Barcodes are tools assigned to assets. Housed within the letters and the spaces and sounds of a child’s name are all the nuances of his humanity, his name acts as a frame upon which the web of his identity will be woven.

Given this belief, I could superimpose a deeper meaning onto Mr. Berton’s unfortunate circumstances, drawing attention to the irony of attributing a mistake of this nature to ‘computer error,” pointing out the possible implications of a nation who strips its populace of humanity by assigning barcodes instead of names. But I won’t do any of that. I leave that to the George Orwells and Margaret Atwoods of the world.

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