Number Me Among the Forgetful

by Kenneth B. Lourie


I remember when I first felt like a number; it was when I matriculated as a freshmen to the University of Maryland in College Park in 1972 and encountered 35,000 other like-minded students, all seemingly standing in the same lines as myself. Lines for Drop/Add, Financial Services and Campus and Dining Hall picture I.D.s. Then when I was a sophomore, adding in the line for on-campus parking registration as well.

The most often asked question then was, ďWhatís your SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER?Ē (My name was less relevant.) I didnít take it too personally, but I did take it impersonally. My, how things have not changed! Itís still all about the numbers, although the most frequently asked question has changed. Itís now: ďWhatís your motherís maiden name?Ē

What I am referring to is the exponential growth and proliferation of technology that has taken over the world and made all of us numerical. Our social security numbers are still important, but theyíre not nearly as integral to the process as they used to be. Passwords, access codes and PINs are presently the currency of communication, and it doesnít appear that there will be any change for the better forthcoming.

Whether calculated or not, access to information, both personal and public, over the phone or on the computer, requires an ability to remember, process, allocate and assign lots of numbers to numerous places. Communication, it seems, is as much about numbers as it is letters these days.

In the old days, a land-line at home and perhaps a multi-line at work were the extent of our communication network and were the only numbers we really needed to easily recall. Then came answering machines, which required, in some cases, an access code (numbers one had to remember) to retrieve messages.

Soon came pagers, fax machines, long distance calling cards, cellular phones, voice retrieval systems (on the land-line, office line and cellular phone) computers, web sites and e-mail (at home and at work), all with their own unique numbers/passwords.

Pretty soon our business cards will need to be enlarged to list all the relevant means of communication - home phone, business phone, cellular phone, pager number, home fax, work fax, e-mail address at home and work, and of course their regular mailing address - with no two numbers or addresses likely to be identical. Moreover, the addressee probably has voice mail retrieval systems for each phone number, which itself usually requires its own 10-digit access code and then another 4-16 character pass code (sometimes selected, other times, randomly assigned) to even gain entry. The mountain of numerical information we have to remember to gain access to our own personal playground is almost mind-numbing.

Now consider all the other numbers we have to remember, for more personal use. And Iím not referring to phone, fax, cell, work or pager numbers for family and friends either. Iím referring to all the numbers necessary to conduct business (on web sites) at home: financial, social, medical, educational and retail. Then add in the still different numbers/passwords for credit card access, on-line banking, mileage plus/on-line travel sites, ATMs and debit cards, miscellaneous web sites surfed, and, if you park in a restricted area (at home or work), you may need pass-codes/access numbers for those too. And God forbid one should change providers for any of these services, because the password/access codes would change too.

How does anyone remember all these numbers, anyway? Especially since it is recommended that individuals not carry around any evidence (cheat sheets would help, of course) that these numbers even exist. None of us are getting any younger nor are our memories getting any better.

Itís too much, I tell you. Iím only human! I canít remember everything! I canít take it anymore! I think I need to see a professional. I should call Dr. whatís his name? Oh yeah, right. Whatís his number? HELP!

Lourie is a regionally syndicated columnist who resides in Burtonsville, MD.