We've been numbers for ages

When I tell people about the book I'm writing, and how companies are going to get to know us better and better by analyzing our data, they often reply,
Stephen Baker


When I tell people about the book I'm writing, and how companies are going to get to know us better and better by analyzing our data, they often reply, "We'll just be numbers." My response is that we've long been numbers: From cannon fodder at Gettysburg to the millions staring at Superbowl ads, generals and marketers have regarded us as masses of largely undifferentiated numbers. The difference now is that the numbers will increasingly define us as individuals. This is new.

I was reminded of the old system when I toured the crumbling Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. It's worth a visit. There's a plaque on the wall honoring the prisoners who fought for their country in World War I. No names. The 121 men (I'm assuming) are represented on the plaque simply as numbers. One of them, B3686, made the ultimate sacrifice. I don't know why they kept the names off. Maybe there were legal issues about offering prisoners parole to go to war. Or maybe the plaque spoke eloquently to fellow inmates and guards, who might have known them by their numbers. After all, around that same time, no one needed to stitch Ruth or Gehrig on the back of the Yankees uniform. Numbers 3 and 4 sufficed.

* I had problems posting this. First it didn't work, then there were two, then zero. Sorry for confusion.