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Life in the digital age: Our days are numbered

It all started when my ATM card didn't work. I typed in my four-digit PIN again, but the machine repeated that my card had expired. I didn't have time for this; I had a train to catch for home in two hours.

I walked into the bank and explained the problem to the customer service representative, who asked for my school address. I gave him my three-digit room number, four-digit building number, and five-digit zip code. He asked me to read aloud my 18-digit ATM number, and confirmed the card had expired. He'd send a new card to my address; in the meantime, I had to use a withdrawal slip, the old-fashioned way. I filled it out with my 10-digit bank account number, and got the cash.

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The cash problem reminded me that I needed to submit my timecard from work. I made sure to include my seven-digit payroll code and nine-digit social security number before sealing the envelope. Next stop was the U-store to buy a book. I looked at my watch as the cashier slowly typed out my nine-digit U-store card number.

I had an hour left before the train; time enough to order the discount card for train tickets that I'd been meaning to get. I went to a computer cluster, logged in using the last eight digits of my social security number, and ordered the card using my 12-digit credit card number.

I also had to request a library book from the Annex. I typed out my 14-digit library bar code number and sent the request out. Time to pack.

I made the train, but there was an hour delay at Trenton. I needed to call home, but I didn't have any change. I called the 10-digit number for AT&T, then my 10-digit home number, then my four-digit calling card password. No answer. I figured I should tell my roommates that I'd be late, in case my parents called my room; 34 digits later (AT&T + school number + home number + calling card password) I got through to them.

I grabbed some fries at the Roy Rogers in the train station. I was customer #504. Eventually, I made it home. I thought I'd check my voice mail and e-mail. I dialed the 10 digits to get into voice mail, my five-digit mailbox number, and my six-digit password. No new messages. I turned the computer on and typed in the five-digit password for my home internet service, my seven-digit PAC number to log onto telnet, and my PAC again to access pine. Three e-mails there. Then I entered the eight-digit password to my hotmail account, and there was an e-mail confirming my purchase of the train ticket discount card. Included was a 10-digit ID number so that I could start saving immediately.

It was getting late. I paid my Princeton phone bill, carefully including my 11-digit billing account number on the check. I also needed to fill out an information form for a scholarship, writing down my five-digit home street number, five-digit home zip code, five-digit birth date, four-digit university ID code, nine-digit Princeton student ID number, and 13-digit driver's license number.

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In eight hours, I had used 274 numbers to identify myself and get through the day. Is that too much? I don't know. As our society becomes more and more technologically advanced, there are always new reasons for us to get stuck with another method of identification. Only a couple of generations ago, all people had was an address and a birthday. Go a little further past that, and we didn't even need last names.

Of course, it's a bit of a tradeoff — our one-named ancestors also took three days to travel to the next town, died from measles and influenza, and were regularly eaten by wolves.

Something to help keep things in perspective if your ATM card ever expires. Michael Egner is an economics major from Darnestown, Md. He can be reached at maenger@princeton.edu.

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