Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Numbered and swiped

My e-mail brings me an offer of a photo-personalized check card from my bank. If it makes it easier to retrieve it in case of loss, well and good; my father's first Mastercard©, issued in the 1970s, bore his photo for identification.

But that does not seem to be all my bank means; because businesses are reduced, nowadays, to proffering a degree of fulsome flattery to John and Jane Doe that, one hopes, would have embarrassed the vainest Renaissance cardinal, I understand that my bank intends to convey the promise of a sort of apotheosis in this life if I consent to adorn my check card with my 58-year-old face. "Show off your image every time you make a purchase!" it says, encouragingly. Frankly, I can think of purchasing some personal necessaries where a public display would not be the first thing I would want, rather like asking the clerk at the drug store for the restroom key and then listening to her announce over the store's public address system, "Restroom key to register 1!"

Offers like this tempt me to use a photo in which my back is turned to the camera or, better yet, I am lying in a casket. What, I wondered, would the Man in the Iron Mask, or Young Goodman Brown, or the Lone Ranger have made of this? Life is a balance of self-disclosure and private reserve; the second seems to be vanishing away.

But even before I thought of the mischievous photo possibilities, I considered the e-mail in the light of interpreting the offer quite literally: your check card is your personality; that is, we are reduced, for purposes of modern living, to the status of a piece of plastic, so thin as to be barely 3-dimensional, bearing a stripe (and not the healing sort) that contains all the information about us that anyone feels he needs to know, numbered, security-coded, and capable of enduring a confirming swipe between two restraining metal lips, that confirms our identity and give us leave to function another day, until our expiration date. All else is ephemera. And perhaps that's why, as the canny bank marketers anticipate, we need to compensate by posting our faces on these pieces of plastic, to reassure ourselves and all others that we are in fact more than the light and disposable tokens to which we seem to have been reduced.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

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