9.10.09

Blip!

It's a minute past eight on a Wednesday morning. Sharon Buchanan is working at the checkout of Marsh's supermarket in Troy, Ohio. Perhaps she has blond hair but it could just as well be dark. No doubt you already have a picture in your mind of what a checkout chick looks like. Just imagine that. Chances are she doesn't particularly enjoy her job. "It pays the bills," as they say. A customer approaches with a grocery item. His name is Clyde Dawson. He presents a packet of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit, and Sharon scans it.

The year is 1974, and the occasion is historic. It's the first time anyone's used a barcode in a commercial transaction. Mr Dawson's packet of chewing gum and the receipt for it are now in the Smithsonian Institution!

In just over 35 years, the barcode has become ubiquitous. I have vague childhood memories of religious nut cases warning us about this new technology, which had something to do with the Anti-Christ! We were all going to end up with barcodes tattooed to our foreheads, apparently. Like all apocalyptic predictions (so far!) they turned out to be wrong. It seems absurd now, and the fears certainly didn't stop this ingenuous little invention from gaining pace.

That is my name in barcode! I used this encoder, which is fun! Elsewhere, there's also a decoder, if you wish to find out what a particular barcode symbolises.

Though I've got no time for the apocalyptic prophets of doom, I can sympathise with the technophobes. Does anything represent the number crunching anonymity of our modern world better than the barcode? The image of rows of checkout operators scanning groceries is hard to beat as a symbol of mind-numbing consumerism.

Blip!

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