Originally Published: January 4, 2001 7:15 p.m.
I have my own personal, private, and probably pathetic, idea of why I, my family members and my co-workers are complaining with increasing frequency about forgetfulness.
It's not busy schedules, global warming or cosmic radiation.
It's number pollution.
Just think about it. Today's technological society is numerically overwhelmed.
Ever stop to think how many numbers you have to remember in a day? Wake in the morning to a digital alarm clock. Forget the manual tuner, today's stereos have digital tuners, forcing people to remember a plethora of radio frequencies to match their favorite stations' call letters.
Turn on the television and it's not just 1 to 13 to remember. Now it's 50, 60, or 150 stations. Please remind me where to find The Weather Channel so I can decide how to dress this morning. To find that, I have to recall what channel is the directory channel. No wonder why people channel surf.
Just getting to work adds more numbers: speed limits and gas prices, the latter down to a tenth of a cent. Why do we pay $1.569 for a gallon of gas anyway, when $1.57 would be much more reasonable?
My work door, another numerical code. Two offices, two codes. My timecard — punching an ordinary time clock wouldn't do. It's a military time clock, of course. Everything is in hundredths instead of minutes. And, to boot, my corporate office thinks of me as a number — 17-140-149.
My computer, a password. My modem, a password. My email account, a password. My voice mail, a password.
I catch myself daydreaming high-tech science fiction, in which some device scans my handprint or retina, taking away all of these passwords. But only for the 3.4 seconds it takes to log in.
I pine for my college days, when the only number I had to remember was my Social Security number, which was my alternative name. Professors posted test scores by number. And percent.
At lunch, I stop to check my bank balance, requiring me to dislodge my bank account number from the recesses of my brain.
Then, I buy lunch with my debit card, punching in a PIN.
Institutions want you to believe that stands for "personal identification number," but in reality, it means "profusely inane numeral." Or maybe PIN, as in some PINhead dreamed up this idea.
Back to the office for some phone tag with people for stories.
"Welcome to ____. Press 1 to continue in English…If you know your party's extension, you can dial it now." And so on, through the afternoon.
And phone numbers. It's not enough to know a person's phone number. Now, it takes an entire address book to keep track of a handful of people. Phone. Cell phone. Fax. Pager. Email address. Web site. And that's just home. Multiply that by two to track someone down at the office.
No wonder some people clutch onto their organizers and electronic handheld files like their lives depended on them. They do. Without their lists of numbers, people today would cease to function.
Memorizing the value of pi out to 50 places seems trivial compared with the series of numbers people rattle off every day.
And thus, back to this theory…
Numbers are displacing relevant information everywhere in people's brains.
Instead of remembering their children's names, their grocery lists and where they put their car keys, people are storing sequences of numbers that would reach from Earth to Mars (93 million miles, by the way).
That tenth of the brain people use is so clogged up with numbers that the really useful stuff (your anniversary, for example) is out in the brain's stratosphere.
So the next time you forget an appointment or go brain-dead about your spouse's birthday, the answer should be obvious. It probably won't get you back in anyone's good graces, but it will mystify them:
"Sorry, I missed that, but I do know the combination to my son's bicycle lock."