Thursday, May 25, 2006


Channeling Charles, Part 2

The thinking about Dickens here got me thinking about a passage from 'Hard Times' that I always think of when I consider identity cards:

"'Girl number twenty,' said Mr Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, 'I don't know that girl. Who is that girl?'

'Sissy Jupe, sir,' explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

'Sissy is not a name,' said Mr Gradgrind. 'Don't call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.'

. . .

'. . . Give me your definition of a horse.'

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

'Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!' said Mr Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. 'Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy's definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.'

. . .

'Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.' Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

'Now girl number twenty,' said Mr Gradgrind. 'You know what a horse is.'"

'Hard Times' is the most widely derided of Dickens' works, unfairly in my opinion. It is true that it lacks subtlety, that its characterisations are broad and that no solutions are offered to the problems the narrative identifies, yet it provides an effective social commentary that resonated strongly at the time of its release. It was immediately succesful, and the serialisation format was, at this particular time, a help rather than a hinderance in disseminating the product. As a consequence, it is worthy of study.

So, why does the passage above remind me of my objection to identity cards? Mr Gradgrind's obsession with facts, facts and nothing but facts, to the extent that he treats the children in front of him as mere numbers demonstrates his contempt for them as people. Sissy Jupe is not a rounded individual whose story interests him, she is a repository for the knowledge that he believes she needs. In such a manner, Gradgrind reduces her humanity to a set of manageable figures. Even after knowing her name, he still calls her 'girl number twenty'. Sissy has lived with travellers all her life, she knows perfectly well what a horse is, and she has no need to reduce the horse to its bare attributes. By contrast, Bitzer has little concept of what a horse really is other than as a list. Contrary to Mr Gradgrind, it is Bitzer's knowledge that is unnatural and problematic. I still don't know what 'graminivorous' means, yet I know perfectly well what a horse is. This is because people have an instinctive knowledge for comprehending the natural world, of which we are, after all, a part, and that knowledge need not be expressed in words - indeed, it may well not be possible to fully express it in words.

Identity cards attempt to achieve a similar goal to Mr Gradgrind's teaching style. The government wish to collate facts about our lives, more facts than ever before, yet these facts must inevitably be taken out of any contextual framework. The government already possesses endless details about every small aspect of our lives - the one saving grace of the current situation is the sprawling, inneficient bureaucracy that makes any actual use of all that data in any co-ordinated way difficult. Since I both believe that the government will do more harm than good with such a variety of data, and that that bureaucracy should be reduced, it is only inevitable that I believe the amount of data the government collects on us should be correspondingly reduced. Ipso facto, identity cards are a step in completely the wrong direction.

This is my primary reason for objecting to the introduction of the cards, yet it is far from the only - and frankly, far from the best - reason. A much larger list can be found here.

Worth fighting against.

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