The Eye of Sauron exists.
On June 26th, 1974, at Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio a man reached into his cart and pulled out a package of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum. The cashier scanned the bar code into her brand new computer. It was the first time a scanner, computer and bar code had cooperated in a retail transaction. Troy Ohio was the home of National Cash Register, who provided the scanners, also The Hobart Company which had developed the machinery to weigh and price loose items. It was a momentous occasion for such a small city. Even the choice of items, Wrigley’s gum was intentional. Nobody believed a package that small could carry a usable UPC code.
In the years since the world has been wrapped in tightening tentacles. Lines of telephone cables, fiber optics, low earth orbit satellite networks. Scanners have been installed almost everywhere. They are ubiquitous, omnipresent, unnoticed.
At the register we scan our membership cards, beep. Groceries slide across the magic eye, frozen pizza, beep. A head of broccoli, beep, potato chips, beep, salami, bread, cheddar cheese, beep, beep, beep. Beer, beep, and somewhere a signal flashes and a sullen, short-tempered attendant comes over and scans the code on the back of our drivers license. Our lives, reduced to a series of stripes and splashes.
QR codes demand our attention at odd intervals. Magically, we are drawn to the modern hieroglyphics. Our phones scan and interpret the hidden message. Taking us to a website where somebody collects whatever information we provide. Small bits of our lives. It adds up.
Stop lights have acquired a new companion. Traffic cameras. They never blink, they never lose interest, no matter how tedious our lives. While we wait for the light to change, we yawn, sing along to the music, scratch, stretch and check our phones. Somebody watches it all. Plus, buildings bristle with surveillance equipment. Smile for the camera.
We have built our own watcher. Moreover, we pay good money to participate. “And the people bowed and prayed to the neon gods they made.” (Simon and Garfunkel, The Sounds of Silence). Our protests are mostly symbolic, and short-lived. We can’t stop looking at screens.