The long-impending irritation finally arrived this week. A publishing firm in Lexington, Mass., wrote to request something or other and included in its return address a number, 02173-8087. So here it finally was, the unrememberable nine-digit ZIP code. Actually the awesome thing was officially "implemented" in the fall of 1983, but only 4% of all items in the mail carry "ZIP + 4." The target of this particular request could not recall ever having been asked to use a nine-digit return address.
How should the Target react? Must he docilely accept this new aggravation? If he ignored the ZIP code entirely, thus challenging the U.S. Postal Service to try to find the historic town of Lexington without any numerical clues to guide it, would the letter go hopelessly astray? Sure, he has heard the postal authorities' soothing declarations that the nine-digit ZIP is designed to move mail faster and at a discount to firms that use it, but he suspects that if that thing poking under the edge of the tent looks like a camel and smells like a camel, it probably is a camel.
The Target has already been numbered and repeatedly renumbered. God blessed him with an easy Social Security number, something on the order of 007-17-1717,[*] but he is so often commanded to provide his wife's number that he had to memorize 018-22-0930, no easy feat in middle age. The New York Public Library knows the Target as 0000522838, while the Metropolitan Opera Guild thinks he is 212-711-2, Saks Fifth Avenue identifies him as 28 121 309, and Brooks Brothers calls him 296 2743 22. To the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, however, he is F18332 89159 711320 29. The most impressive of all these numberers is his bank, which prints on each check a listing of 22 digits, plus about half a dozen of those indecipherable computer hieroglyphics that look vaguely like footprints left by a robot walking along the seashore at sundown.
No one is expected to remember such numbers, of course; no one except a computer. That is why they are printed on every check, or on the driver's license, ready to be shown to the highway patrolman who has just seen the Target run a stop sign. The computers apparently can't deal with a complicated concept like the name Otto, but they will know almost instantaneously whether F18332, etc., has forgotten any parking tickets or whether the 22-digit bank account includes any checks that bounced.
Like HAL in 2001, though, the computers are not infallible. The Target ran into what he considered an odd ethical dilemma about a month ago after a bank computer notified him that he had made two deposits of $1,000 each, when he knew perfectly well that he had made only one. If some gray-haired bank teller had inadvertently given him a $1,000 bill, the Target would have given it back, but he did not feel quite so certain that he had a moral obligation to correct the computer's error. Perhaps it would be easier to be moral if the computer had given him only $10, but would it be utterly wrong to do nothing? With winter coming on and the furnace muttering in the cellar, the Target felt that he needed the $1,000 more than the computer did.