Prefix-Serial Number

Ayn Rand's Anthem, with its protagonist Equality 7-2521, and to a lesser extent, George Lucas' THX 1138, with its eponymous protagonist, are meant as cautionary screeds warning against the excesses of collectivist society. But the prefix-serial number technique used to identify humans in these stories is not the exclusive domain of a de-individualizing state apparatus, fictional or otherwise.

As we have seen earlier, this sort of administrative numeration of the human body, fixing it in space and time, evolved independently though concurrently with the state. In sport, the stitching of numbers on baseball uniforms — granting us DiMaggio5, for example — was not some grandiose ideological experiment in collectivism, but rather an administrative decision based on rationalism and a capitalist profit motive.

The specific origin of uniform numbers in baseball appears to be a matter of considerable uncertainty, though there appears to have been some cross-pollination of the practice with other team sports played at the cusp of the 20th century, such as football, hockey, and basketball. Bill James contends that the Cincinnati Red Stockings experimented with uniform numbers as early as 1883, but an absence of corroborating testimony casts doubt upon its veracity. The National Baseball Hall of Fame asserts in its online exhibit that the Reading Red Roses of the Atlantic League intended to use uniform numbers in 1907, though wanting for photographic documentation it is uncertain whether or not this actually occurred. However, the exhibit also features a photo from 1909 that shows José Mendez of the Cuban Stars in a uniform with a number emblazoned on the left sleeve. What is known for certain is that in 1929 the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees became the first National League teams to wear numbers on their uniforms for an entire season, and by 1932 the practice had become standard across all of major league baseball.

With the league-wide adoption of numbers on uniforms, we see Foucauldian administration at its sporting apex: every athlete in the game under the watchful gaze of the managers and umpires who governed the proceedings, each partitioned into productive spaces on the field, each an easily-identifiable "object of information, never a subject in communication" (D/P, p. 200) for which performance was to be accounted, analyzed, and archived. For the owners of capital, the referential index of these objects also provided an attractive ancillary revenue proposition:

Get your program! You can’t tell the players without a program!

Today, it is not the American state that creates and sustains Jordan23 (or AK-47), either. Rather, it is a vectoral elite (ie. Nike) that seeks to control the production, storage and transmission of valuable signs of consumption. And instead of this providing ancillary revenues, the control of these signs becomes the primary reason for existence.

Information, once it becomes a form of property, develops beyond a mere support for capital and for a pastoralist class belatedly aware of the value of increased productivity for its rent rolls. It becomes the basis of a form of accumulation in its own right (Hacker Manifesto #190).

We might suggest, then, that the prefix-serial number identifier must be questioned less as a method of state-sponsored de-individualization than as a strategy of information compression in a highly-saturated media-sphere and a technique for creating economically-valuable signs.


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