I often get excited by the concept of a book, TV show or movie, but then can be disappointed by the execution. That’s the case with The Bar Code Tattoo by Susan Weyn. I think the idea for the book was not only smart, but very topical. The setting is only about a decade into the future. The word is pretty much as we know it now, except that 1-Corporation, insert name of one of our current multi-conglomerate too big to fail companies, has gained increasing control and influence. The U.S. is transitioning to the population getting bar code tattoos, following the precedent set by Europe and Asia. However, not everyone is sure that getting the bar code is a good thing…suddenly people who were previously successful are being demoted or fired from their jobs, other people previously on the low end of the totem pole are suddenly rising in status. There are rumors floating around that there is more information included in the bar code than what people have been told and that there have been people in other countries who have been so desperate to remove the tattoos that they have tried to burn it off their skin.
Kayla lives in limbo as people aren’t tattooed until they turn seventeen, but her birthday is coming up quickly and after a traumatic event related to the bar code in her own family, she has trepidation about getting it done. She joins a group of other students who put out a zine about news and theories related to the bar codes, though her conviction is not the other thing that has lured her into this group.
Life for the non-tattoed becomes increasingly difficult, they are being denied jobs, get hassled when they try to use e-cards (similar to debit cards) to pay for things rather than their tattoos and are discriminated against in other ways. There is a junior Senator who has started a movement against the tattoo, but other voices in the government, including his own father, stand against him.
Considering the debate about identity cards that has swirled around for years, the concept of a bar code tattooed onto the skin is not outrageous and of course even some characters in the book who are against the bar code reference the tattoos of those in the concentration camps in WWII and other ways people were branded undesirables. Also, there hardly seems to be a day that goes by without a news item about the security breach at some company where people’s personal data was part of a hack, so the idea that information about you, well beyond age, address, spending habits, etc. and being stored about you is frighteningly real. A few years ago I was at a doctor’s appointment and I did not fill in my social security number on their new patient form, the receptionist was livid even though I pointed out that she is not a government agency and cannot require that information from me. She insisted they needed to enter the number for their computer system, I told her if it wasn’t a required field, she didn’t ‘have to’ put anything in, if it was a required field, then she could put in a fake number or contact the software company for an alternative. She went ballistic treating me like a criminal until finally the doctor came out and I explained the situation. I had my appointment, but I never went back to that practice. Private enterprises illegally ask for information they are not entitled to every day, so obviously I was very attracted to the subject matter of this book and related to the characters questioning the privacy and security they are asked to give up and the pressures of society to conform as if saying ‘no’ is not an option and brands you as a troublemaker. The material is so rich, many different books could be written about this issue in dystopian fiction; unfortunately the writing was a bit stilted and clichéd for more sophisticated readers. The characters are one-dimensional and the romance rather bland. Also the book veered off target when it introduced a storyline about psychic ability. It would be a good book to assign to a high school English class to engage students in critical thinking about these issues or good fodder to bring up at a cocktail party by asking people how much information they think is being stored about them and how worried are they about privacy and security issues.