We are inseparable. For years my iPad and I have been constant companions. But despite the magical ways in which it gives me access to friends, stores my data, informs me about almost anything, and supports me when I write and publish, there are times when it also drives me mad. I have not yet come to terms with the internet’s incessant demands for codes, passwords or user names. At the back of my diary are pages of combinations, but often when I use one, a screen message tells me that I have made a mistake, sometimes even barring me from continuing. What’s more, knowing this can occur makes me feel panicky and such a difficult relationship with combinations of letters or numbers can’t be right.
I began to puzzle over my rapport with codes at a dinner in France. The meal was hosted by Nicole, a ninety-year old Parisienne with a sharp mind and a memory to match. We were mesmerised as she told how, one day as a teenager, she was asked to stop tapping out the Marseillaise on the classroom floor.
During the Second World War her family would listen to ‘Radio Londres’, a French-language programme transmitted from London by the BBC and aimed at informing those in the Resistance. Amongst the messages were such classics as “I love Siamese cats”, “I don’t like Crêpes Suzette” and “Grandmother eat our candy”. In the first week of June 1944 the transmission repeatedly announced that “The flowers will open”, each time introduced by the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. For Nicole’s mother the meaning was clear – an allied landing was imminent. Then, on June 6, the message changed to “The flowers have opened”; obviously disembarkation had begun.
With that knowledge, a very happy Nicole went to school humming the Marseillaise, and later, in the classroom, tapped out the anthem’s rhythm on the floor to relay the news to her friends. Her teacher recognised the message and discreetly asked Nicole to stop – the information she was giving with such glee might be dangerous – in the class there were children of collaborators.
Her tapping ended, but her memory of the incident, together with her feelings towards codes and coded messages, remained. There was something very human and yet cheeky about the music played. In morse code, the ‘dot dot dot dash’ of the opening bars spelt out the letter ‘V’ – so Churchill’s ‘V’ for victory.
In the 1940s a key, a signature, or simply the mention of a name were usually enough to give one access to money, or information, or some precious commodity. When codes were used they were unsophisticated, almost homely. Not so now, with so many transactions being made on the internet, the use of codes is part of everyday business and the codes themselves are complicated, long and difficult to remember.
Well, this was the position taken over a second dinner, where each of us round the table told how we had to remember four-digit, bank card codes; five-, or six-digit entry codes and, for the internet, I, personally, had lists of passwords containing ten digits or more – including letters (upper and lower case), numbers and punctuations marks, of which many (but which?) were now obsolete.
While we cursed this new dimension, some prided themselves on how many codes they could actually remember. Here was a practical challenge for those over seventy!
Soon after the meal, I found myself making just such a boast and was exposed. I was at the gym when a substantial, middle-aged woman pushed by me as she strode towards the administrator’s office. She was loudly cursing the combination lock on the locker-room door which, she proclaimed, was broken. I had carefully committed the code to memory – C9687 – and for me the combination worked, although privately, I had often wondered whether I had tapped in the right number. Just as I was closing the door the woman returned accompanied by an attendant. The woman shouted brusquely “How did you manage to get in?”. To which I replied ‘The lock works: and with respect, it is your memory that has failed”. At which point the attendant explained that what was tapped in didn’t actually matter, after the ‘C’ any of the four digits would do and in any order! I had been fooling myself – in truth I had probably forgotten the original digit order months ago.
If there is such a thing as ‘code phobia’, I’ve got it. Current codes and passwords are ubiquitous, unyielding and uncompromising and offer no scope for argument or negotiation. Returning to the more homely security arrangements of yesteryear would be very attractive. I wonder if information about events such as blossoming flowers, or the desire for a Crêpe Suzette, could make a comeback.