Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551

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In a mild satirical tone, Auden is critiquing the state’s determination to define the meaning of a citizen’s life in just a few facts collected by technology. He is suggesting that much more important information about a human life is left uncollected and, therefore, unconsidered by the state and society. This determination is made possible by modern technology that can amass this information and by statisticians who can analyze this information. The result of this accumulation of facts is an incomplete picture. These statistics do not get to the essence of the man. Auden, in fact, might well agree with Mark Twain, who is reported to have categorized the various kinds of lies: “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” This factual picture lacks the human voice, the flesh and blood person. The statistics lie; they separate the facts and possessions of the man from the essence of the man.

Originally, keeping detailed records of citizens such as these was a cumbersome process because of the amount of information to be gathered, the logistics of gathering, and the storage requirements for the information. This whole information-gathering has been aided by computer technology. Many more facts can be gathered, stored, and shared. The computer seems quite normal to today’s citizens, at least those under a certain age. It is a technology that can transport its user anywhere to get any information. All this expansion, including personal uses of computers, however, requires user names and passwords that can replace real names and identities. That there was a time when individuals were known by their names rather than by their social security numbers, user names, and passwords seems almost incomprehensible, particularly to students at large universities and to workers in large corporations, confined to cubicles.

All this information storage and transfer that citizens take for granted now began with small punch cards about the size of an airline ticket and extremely large computers. It is this penchant for gathering and storing information on twentieth century citizens that Auden uses for his comments on twentieth century infatuation with facts and its loss of meaning; this profiling offers facts that together add up to nothing. Neither Auden nor the reader has any sense of who this modern man is. He is truly unknown to both poet and reader.

Since Auden wrote this poem about the nameless, middle-class man in the middle of the twentieth century, technology has strengthened its hold on society. No longer are names and faces needed to conduct the normal business of society. Technology can now store even more information, all of the information about the Unknown Citizen that the poem shares and more. Technology can transmit most of what happens every day without people ever meeting. Technology is even now part of the industry where the Unknown Citizen worked; robots perform many of the tasks that he did. Auden’s brilliant, yet simply constructed, twenty-nine-line poem rings even truer now than it did when it described life in the mid-twentieth century. In fact, as technology has become louder and more prominent, the human voice has grown quieter; it is true that society has more facts about its citizens, but it does not recognize the silence that accompanies those facts because it cannot compute anything but facts. Citizens remain unknown.