The Unknown Citizen by W. H. Auden

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 551 words.)