Think of a number, any number

If modern life is increasingly a question of remembering numbers, what's the danger of becoming one?

I had begun to think of the Wine Society as the very acme of civilisation. "They'll never send you a bad bottle of wine," a friend said when I joined a couple of years ago. I have tested this theory to the limit by ordering the cheapest whites in large quantities, and my friend was absolutely right. But then the society sent me a letter from which a four-number code stared out. This, I was informed, would enable me to order wine over the internet with complete security. I was instructed to commit it to memory and then to destroy it, whether I intended to use it or not.

I resented these peremptory demands, especially because I'm not very good at either me morising or destroying personal identification numbers. The ones sent out by banks are accompanied by particularly melodramatic warnings about what could happen if you don't destroy the Pin, and yet the number itself is written on a bit of cellophane that is in fact indestructible.

Memorising is the hard part, though. I do not do much internet shopping, and consciously try to avoid the accumulation of numbers in my life. Even so, I have about 30 that I'm supposed to have committed to memory but which I have in fact written down in an alphabetical code. I don't want to disclose this in detail, but I might give amateur cryptographers among New Statesman readers something to go on if I say that A = 1.

Whenever I access my ING savings account by phone, I am supposed to have to hand my account number, customer number, a memorable date (that's the one I can always be guaranteed to forget), my date of birth and a Pin number. The brochure informs me that I could have up to ten ING accounts, but only, presumably, if I were a prodigy like Mr Memory in Hitchcock's film of The Thirty-Nine Steps. As it is, my mind often goes blank either on the phone to a bank or when the shop assistant cheerily says, "Would you enter your Pin, sir?" It's particularly intimidating because I know that friendly banter will cease immediately if I get the number wrong.

My wife has the same trouble. A credit-card company wouldn't let her cancel the card it had supplied because she couldn't remember the security word she'd selected when opening the account. She'd successfully recalled her date of birth (she's clever like that, is my wife) and her mother's maiden name, but nothing could be done without the security word. After ten minutes of agony, the credit-card operative took pity on her. "Mrs Martin," she confided, "the security word you selected is your own name."

Well, who can be bothered to give any serious thought to the matter? Need a four-digit number unique to you? Might I suggest 1812 if you're a fan of classical music, or 1966 if you're a soccer fan? I resent offering up genuinely personal details into the machines that control my life, because the more I do it, the less of a personality I seem to have to draw upon.

I had a momentary respite this month when I walked into my bank and asked to transfer some money from one account to another. At first the cashier was reluctant to do this, but then the manager walked over and said, "Oh, it's all right to go ahead. I know Mr Martin." Organic human-to-human recognition! To think that this was the currency of everyday life until not so long ago . . . And to think that once, even the conman who purloined a chequebook had to study his victim in order to forge his signature - which was a compliment of sorts.

My experience at the bank was only a glimmer in the gathering darkness. After all, when identity cards are introduced, it won't be a matter of our having to remember numbers so much as actually becoming them.

Andrew Martin's novel "The Lost Luggage Porter" is published in paperback on 3 May

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover