Toilet Roll Conspiracy Theory

- or -

Where will THEY stick a number next?

First Issue 23/01/2002


Well, this one is a bit of a shocker, though it started innocently enough when I had occasion one day to visit the toilet. As happens from time to time (and hopefully one has always planned carefully for it in advance), one day I removed the last working sheet of paper from a roll of toilet tissue, and - to my horror - visible throught the fragments of paper which remained stuck to the adhesive on the fully-depleted cardboard tube was a number. This was no ordinary number of a few digits. This was a 17-DIGIT monster, printed using something like an electrostatic dot matrix printer. Just to confirm that this was no one-off event, I quickly checked some of my collection of empty toilet roll tubes from the same manufacturer, and found a similar but different number on each of them. Now bear in mind that the number of people on the planet can comfortably be expressed at the moment in 10 digits, this would mean that we each could be allocated more than 9,999,999 rolls without a number being duplicated. That's a lot of toilet paper, and I doubt even I would need so many rolls in a lifetime. So what's going on? Ideas?

I smell a conspiracy.

Before I proceed, let me say that I'm not going to tell you the actual number - I value my privacy too much - so please don't ask.

An Example

two of the numbered toilet roll tubes - numbers obscured on purpose

Questions, Thoughts, Paranoia

The investment in technology necessary to put this number on the cardboard tube must be significant. The printer has to be capable of high speed continuous in-line operation, since it is probable that the number is applied as the tube emerges from the machine which winds it up and spits it out. The printer has to be connected to some kind of computer and machine interface, and the whole lot needs maintained. A system must exist for doing something with the number, otherwise it isn't worth printing. The contrast of the print is fairly low, so it is probable that people must be involved in recovering the data, and anyway there would be no point in making it human-readable if it was only going to be read by a machine - there are much more efficient ways of coding. Since the number is 17 digits long, it must contain something pretty fantastic or detailed, because otherwise the number carries a big overhead. My point is, there is a major cost in doing this, and there must be an associated payback for the manufacturer, otherwise it wouldn't happen. Payback could take one of several forms - below are some that spring immediately to mind, complete with comments. Always bear in mind that we are looking for good reasons - but not of necessity good purposes - for having such a big number printed on the inside of a toilet roll, where you can only see it if you unwind the entire roll or otherwise finish it.

This would have to relate to use of the number in a human-controlled feedback mechanism in the event of something going wrong - it would take too much manpower to read every number from every successful roll, and you couldn't read them anyway once the roll is filled without destroying product. So it would most likely be used in some way when doing a postmortem on empty, broken tubes. What troubles me here is why you would have 17 digits - there is already a computer involved, plus the ability to count cycles, log process parameters and measure time, and if it is a production issue you would want to act quickly to prevent major loss, so why the big number?

Yes, this could be a lucky number competition thing, designed to increase sales. What a great method for preventing casual fraud in the supermarket. A felon would be pretty conspicuous attempting to unroll all the toilet rolls in order to get to the lucky numbers. Only a few weak points. First, it would put people off because the number is longer than their concentration span and the competition would be considered unfair. Second, unless the ink and cardboard are identifiable at a molecular level, it would not be immune to forgery. Third, the numbers can be partially obliterated by inept removal of the last few sticky bits of paper - how frustrating would that be? I could go on.

I can see it now. You phone up the Toilet Roll Telephone Support Hotline (0800, premium rate, whatever, provided by the manufacturer to show he cares), get stuck in a computerized answering machine system for 20 minutes and then eventually get the opportunity to pose your technical question to some Toilet Roll Support Engineer who sits in front of a computer screen connected to an Expert System which is designed to isolate and rectify your Toilet Roll-related problem through the use of a masterful series of incisive questions. Naturally, the first thing the engineer asks you for is your Toilet Roll serial number, for no reason that you can fathom. In order to get this number, you empty the roll onto the floor. You read off the number. You throw the pile of toilet paper in the bin (it's too much to flush in anything like a reasonable length of time) because there's no easy way to roll it all neatly back on to the tube. Ah, Sir, as I see it, your main problem is that you have exhausted the supply of paper on the roll. You should take the batteries out for 30 seconds, put them back in and try a new roll. Or something.

Maybe the number indicates the Dye Lot, the same as balls of wool for knitting. You are aiming for the ultimate in toilet chic, so you want perfectly matching toilet rolls on the shelf. You pull all the paper off a near-infinite number of rolls until you find two with adjacent numbers, which would be the closest you could get. The only problem with this is the mountain of paper on the floor, as above. Good for sales though. Maybe you could phone the Hotline with the serial number, and they could arrange (at a premium) to send you a case of closely-matched rolls.

Assuming that the cardboard tubes are manufactured by various outside contractors, using a variety of machines in a number of different locations, in the event of some kind of quality problem it might be useful to be able to trace the source of a batch of cardboard tubes. But wait - multiply all that up and it probably only comes to less than 10,000, so why so many digits? If the number is put on just before the paper is rolled onto the tube, the company doing the printing and rolling only needs to allocate a sequential number which ties into a stock-control database which links goods received notes from suppliers, batch dye colour, time, date, machine, operator etc. It's simple however you look at it, and still doesn't need more than a few digits. By the way, I've yet to see a Product Recall notice for a batch of toilet roll - remember, this is a product designed to be used once and flushed.

And now the crunch . .

Now, at last, we get to the crux of the matter - the potential of the same 17-digit number for wrong-doing, invasion of privacy and other restriction of human rights - the Conspiracy Theory, if you like.

Why would someone pay you to put numbers on the tubes? Perhaps to gain Market Intelligence. Without needing to access information on the distribution and purchasing trail between manufacturer and retail outlets, a team of researchers could simply go into shops and supermarkets and purchase samples of toilet roll on a regular basis, extract the the serial numbers they paid to have put there in the first place, and build up a relative purchasing profile of different areas and populations. They could then offer this information for sale on the free market, since it would essentially be independent of any particular supermarket chain or whatever, although it could be processed to yield chain-specific data too. They could also go along your street on a Monday morning (or whatever day your refuse is collected) and extract all the empty toilet roll tubes from all the buckets and build up a useful marketing profile from that. Working in collusion with the manufacturer, they would be able to determine approximately where and when purchases were made, what the brand market share was and what would be the total market for the product type. And other stuff.

Why would someone compel you under threat of closure to print numbers on the tubes? This is the most worrying aspect. It would be pressure from the Government, or more directly the Security Services under Government instruction. Imagine for a moment that you happen to be in the vicinity of something which the Government doesn't like (not doing it yourself, of course, but being nearby when someone - for example - commits a crime, thinks unacceptable thoughts, looks the wrong way, etc) and as it happens you have need to dispose of an empty toilet roll tube in some suitable waste receptacle at that precise moment - well, matey, you've only got yourself to blame. What happens is, along come the scene-of-crime folk, who grab the tube and whisk it back to the lab. They get the number, look it up on the National Toilet Roll Database computer and that tells them lots of things. But let's assume it only gives them the name of the manufacturer (the rest is classified). They go to the manufacturer with the number, and he tells them the date of manufacture, when it was shipped and which distributor and distribution centre received the consignment. The distribution centre tells them which supermarket got it, and the supermarket tells them exactly when the toilet roll was put on the shelf and approximately when it was sold. They also divulge the credit card or store loyalty card numbers of all the people who purchased that brand of toilet roll from the shop in the 2-hour window of interest. They cross-reference the times against the in-store camera recordings, and before you know it, your front door is lying in the hallway. Get the picture? It could happen.

And don't think you'll be safe paying cash. The ATMs and banks could be logging the serial numbers of banknotes against your account, and the same numbers could be recorded as a matter of routine by your friendly, local retail outlets. You really need to stick to using coins. And you need to handle them with surgical gloves (bought with - you guessed it - cash) which you burn afterwards, otherwise they'll be able to match your DNA against the National DNA Database. And if you really feel the need to send ransom notes, use self-sealing envelopes and don't lick the stamps.

What we can do to protect ourselves

Well, there's not a lot of point in complaining to the authorities about this possible conspiracy, because it's likely that your own Government and National Security Service will be deeply involved. There are, however, a few common-sense things that you might like to consider.

Conclusions and ideas for further reasearch

Well, the conclusion I draw is that there is at least a possibility of a conspiracy on a grand scale to tag us in any way possible and keep us firmly under the Government thumb. The scene in Bladerunner with the scale, the microscope and the serial number was part of a work of science fiction, looking some way away into a dystopian future, but maybe that future is closer than we imagined.

As for further research, I think if we care at all about the way society is evolving, it's our duty to take a long, hard look at everything that's going on around us and question everything, particularly when it comes to great big numbers popping up in obscure places. Today, toilet rolls, tomorrow, who knows?


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