Told You So

The writing on the wall -- and the bottle, the box, the stroller, the doe...

EARLIER this year legislators in the state of Washington, led by a representative named Mark Miloscia, introduced a bill that would require a cautionary label on credit cards, analogous to the labels that already appear on cigarette packs and liquor bottles. The message would read, "Warning: Failure to research interest rates and credit cards may result in personal financial loss or possible bankruptcy." The Washington initiative, which foundered in committee, is not the only one of its kind. Congress has considered incorporating a similar requirement into its overhaul of the U.S. bankruptcy code. Although the idea was rejected in the House, it will be taken up again when the bankruptcy bill moves to the Senate.

The idea of warning labels on credit cards is unlikely to recede in a country where last year banks sent out 3.5 billion unsolicited offers of pre-approved plastic, and where more than a million people a year declare personal bankruptcy. Taking no initiative, I have been borne through the ranks of Gold and Platinum membership in various credit-card communities, and a few days ago was informed of upgraded entitlement to a new Titanium card, with a credit line of $100,000. Ultimately there could be a Uranium card, with a debt load whose half-life is 700 million years.

In all likelihood the call for warning labels of some sort will become more insistent. As a stopgap measure, the National Center for Financial Education, a nonprofit group, is already making available a do-it-yourself version: an adhesive-backed label bearing the words "Warning: Overuse Can Be Dangerous to Your Wealth!"

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That Americans harbor an ambivalent attitude toward risk is almost a truism. On the one hand, people fight for the right to drive without seat belts and to ride motorcycles without helmets. On the other, they insist on being protected from every remote or capricious form of woe. Unhelpfully, the public's risk assessments are badly skewed: people become agitated about mechanisms of injury that are relatively minor or unlikely (Alar, vaccinations) while shrugging off those that are serious and prevalent (downhill skiing, driving to the store). Participants in a recent conference on the subject of how fear distorts science, sponsored by the Independent Women's Forum, lamented the ascendancy of what they called the Precautionary Principle: the idea that "no risk should be taken until all its ramifications can be known." In theological terms, people afflicted with the same hobbling incapacity are said to have a "scrupulous conscience."

Illustration by Chris Sharp

The only printed warnings I can remember from childhood are BEWARE OF DOG and the cloth tag on mattresses that was never to be removed, under penalty of law. Today warnings are virtually a design feature of any product. To be sure, many cautionary announcements are essential. Hong Kong's televised "Falling Objects Kill" campaign, which portrays what can happen when a refrigerator tossed from an apartment window lands on a schoolgirl riding a bike, is an urgent necessity in a city of high-rise congestion and laissez-faire sensibilities. At the other end of the spectrum is the warning label on those accordionlike cardboard sun-blockers that stretch above the dashboard: "Do not drive with sunshield in place."

In between are hundreds of thousands of labels, flashing various shades of alarm. Some give indications of that scrupulous conscience (or of fears of litigation). On cans of deodorant: "Do not spray in eyes." On an infant's wheeled conveyance: "Remove your child before folding baby stroller." Other warnings are more understandable. On products that contain olestra: "Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools." On Viagra: "An erection that lasts longer than four hours requires prompt medical attention." A few labels elicit genuine surprise. On toothpaste: "If you accidentally swallow more than that used for brushing, seek professional help or contact a poison control center immediately." Some wildlife managers foresee a need to put warning tags on deer: as an experimental population-control measure, herds in a number of places have been inoculated with contraceptives, and if the practice spreads, deer taken by hunters may no longer be fit for consumption.

Warning labels are fast venturing into fresh domains -- not just things but people and relationships. In Oregon, state law requires that warning signs be placed outside the homes of sex offenders released from detention. A judge in Massachusetts has sought to compel people convicted of driving while under the influence to display a bumper sticker to that effect. In Pennsylvania a state representative has submitted legislation that would put an anti-battery advisory on all marriage licenses: "The laws of this Commonwealth affirm your right to enter into this marriage and, at the same time, to live within the marriage free from violence and abuse." Court documents reveal that in their evaluations of visa applicants State Department personnel abroad have employed an in-house warning-label system using a secret code -- LR for "looks rough," TP for "talks poor." In recent years a number of lawsuits have been filed alleging malpractice by members of the clergy, which suggests that consumer advisories may soon need to be posted on vestments and pews. In this connection it will be instructive to see whether a new subsurface platform jutting into the Sea of Galilee, designed to allow tourists on millennial pilgrimages to simulate the miraculous experience of walking on water, will display any warning labels. The walking-on-water story is the one in which Jesus admonishes Peter with the words "O ye of little faith," so a warning label might seem a bit ironic (though lifeguards and patrol boats are already planned for the attraction).

The latest inroads made by labeling have nothing to do with safety. They're political. The Virginia-based Christian Action Network, a lobbying group, has been urging network broadcasters to adopt an "HC" label on television programming, to alert viewers to the imminent onset of homosexual content. Anti-casino forces in Louisiana want advertisements for gaming to carry the warning "Gambling can be addictive." In Beverly Hills last spring voters took up (and ultimately rejected) a ballot initiative that would have required the following notice to appear on all clothing or accessories featuring animal fur and valued at more than $50: "This product is made with fur from animals that may have been killed by electrocution, gassing, neck-breaking, poisoning, clubbing, stomping, or drowning and may have been trapped in steel-jaw, leghold traps."

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As one might expect, some prominent commentators have expressed consternation at all this labeling activity, bemoaning our thin skins, our dim wits, and our fondness for torts. My own view is that we may actually have further to go. It is hard to deny that a number of realms have so far gotten off rather easily. Susan Hewitt and Edward Subitzky, writing in The Journal of Irreproducible Results, have brought up one of them, arguing persuasively that our very perception of reality needs warning labels. Some of the labels they would like to see on all items offered for sale in this country include the following:

Note: The most fundamental particles in this product are held together by a "gluing" force about which little is currently known and whose adhesive power can therefore not be permanently guaranteed.


Please Note: Some quantum physics theories suggest that when the consumer is not directly observing this product, it may cease to exist or will exist only in a vague and undetermined state.

That's a start. There's one specific geographic label we might also want to consider. For decades the State Department has issued succinct travel advisories pertaining to various places around the world, warning of cholera here, guerrilla activity there. If, as seems likely, we intend to persist in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (significantly, a new director of a revamped NASA effort has recently been named), then in all fairness Planet Earth as a whole ought to display some sort of travelers' advisory.

This lies well within our technological competence. At least one spacecraft has already been sent aloft bearing symbolic planetary artifacts, such as a sound recording of an initiation rite for Pygmy girls (provided by the anthropologist Colin Turnbull) and the original Chuck Berry version of the song "Johnny B. Goode." Some years ago the Arecibo Observatory, in Puerto Rico, transmitted an informational radio message toward the star cluster M13. The message, in the form of digitized schematic images, sought to convey basic data about our number system, our solar system, our genetic system, and our elemental composition. A stylized figure (right) also gave a rough idea of what human beings look like.

What might a new message directed at M13 contain? It ought to note that a book called The Gift of Fear, about how to deal with threats to one's personal security, recently became a nationwide best seller. It could mention the trend toward constructing secret armored rooms inside houses -- so-called "God Forbid" rooms -- where families can take refuge in the event of a home invasion. It might record that the planet's dominant species needs a label on Silly Putty warning "Not for use as earplugs," and it could add that this label contains five more words than the one on a nuclear bomb. It should provide a slightly revised depiction (right) of what human beings look like.

Finally, it ought to prepare visitors to the planet for their own inevitable labeling. If nothing else, they should certainly brace for an LR and a TP from the State Department.

Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor. His most recent book is (1998).

Illustration by Chris Sharp.

The Atlantic Monthly; September 1999; Told You So - 99.09; Volume 284, No. 3; page 18-21.