A Traveller Example: W-2 and W-3 Forms

A “traveller” is a symbol defined in one context that passes through another context without interpretation. If the symbol is returned to the original context, it can still be translated back into the meaning it was given, but so long as it is in some other context, it has no meaning.

Think of it as a “message in a bottle” sent across an expanse of ocean where it’s existence and content are literally uncertain.

As a simple, real-world example of a data symbol that acts as a traveller, consider the  field labelled “Control Number” on the IRS form W-2 or on the IRS Form W-3. The W-2 form is used by employers to report to both the Social Security Administration (SSA), the IRS and to employees the income, taxes and other payroll related information representing the employee’s income, at least as known by that employer. The W-3 is used as a transmittal header by the employer when sending a bundle of W-2s to the SSA:

Mail any paper Forms W-2 under cover of this Form W-3

Sample of IRS Form W-2

Sample of IRS Form W-2

The instructions for the field labelled “Control Number” are as follows (from the 2006 Instructions, note that the image above is for 2009, and the Control Number field has moved positions):

Box a – CONTROL NUMBER. You may use this box to identify individual Forms w-2. Make certain that entries do not cross over into the form identification box (22222). You do not have to use this box.  

On the IRS Form W-3, the Control Number field has the following instructions:

Box a – Control Number. This is an optional box that you may use for numbering the whole transmittal.

Form W-3 Sample Closeup

Form W-3 Sample Closeup

In both cases, the IRS indicates that the control number field is a placeholder for the employer to use. It is clear from the instructions that the IRS could care less how the field is filled, or even  if it is filled at all. The meaning of any symbol that the employer places in that field on the form (or in the corresponding column on the electronic submittal) is not defined by the IRS, nor is its syntax. These things are given to the employer/preparer to choose, if they so wish.

What makes this a traveller is that the employer may choose any scheme whatsoever to fill the column. Using this field, the employer may decide the value allows them to tie each W-2 to a specific person. Or the symbol may indicate a specific region or location where the employee works (for very large organizations, perhaps). The IRS assumes that the employer, if they use the column, will use it to track individual W-2s in some manner, but it really doesn’t care. The employer could use it to store almost any piece of information at all.

Only the employer can actually interpret the individual symbols placed within the Control Number field. All the IRS can tell is that either the employer has used it or they have not. The actual contents will be uniterpretable by the IRS. This is the true definition of a traveller symbol.

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