Thursday, August 18, 2011

Left Behind

A few weeks ago I acquired a Galileo thermometer at a thrift store. It's the sort of technology that Karel likes--the kind that doesn't run on electricity--and it's pretty to look at, which I like. Plus I've always wanted one, and watching the temperature transition between cold and hot was never so mesmerizing as when the 22° C bulb is floating halfway, trying to make up its mind as to which direction to go in.

I've mentioned before that the Dutch have some kind of hive mind, where everybody automatically falls into step with everybody else and social unity is maintained. Even with divisive issues (immigration), the locus of discord is often not with whether or not the issue is the problem, but rather the details of the regulation. Nowhere is this more visible than with the inexorable technologizing (is that a word?) of society.

Some time in February, notices began appearing on the buses in Nijmegen that, starting in June 2011, strippenkaarten would no longer be accepted and the only way to get a bus would be with an OV-Chip card. An OV-Chip is a blanket transportation card: you load it up at the train station, and you can use it to take the train, the trams (in cities that have a system), the subway (again, irrelevant in Nijmegen), and buses. And on July 1, 2011, just as promised, bus drivers stopped stamping strippenkaarten, although you can still pay €2 for a one-way ride in Nijmegen. There were probably a few curmudgeonly types who grumbled about this newfangled technology, but by that time the OV-Chip system had been in place for about two years (I was an early adapter--I never did figure out how to stow my strippenkaart in my wallet so that it wouldn't fall out, but still be easy to get to) and about half of the bus riders had already adapted it by the time it was made mandatory.

A more visceral, perhaps, example of how uniform systems are enforced, for instance, lies in the TV: TV in the Netherlands was completely digitized by 2006, thanks largely to nearly-universal cable television. All most people had to do was get a converter box, and Karel's TV service sent one to us when we subscribed. They sent us another one a few years back--somewhat more reliable, but we lost the Nostalgia Channel (footage and commentary about life in ye-olde Holland). But these days, most TVs are LED or plasma screens with built-in digital tuners. In the near future--maybe another five years or so--we'll probably need to get a new TV, not because the CRT will have stopped working (it's been kicking for over 10 years now), but because we won't be getting the converter any more. And TV companies will only broadcast in HD.

Maybe I'm a little pessimistic, but it seems that when we make things more convenient, more dependent on technology, we become a lot more vulnerable to things going wrong. If someone steals my strippenkaart I'm only out whatever I paid for it. But if someone steals my OV-Chip card, I'm screwed: it's linked to my bank card, so they could renew the subscription without my being aware of it, and they could, in theory, use it however they want and have me foot the bill. In the old days (God, I love that I can say that!) if your TV broke, you just took it to the local TV repair shop and they either fixed it or told you to get a new one. Now, if your plasma-screen goes belly-up, you need to send it back to the factory, wait for their response, hope customer service respects your warranty, and wait a few weeks. Or take scientific research: I honestly don't want to know how people wrote anything back in the day, because the amount of time they would have had to spend in the library looking up sources would be a full-time job in itself.

It's awesome what we can do online these days--send money overseas instantly (my bank in the US, alas, is stuck in the stone ages and transactions that ABN Amro approves in one day takes 7 days to complete)--send messages to people halfway around the world, translate Swahili to Japanese with a click of the mouse, and ask others for opinions as to why our cats are deranged. But we do have to ask ourselves, when we invest so much of ourselves online, what happens when the power goes out?

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