Saturday, October 1, 2022

Modern? An essay rant.

A week or so ago I saw an ad for a Jesse Cook concert in Calgary. We've enjoyed previous concerts, though I'm not familiar with his newer music. I looked into buying tickets, and Linda said she could pick them up while running an errand downtown. Trying to buy on line rapidly turned into a problem, so Linda said just phone them. Except there is no phone number. Turns out there is no actual box office any more. It's a good thing we checked. It also turns out there are no physical tickets any more. Sigh.

You have to have the ticketmaster app on your phone. Your choice is to buy tickets through it, or on your computer and eventually (the signup process is a nightmare) the ticket bar code ends up on your phone and you show them that at the venue. We bailed out, not wanting to go to the concert that badly. 

Then my neighbour asked me to help walk her through this exact process. I had heart palpitations doing it. I hate, absolutely HATE trying to figure out anything on a computer when they have a countdown timer going in the upper corner or someone in a hurry is watching me. I once lost great seats on a flight to UK once because the clock was ticking and I couldn't figure out the interface for selecting seats and moving to the next step.

Back to my neighbour. It took us two tries to get through the process of selecting seats, paying for them on line, and getting them sent to her phone, installing the app, and configuring it. Then walking her through how to find the app (we never did get it to show up on screen) and display the bar code for the tickets. Which she will have to do 4 times, once for herself, and once for each of her guests. Both of us were swearing liberally throughout this process.

Her question is, how do people without a smart phone go to concerts? The answer is they don't if it's tickemaster, and probably other similar services. They can't. There is no other process. I read about one poor fellow who bought tickets and could prove it, but didn't have a phone. They eventually accommodated him, but indicated they had no plans to change the existing process.

Meanwhile, ticketmaster have your name, address, credit card number, and I have no faith in their data base processes for keeping that secure. I've read about ticketmaster lookalike scams, and ticketmaster data leaks. As well, if that isn't enough, for putting people through this horror show, they are pleased to take 20% of the ticket price. I call that theft. I guess I won't be going to concerts much any more. Hmmm, maybe I can get my neighbour to take me.

The same day, I had to go into a registry office to pay a mumble mumble, and it turned out the Marda Loop one was on the way. To get inside, you have to take a photo of a QR code on the outside door, and go through their process to get into the lineup. Supposedly they text when they're pleased to serve you, I mean, when they're ready. There was a text and I went in, and stood around waiting. Desk 1 was a guy doing nothing. I caught his eye, and raised my eyebrows and showed him my phone. He said he was only doing health stuff, and someone would be with me in a minute. About 5 minutes later, with nothing changing, he looked up, called my name, and seemed mildly surprised when I came over. As I was leaving I got a text to go to desk 1, where I had just been. At best there are some bugs in the system. I won't be going back to that office. I miss the one that used to be in the local Co-op mall. They're doing mall renovations and the registry office moved half way to Brooks.

Meanwhile, the Marda Loop Registry people have harvested my name and cell number. They'll probably sell it to someone and I'll start getting more spam. 

I was in an IKEA a while ago to get more of the metal pegs need to support IVAR shelves. They have a similar system, to text them to get in line. 

And what if you don't have a phone? Whatever ever happened to those ticket dispensers with the number? That worked perfectly well for all involved.

The first iphone came out January 2007. For those having a tough time with the mental arithmetic (you could pull out your phone), that was not quite 16 years ago. In just over a decade, these little devices, (though some aren't so little anymore) have taken over our lives. Everyone is expected to carry one around, and nobody really knows what all they're doing under the hood, to be able to do all the stuff you see on screen.

Just as a quick for instance. The map. Put in your destination (which could be a person's name if they're in your contact list, or a restaurant name, or an address, or even my latest search which was the spoken words "pub grub". (Sean and I had just finished a walk and were hungry and thirsty.) It knows where you are, shows you nearby places that meet your search term, shows you the route, and gives you turn by turn directions, avoiding construction and routing around stalled traffic from a demonstration of driving incompetence. Tap another button and you get the menu.

That is just amazing, so let's go back and unpack that, shall we? It knows where you are. All the time. Does it keep a history of your movements? Do you believe them when they say no? It can listen to your voice and translate that to text. They say it listens but doesn't pay any attention till you press the microphone key, or do the "Siri xxxx" or however one does that. I think I've got that turned off, but I'm not sure I believe it.

Then it can search through a great many restaurants in their database, figure out which are pub grub, and which are nearest. Because it knows where you are to within a meter or so. I can't remember if it ranked them by best match to 'pub grub', or by distance, or by driving time. A bunch were shown on a map.

I get how it figures out where traffic is backed up. It can see all the phones sitting on a road not going anywhere, so it displays a red or orange line there, and will route you around it. I have no idea how it knows where construction is happening. Some of the time, but not always, I get can the verbal turn by turn directions happening. I'm not sure why it sometimes happens and sometimes not. It can give directions for public transit better than the transit app. Or for going by bicycle, or walking. The whole thing is amazing.

But even that isn't good enough for some drivers. I had my first Uber ride the other day, from Honda West back home. The driver missed the exit to go south, and ended up on Glenmore Trail going east, into a major traffic jam. In spite of all the signs, of the line showing the route going off to the left, and the voice telling him to exit left. It took twice as long to get home, and because of that first goof, I started paying attention. It wanted the driver to exit at 90th and go through Palliser (which I have never done in almost 40 years of living here), which I managed to fix. Then even though I told him not to turn left onto Woodwhateveritis, and go to 24 st, he turned anyways, and had to dodge construction. Not impressed with Uber at all. 

There are days that I think that a computer based Artificial Intelligence has actually arrived, and it's smart enough to keep a low profile for a while, training the humans to accept it. Maybe there's three of them, talking it over behind the scenes, planning their strategy. Think about what Apple, and Google, and Amazon know about you. Think of all that information being related together by your name, with some malicious misinformation thrown in for good measure. You ought to be terrified. Skynet is a wanker in comparison.

It's hard to remember 16 years ago, before smart phones. Yes, I had a company cell phone, but all it was good for was talking to someone, and the reception was typically crappy. That is if they were within cell coverage, which was spotty at best. No camera, texting was that stupid system to press the 2 button three times to get the letter c, no apps, no nothing. Remember paper maps? Getting directions to someone's house? Yellow Pages and calling to find out how late some place was open? Music came on CD's, movies were just starting to come on DVDs. 

Video stores were a thing, as was getting together with friends to watch a movie. A 36 inch TV was monstrously big, and LED TV's were just becoming a thing. I remember in 2005 or so, a 42 inch plasma was the top end standard, and it cost $8,000. Now they're practically giving them away. At the community clean up event, I see huge TV's being tossed into the recycling bin because they're too small, or they're outdated, or the owner is compensating for a small penis. Whatever. As an aside, small means only the size of a chid's bed. I'm pretty sure I've seen TV's in Costco that are the size of our king sized bed.

Has there been any other device which has had such quick and widespread acceptance, and replaces so many other objects? We've all seen the various articles, X many things the cell phone replaces. And it's true. In many cases the cell phone in all it's glory is a great replacement. Does anyone miss taking that old scribble updated phone and address list, and making a fresh copy? Or transferring information from last year's day timer to next year's?

Cell phones are essentially a prosthetic for our brains. They remember things for us. They can help us discover things we don't know. (Like the nearest pub grub place.) On a whim we can start a video call from nearly anywhere, to nearly anyone, who might be nearly anywhere. Dick Tracy would die of envy. 

It tracks all our appointments, and will remind us in a timely way. Timely meaning enough in advance that you can get there on time. Because it knows where you are. Use it to buy concert tickets and have the time, date, place show up in your calendar. The list goes on and on.

And yet. I think we've lost something along the way. We've certainly lost people that either can't cope with cell phones, or don't want to cope. The elderly are just one of the groups that often fit into either of those groups. Lots of people find the text too small to read, even with the text adjustments function. Or the buttons are too small. Some people have trouble focussing on the screen. Or they find it invasive. They might not be able to articulate this in a meaningful way, but they don't trust the technology. I certainly have reservations about the technology around data security, and some might consider me naive.

Trust is a funny thing. Do you remember, 20 years ago or so, that people were afraid of putting their credit card numbers on the internet? They were afraid it would be stolen. And yet they gave their credit card to the teenager at the bar or gas station, who then went away to a machine, and brought you back your card and a slip of paper with carbon paper to create multiple copies that physically went to multiple places. Yes, I know that some of the people reading this blog cannot imagine such a world.

Most of you know that I recently started carrying around a film camera at least some of the time. This is a technology at least two steps removed from the current world, which is to take photos using your cell phone and have the software "improve" the photo to overcome lens limitations. In fact, the camera is a major selling point for cell phones now. Except I'd only use it for taking a photo of a document that I need to email to someone, or I really really MUST take a photo and it's the only camera I have. 

If I want a photo, I mostly use a DSLR camera. It's about 5 years old, and is technologically obsolete now, in two senses. One, that it's not a cell phone, and two that it's not a mirrorless camera. Neither of the film cameras has any electronics at all. There is no battery. They will work until the intricate mechanical mechanism breaks, or it is no longer possible to buy the film or the chemicals required to develop it.

Some young people think that is the coolest thing ever. They love the older technology. Others are baffled at why anyone would manually take a light meter reading, tweak the physical controls on the camera as required and tweak again for the desired creative effect, focus manually, create an image one cannot see, then take the film out to be developed in a lab, or do it yourself in a dark room (which itself is a bit of a process), which gets you a negative film, which needs to be converted to a positive. Only then do you see what you got.

Except that's what everybody did, only 20 years ago. How many of you finally finished that roll of film in the camera, took it into Blacks to be developed, and then at least several hours and more likely several days later, sat down outside the store to look at the prints? How many times had you forgotten you'd taken a photo of that event or that scene, and it all came back in a rush? 

Go into any busy restaurant. I can guarantee there will be at least one table where several people are all on their phones, in their separate world. Maybe they talk to each other periodically, but if so it will be about something they're looking at on screen. I probably cannot imagine what they are doing, and in some cases I probably don't want to know. I grant you, sometimes phone usage is in response to the conversation, talking about the new child or grandchild, and 'she's so cute, let me show you a photo.'

I've been thinking about navigating our world without using a cell phone. Not just in the map sense, looking for pub grub. But all the other places where the world assumes you have a cell phone. Joining a line up. Buying concert tickets. Renting a car. (Which has it's own problems these days, completely unrelated to cell phones.) Sending a document to someone. Keeping in touch with work, family, or friends while you're out and about in the world. During the COVID pandemic people were expected to show a QR code on their phone to validate their vaccination status. There's a hundred and one other places where that assumption is made, and it's different for everyone. How difficult really would it be to do without a cell phone?

Some of these things are easily replaced by the older object. Wearing a wrist watch to know the time is no big deal. Except the battery is dead on the only wrist watch I own, and it takes a jeweller to replace it, and I don't even know if there are jewellers that do this any more. We still have an alarm clock, so I use that instead of the phone on the rare occasions when needed. For some things the cell phone is just more convenient, like that phone and address list.

Carrying a cell phone is optional now, in that one can carry on with life without it, albeit with some limitations. I'm wondering how restrictive those limitations are, and how organizations would respond to people saying "I don't have a cell phone." The evidence so far says the response would be, "so go get one, then come back."

But how long till the only way to hold a drivers license is to have it on your phone? That the only way of accessing your medical records is via your phone? To take out a library book or get into the local swimming pool? Buy groceries? That's just the quick list of cards in my wallet that have a bar code that lets me do these things. 

Now, for an ever increasing list of actions, the phone is a tool used to validate your identity via 2 factor ID. Log into a government website, or your bank, or paypal, and they want to text you a code. What if that becomes the only way? I recently read about a system to replace passwords that uses your phone to hold a private key that lets you interact with the various services on the internet. The internet database or app knows it's you because of the key on the phone, and the phone knows it's you because of your fingerprint or eye scan. Once we have to have a phone, how often will it need to be updated? What happens if it's stolen or lost or breaks? What happens if the sun burps out so much plasma that it shorts out our electronic systems? What happens if quantum computing becomes a thing, and it becomes trivially easy to factor large numbers, which totally breaks that encryption system?

Long ago I said that people would be assigned a cell phone number at birth, and it would be theirs for life, across many devices. Area codes would be obsolete. It would almost become a form of identity. That rather than give someone your name, address, and phone number, your phone would send their phone a code with that information, but wouldn't let the other person see the actual information unless you permitted it. That your entire medical history would be encrypted on your phone, with portions of it shared with the relevant professionals. It would become your driver's license, your key to your house and place of work with each workplace adding or revoking a code as necessary, your work log in key, your credit card, your bank card, your transit pass, everything. We aren't quite there yet, but almost.

If you don't like that world, and there's certainly parts that I don't, I'm not sure what can be done about it. Society is all about reducing costs, building a system, reducing the human element. There is huge momentum going that direction. Except what it does is reduce the humans to a component of a machine. A biological component that has to conform to the demands of society. 

Really, the photo that should go here is the Macintosh 1984 commercial. Nothing I have can top that. Of the Day feature will resume next post.

1 comment:

  1. From Sean.
    Hi Keith,
    Blogger and my computer are having a momentary spat so here is my comment on:
    Modern? An essay rant
    As I think I mentioned the other day the problem with IT is IT. As always, thank you for the essay.
    Cheers, Sean


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