Imagine! Life in the 21st Century!

City of the Future, Frank R Paul for Amazing Stories, 1942 (detail)

“I can’t justify the cost of mobile data.” “My husband has no interest in having a smartphone.” “I don’t have a smartphone and have no plans to get one.” “Can you think of any other time a technology has been this disruptive?” “It took me 20 minutes to register to pay — I wish I could just put money in a slot” “I want to be able to print off a paper ticket”. “I’ll just stop using this service rather than access it by smartphone”. “I don’t want to do anything complicated with my phone”.

All these comments, some lightly paraphrased, are on a Facebook thread from a disgruntled friend who doesn’t want to use a smartphone to pay for parking.

And this one. “This is the thin end of the wedge.”

No, actually, the thin end of the wedge happened about ten years ago and we’re well into the main body of the wedge now.

So this is an article for you, if you’re a person who doesn’t see why they should get a smartphone just so they can do this one thing that used to be a managed service and is now handled on phones. I’m not writing for the original complainant, who at least recognised that she was exercising a choice. I’m writing for everyone who pitched in.

Here’s what used to happen. You drove to a place to park. You put some money in a slot based on a guess as to how long you’d park for, and you got a ticket to put in a car.

Here’s what will happen in the very near future. You’ll drive to a place to park. Your license plate will be recognised, your account will be debited and you’ll be emailed or texted a receipt.

In the meantime, you’ll use the small personal computer you carry around for purposes like this and many others to manage the transaction. This is a much better way of handling things. You have a small risk (the value of your phone) that the vast majority of people have anyway. Meanwhile, the council doesn’t have to handle cash in isolated places or maintain fragile parking machines.

Systems of this kind are objectively better. We understand that every time we choose to buy something from a cheaper, disintermediated source and thereby get a lower price. We can keep personal engagement for the cases where it’s needed rather than paying the cost of employing people to ask us a lot of questions and type the answers into a computer.

But for increasingly many of these systems you need a phone. I buy a ticket online, I arrive at the venue, my phone’s scanned at the door, I’m admitted. We’re at a restaurant; rather than calling over the server, waiting for our bill, working out who had what, splitting it several ways, calling the server back and putting through several different cards, we go to the restaurant’s app, tap what we had, and use our thumbprint to pay. Rather than wait in line to order my morning coffee, I order on the phone as my train pulls into the station and it’s waiting for me when I get to the shop.

When you resist systems of this kind, you’re deliberately refusing to engage with aspects of the modern world. That’s your choice, of course. And where you’re dealing with private sector companies, you can take their business away if they refuse to operate in the way you like. But when it’s the council providing the service, here’s what you’re doing. You’re suggesting that every single one of us should pay more tax so that your fetish for living in the past can be accommodated.

Now, of course we have to provide systems that meet the needs of disabled people, and we need to be careful that we’re not excluding the poor. Though as the original context for this discussion was parking charges, I am prepared to argue that exactly nobody can afford to run a car but not a smartphone. And in practice the poor do all have smartphones.

That’s because smartphones are amazing, and amazingly cheap. You can get a smartphone that will allow you to live in the 21st century and engage with all its many wonders for £60 new, and you can run it for £5 a month. It’s possible to do this even a little cheaper if you’re determined. But I think that’s a reasonable base cost. It’s not inconceivable that some of the services people are whining about were costing more than that per user. Just for one of the many services that are now going to be transacted on phones.

A very cheap smartphone

Access to credit is often raised as a side issue here. In the UK we have a system of basic bank accounts (with limited banking services but including a debit card) to help people who would otherwise be disenfranchised from the banking system. Prepay cards cater for people who are unable to hold a basic bank account. Either of those can be used for purposes like this.

But back to you. You’re in your late middle years. Perhaps sixty-ish? You have many years of life ahead of you. You’re not short of money; the modest cost of a smartphone is accessible to you. Or perhaps you have a smartphone, but don’t like to take it when exercising. Or you have a smartphone and use it when it suits you, but want to carry on doing as much as possible in the way you always have done. Are you planning to spend the rest of your life tilting at this particular windmill, and becoming the elderly person that the young roll their eyes at? Or are you actually going to start to live in the amazing world we find ourselves in?

Because we may not be at the thin end of the wedge, but we’re only a small way down it. It’s not just going to be parking. It’s going to be everything, all the time, everywhere. Everything you pay for, every admission or appointment, all forms of authentication for all sorts of services. All the guides, all the information, all of the things you think of as ‘books’ and ‘films’. And it’s already the vast majority of our children’s interpersonal communication. If you cut yourself off from it you’re cutting yourself off from almost all of the future. Not quite all, for sure. You’ll still be able to do some of the things you’ve always done. But from all the new stuff.

You don’t like to think of old age as your declining years. But you have a choice to make; you can either engage with the present as it exists, and move hopefully into the future, or, well, you can decline to.

Choose life. Get a smartphone.