Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Beeping technology

Back in the day, money talked

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I think we can all agree technology is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, all of humanity can benefit from innovations such as the prosthetic memory chips scientists hope they will one day be able to implant into the shrivelling brains of people like me to help us remember where we parked our (bad word) cars or where we left our (another bad word) eyeglasses.

On the other hand, technological advances also hold the potential to unleash untold devastation, such as in the case of smartphones and tablet computers, which enable modern motorists to perform important activities like playing the latest version of Angry Birds without wasting time on trivial matters such as looking out the window to see where their car is going.

I became alarmed about the threat posed by modern technology just before Halloween, when I popped into my local pharmacy to obtain some urgently needed items, including the latest edition of People magazine and a family-sized bar of extra-strength deodorant.

At the checkout counter, I pulled out my debit card and attempted to pay in the old-fashioned manner via sticking the card into the electronic reader, which is when the cashier held up her hand and told me to stop.

"You don't have to do that anymore," she sniffed.

"Huh?" I replied, because as a crusading journalist I am expected to think on my feet.

"You don't have to insert the card anymore," the cashier said, visibly distraught her store had such uninformed customers as me. "All you have to do now is wave your chip at the little green light on the card reader."

I was nonplussed, even though I have never been sure precisely what that word means.

"So I just wave my card at the light?" I mumbled.

"Exactly!" the clerk replied, pointing at the card reader.

So that's what I did. I pointed my card and waggled it and -- BEEP! -- without giving it any more thought, without having to punch in my secret password, my items were instantly paid for and the cash register spit out a receipt.

"That's amazing!" I gushed to the cashier, who didn't reply, because apparently it was not the first time she had seen this technology in action.

Somewhat stunned, I marched over to the grocery store to obtain an emergency backup supply of miniature chocolate bars in case the number of trick-or-treaters invading our home exceeded the population of Prince Edward Island.

A short time later, there I was, in the checkout aisle, waiting to pay for several bags of tiny candy bars. As I stood in line, it occurred to me how much the simple act of paying for something has changed, thanks to technology.

You young people will be shocked to hear this, but back when I was young -- to put it in perspective, this was when Capt. Kirk was still in command of the Starship Enterprise -- we consumers had to pay for things with something called "money."

I am not making this up, kids. When the cashier demanded money, we would have to root around in our wallets and purses and, worst of all, use our puny brains to do something called math, which, if I remember correctly, involved "moving" decimal points and "carrying" numbers, activities modern consumers no longer need to worry about.

Back then, if the person in front of you in line had failed Grade 5 math, you could be trapped there for a very long time while the cashier helped the customer count something called "pennies," which were a type of currency that even then was completely worthless.

Because of the long waits, some of the thinner customers literally starved to death in the checkout aisles or resorted to cannibalism like the Donner Party, which is another thing we used to learn about in school.

Anyway, when it was time to pay for my chocolate bars, I noticed the card reader had a little green light on it, so I bravely waggled my debit card at it and sure enough -- BEEP! -- the candy was paid for and I didn't have to punch in my password or anything.

"This scares me a little bit," I whispered to the cashier. "I could be walking through the supermarket with my debit card in my pocket and -- BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! -- I'll end up paying for everyone's groceries without realizing it."

The cashier frowned, conspiratorially. "I worry about that, too," she confessed.

That's when the guy behind me in line tapped me on the shoulder. "How did you do that?" he asked.

I explained as best I could, but I'm pretty sure he was nonplussed.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 6, 2013 A2

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