My favourite things: credit card, mobile phone and laptop (wireless Internet)
We all have our favourite gadgets and time-saving devices; things we’ve become accustomed to that were once a luxury. Most commonly, laptops, mobile phones and credit cards have transformed our lives almost entirely beyond recognition. Where would we be without our mobile phone (with 3G and Wi-Fi connections) to organise, constantly-communicate (via text message and calls), and make last minute changes to our agenda? How much less of a network would the Internet seem to be without Wi-Fi and wireless Internet? With increasingly more paperless exchanges of funds, to pay for items or services, or receive payment, how much has the credit card altered the way we view money? This “top three” of essential lifestyle accessories was non-existent fifty years ago (at least in the form we now recognise and rely on them), so how have we changed as a result of these technological advances, and what are the exceptions?
Mobile phones: 3G and wireless communications
Although mobile phones have been an idea since the early twentieth century, the first true portable mobile phone came into existence in the 1980s, being considerably larger than today’s micro handsets and with a great deal less reception coverage. It wasn’t so long ago that people could only be contacted if they were in or near a building with a fixed landline. If a person was “in transit” you would have to wait until they reached their destination to get a message through to them. Since then, mobile phones allow us to make phone calls, send text messages or even connect to the Internet via 3G (much faster mobile broadband) and Wi-Fi (joining a local area network, or “LAN”). With phones manufactured by Nokia, Sony Ericsson, LG, Samsung, Apple, Motorola, NEC, Panasonic, Sagem, Siemens, Toshiba, and many more companies, the user not only has access to this technology with increasingly more features (video calling, camera phone, mp3 player, Bluetooth, and more) but also a great deal of choice when it comes to the mobile phone provider.
Credit cards, debit cards, EFTPOS and paperless transactions
The thought of living without credit cards, bank cards, automated teller machines (ATMs – also known as the “hole in the wall”), or “electronic fund transfer at point of sale” (EFTPOS) would probably make the average person dread the actions of buying and banking, the vast majority of us having become so accustomed to these convenient facilities. Indeed, the rise of online banking accounts and online savings accounts has made us even more dependent on electronic financial transactions. It was once the case that money was only owned if physically possessed or deposited as a physical entity at the bank. Since cheques, money orders and early credit cards came into being to cut down on the impractical use of material funds, we have become much more dependent on “virtual funds” to buy goods, pay bills or pay each other. Historically, the first company to launch a credit card was Diner’s Club, which has been in operation since 1950. Mastercard, meanwhile, first appeared in 1966 as “Mastercharge”. The ATM that we all know and love followed shortly after in the English county of Middlesex, in 1967. The compromise that comes with carrying around less cash is an increased vulnerability to fraud, with online shopping being a particularly precarious use of virtual funds.
Wireless and satellite internet
Early laptops (developed in either the late 1970’s or early 1980’s, depending on which model you accept as the first truly “portable” computer) had significant impact on businesspeople that were able to afford them. A large amount of documentation could be transported relatively easily between home and office (with physical paperwork limited to amount, in terms of weight, that an individual could carry). Whilst laptops and portable computers increased ease of work, and therefore productivity, they have also arguably exacerbated the occurrence of stress-related diseases, accelerating the culture of being “always available” and “always able to work”. Nowadays, of course, working anywhere is even easier, with nearly every laptop model coming with a wireless modem installed. Wi-Fi hotspots are nearly everywhere, with wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) being numerous. The growth of online databases, and an increased number of application service providers (ASPs) offering a greater range of web-based applications, has led to an almost completely portable office; an extraordinary overhaul of the way we work within thirty years.
The growth of smartphones (the Research in Motion BlackBerry, Apple iPhone, etc) has further spread the “always online” culture and the expectation for people to be available and able to communicate and work instantly and (very nearly) constantly. Satellite Internet makes it more or less feasible to run a global business from a house in the deepest outback (pending coverage still, of course). With increased satellite exposure, Internet availability (and with it, broadcasting power) could soon be available in even the most obscure location, further spreading the “always online” culture.
E-mail, social networking, forums and blogs
Many would argue that Internet social network sites are anything but antisocial, despite plenty of criticism being aimed at increased computer and Internet activity. Some Internet users may suffer from a compulsion to check e-mail almost constantly, or similarly monitor social networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn or Bebo, with a frequency bordering on the obsessive. The same can be said for chat programs, such as MSN or Google Talk, with some users scanning regularly to see if any friends have “signed in”. A further development is Twitter, the programme that provides a constant feed to a group of friends via e-mail or SMS text message to tell each member what the others are doing. Of course, we may begin to wonder what it was that we actually did with our lives before these (relatively-new) developments became an acceptable way to pass spare time.
Accustomed to such ease and high frequency of contact, the question remains: will we ever be able to cut back to a more manageable level of privacy? Furthermore, what does all this virtual banking and social networking say about the amount of private information being exchanged and how much this information is being data-mined or compromised in terms of potential identity theft or market research use? Many may feel left behind by this new technology, not realising the benefits of faster 3G mobile broadband, for example, or simply having little use for it. Perhaps people will have less time by choosing to shun credit cards or insist on banking at their branch instead of online. Then again, maybe those only willing to work in the office, with a fixed desktop rather than a constantly-accessible laptop, will find not only their spare time but also their mind at a greater level of tranquillity, compared with those insistent on being “permanently connected”? Time will tell. In the meantime, can people tolerate not being in constant contact?
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