You can’t really tell, but the thing I’m holding in my hand in that picture is our portable GPS unit, which I use infrequently enough to totally forget how it works between uses. I was inspired to take it along after reading this article at FastCompany.com, which I’m belated at blogging but better late, etc.
The story’s all about the transforming power of the global positioning system, something we’re just starting to see the ramifications of. I think most of us don’t understand how great it’s going to be. When we rented our car in Arizona, I had to initial a paragraph stating I understood that if we took the car out of the designated service area, it would trigger an alarm at Rental Car HQ and our agreement would be void. The alarm would be triggered by an onboard GPS unit, of course. But what do you think of this passage:
…I am sitting in a sunlit office in Silicon Valley — GPS coordinates unavailable because the signals couldn’t penetrate the windows — when the equivocal nature of this future world becomes evident. I am egging on an executive in a GPS conglomerate, a man who thinks about position, location, and satellites all day, trying to get him to tell me how "location awareness" is going to change the world the way that, say, electricity did. He’s holding back. He wants to tell me how important it is for concrete companies to know where their trucks are. I can tell he’s had bigger thoughts.
He lets down his guard all at once. "Imagine," he says, "the end of property crime. Everything that has any value and could be stolen — a car, a laptop, a piece of construction equipment" (not to mention every ship, plane, truck trailer, and toddler) — "everything like that will know its location and be able to report it. We can go even further: You tell your laptop that it should only find itself at your office or your home. And if it finds itself in a car trunk, it wakes up, notices that it’s in the wrong place, calls your cell phone, and says, ‘Hi, this is your laptop. I’m at this location on this map you see. Is that okay?’ "
Then the executive goes one step further. He starts talking about insurance companies selling you auto insurance based on how you actually use your car, say, a month at a time. They review the GPS information on where you’ve driven, how far, to what areas of town, and how fast (speeding, eh?) and bill you for the risks that you’re taking. Progressive Insurance has in fact done a trial using just such a system in Texas.
The GPS executive’s eyes are sparkling at the prospect of reduced car-insurance rates. I’m thinking, Holy mackerel. The insurance company will have records of everywhere I drive and how fast I drive there. Not even my wife knows that.
Uh, yeah. I love technology — it’s the coolest thing about being an American, after freedom ‘n’ stuff, the ability to try out all the cool gadgets first — but by now we know that technology never transforms things exactly the way we think it will. I have no doubt that car insurance rates will not fall on GPS data, or if they do, they’ll fall infintesimally. (Profits — that’s what’ll go up.) But there will be a lot of other, less obvious changes, too. If you have a company car, and the company can track whether you broke the speed limit on that trip to Chicago? That’s going to lead to lots of pissed-off, spied-upon employees, and that will have its consequences. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. American workers have put up with a lot in the last 30 years, making the transition to a global economy where they’re expected to work harder and longer and whatever-er, and sooner or later employers will find their breaking point. Maybe GPS spying will do it. I dunno.
I’m feeling a little sour on employers at the moment because one of the city’s highest-profile corporations, Lincoln National, announced a bunch of layoffs today, and you don’t have to be a business genius to figure that most will come from Fort Wayne. The company used to be headquartered here and was a crown jewel of corporate citizenship — generous, socially conscious, responsible, forward-thinking. Then the longtime CEO retired, and they got greedy. The new guy pulled up stakes and moved the administrative layer to Philadelphia, which has been followed by a steady stream of transfers/buyouts/job eliminations. In a few years there won’t be any Lincoln in Fort Wayne anymore, and the city will never be the same. The mayor will put a little lipstick on this pig, say the real economic development engine is small business, but it’s all a cover for the ugly truth, that the city is slowly imploding. It’s not doing so in a hurry, but it is doing so, and all the "it’s a great place to raise a family" speeches in the world won’t change it.
But that’s what we offer. It’s a great place to raise a family.
For me, it’s a great place to be unemployed. I got nothing of real value done today, although I did get all our utilities in Ann Arbor set up. Tonight I get to assemble the nine million magazines we subscribe to and comb the mastheads for the change-of-address policy. So far, it’s mostly: Send us a postcard. Talk about something that could be better done online. I mean.
So tomorrow, then. And a day or two after that.