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May 23, 2013
Editor's Note: Roger Holtzmann, who has been writing our Seriously, Folks column for over 23 years, doesn’t claim to be able to predict the future. He says it’s more a case of that old saying: even a busted clock is right twice a day.
Picture this: it’s the not-too-distant future, on the 17th floor of a glass tower in a non-descript suburb somewhere. Cubicles beyond number stretch from wall to wall, each inhabited by a softly glowing computer monitor and the worker bee who lives to service it. They type. They double click. They murmur. All but one. Let’s call him Bob.
Bob is vastly bored. He leans back in his $900, ergonomically correct chair until he’s a fraction of an inch from the point where he will overbalance and crash to the floor. He hums tunelessly. He spies on the woman in the opposite cubicle until she glares in his direction. She thinks Bob is a dork. That’s because Bob is a dork, and has personal hygiene issues to boot. Suddenly his computer chimes. Bob springs forward, concentrating intently on the computer screen for a moment. “He bought a bag of bolts from Bogart’s,” Bob mutters despondently. His computer goes back to sleep. He leans back, staring at the ceiling he knows by heart. He thinks about the baloney sandwich he brought for lunch.
This vision of the future came to me the other day while I was reading the newspaper. I was supposed to be working at the time so please don’t tell anybody I was goofing off. The story was about these little silicon chips, as small as the head of an ant, which will someday be embedded in most everything we buy.
In order to better understand this issue, I went in search of an actual ant. I didn’t have to go far. There is an ant watering hole by our kitchen sink. With a bit of English muffin for bait and the assistance of two fearless native bearers, I managed to capture one of the wild beasts.
Take it from me: an ant’s head is pretty small. Yet by some electronic legerdemain, the people who know about such things will be able to store information about the various products within the chip. You won’t have to go through an old-fashioned checkout line anymore, I gather. You’ll fill up you cart with shoes and ships and sealing wax, then walk through a big device that will read all the chips. Your credit card, still in your wallet, will be automatically read as well. All of this information will then be transmitted to Bob and his friends at the speed of light.
Oh, the possibilities! You walk out of the store with a twenty-pound bag of Cheese E Puffs and a 55-gallon drum of cola. By the time you get home an ad for diet pills — Eat Anything You Want! No Exercise Required! — will be beaming off the satellite straight into your home.
That’s not all. In the great and glorious Some Day Soon home appliances will be able to read these chips. Your refrigerator will tell your milk is past the Use By date, making the sniff-then-gag method of milk testing obsolete. Your washing machine will know when you’ve washed a particular pair of underwear for the thousandth time, and be programmed to deliver a subtle reminder. “What if you get in an accident and wind up in the emergency room?” it will say. “You don’t want the nurses to see you in raggedy shorts, do you? Better head to Massive Mart and get yourself some new ones.” Some visionary visionists have even envisioned a time when the washing machine won’t ask. It will simply order new underwear — purple ones if it senses you’re in a rut and could use a change — then bill your account. Won’t that be a timesaver!
All the usual suspects are whining about this new technology, of course. Big Brother, privacy, blah blah blah. I certainly can see their point. A vast, multi-tentacled computer that knows everything there is to know about the state of the nation’s underwear and snack food consumption could easily be turned to evil ends. I’ve tried very hard to be worried about all the possibilities, but it’s just not happening.
Why, you ask?
Let me answer this way. I always tell people we have the ultimate security system at our house: we don’t own anything worth stealing. Burglars can sense this, and go right on by. Ditto for our vehicle. What self-respecting hoodlum is going to pick a lumbering high-top van for a joyride? The boys in lock-up would never let him hear the end of it.
My defense against the data miners of this world runs along the same lines. My life is so inconsequential, so boring, no one will be very much interested in what I do, buy or say. I barely care about that stuff myself. Which brings me back to poor Bob, whose weary, bleary job it will be to keep track of me.
Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the September/October 2003 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call 800-456-5117.