Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Over on GiantMidgets, Eric is talking about GoogleWave.

Wave is supposed to change the world, change how people interact, change how communications and work get done.

I doubt it will change much of anything.

But the hoopla over GoogleWave got me thinking about something I noticed earlier today at the gas station – and that’s this: more often than not, it’s the little things, not the big things that change our lives.

Rarely does big shiny technology have much impact on how we live our lives. 

No, it’s almost always the little technology, the almost unnoticed technology, that alters the very fabric of how we live. It’s subtle, it creeps in on little cat feet and before you know it, the way you live is different – and you don’t even notice.

Computers and the Internet and cell phones are an obvious example. So are portable music players with an entire radio station’s library of songs onboard and no moving parts.

But debit cards are a far more subtle and pervasive example of what I’m talking about.

I needed to get some things from the store this morning and I decided to take the Jeep instead of my truck.  We just had a lot of work done to the Jeep and I wanted to see how it drove. The snow is coming, it’ll be falling within the next two weeks, and that means my wife will have to put the convertible away and drive the Jeep and I wanted to make sure it was ready.  It was, and in fact we probably should have had this work done a while back, it drives like it did when it was new – which was about eighteen years ago now. On the way home I pulled into the gas station, I figured I’d fill up the tank so it would be ready when my wife needed it, because I’m a really cool husband like that.

Here’s the thing, I don’t have any idea how much gas I put in.

Twenty something dollars? Fifteen? Seventeen dollars and forty three cents? I dunno.

I don’t put gas in the Jeep much anymore, I don’t know how much it takes without paying attention. I didn’t get a receipt. I never do. And it doesn’t matter. It’ll show up on my electronic bank statement – and in fact it already has. My wife can download it into Quicken, along with the week’s transactions. I don’t care what the exact amount is.

That wasn’t true before debit cards.


You’d watch the pump like a hawk, eyes tracking those little numbers as they whirled past the glass, slowing down, slowing down, and then squeezing the handle just so in order to get an even number. Exactly ten dollars, exactly twenty. So you could hand the guy in the glass both or behind the counter the exact right sized bill.  Or if you were writing a check, it made it a hell of a lot easier to balance the register if you got gas in exact multiples of ten.  You didn’t do this with anything else, just gas.

Nobody does that any more (hell, who writes checks? For gas, I mean?)

Well, mostly nobody.

Watch the next time you’re getting gas.  You can tell who still pays the old fashioned way, just by watching how they pump their gas.

It’s more than that. Ten years ago you had to make sure to fill up within a certain time frame, or know where the 24-hour gas stations were. You had to plan around it. Now? Most of the places I fill up aren’t even manned.  It’s just an automated gas kiosk in the corner of some parking lot.  It’s always open. Why wouldn’t it be? I don’t need to plan around filling up my tank.

You can tell which generation somebody was born in by who they ask for information.  Old people ask somebody else. Young people ask the Internet.  It never occurs to the older generation to Google it, it never occurs to the younger generation not to. Woman accuse men of never stopping to ask for directions, with MapQuest on my GPS enabled Internet phone, I don’t need to.

I don’t think the Internet itself changed people’s lives as profoundly as we expected, but search engines did.

Personally, I use Google to find the 24 hour gas stations.

What little things do you notice?


  1. I still watch the gas pump like a hawk so I know how much despair I should fall into for how high the prices are. >.>

    Changes in general, hmm... well, I just culled my music collection. That is, my cassette tape collection. And offered the discards on Freecycle. I'd thought nobody would want them at this point, seeing as how we're two mediums past them to MP3s (CDs count as obsolete now too but I still occasionally buy them). But I've already gotten half a dozen requests for these old cassettes and the ad has only been up a few hours. o.O The dividing line there would be people who are big on online time, and people who aren't. Most of the freecycle people aren't.

    I also remember many long hours spent planning out how to make mix tapes on those cassettes - what order to put the songs, making sure they'd fit in the amount of tape I had, etc. Nowadays with MP3s most of the problems are moot, and it takes no planning at all.

    Also, speaking of googling. There's an amusing tool for peer pressuring your less computer-savvy friends into learning how to use it at http://lmgtfy.com. ;) For example, if someone asks "what's Google Wave?" you might respond by giving them http://lmgtfy.com/?q=google+wave as a reply. Click that to see what it does. ;)

  2. Digital measuring devices. The Wixies, the tilt box, digital calipers, digital tape measures with retractable analog tape anyway, lasers, stud finders, little wizards, carpenters calculators. Even in wood working the damn new world BEEPS way too much. and I too try for the even number at the gas pump.

  3. I still write checks, and don't have (nor want) a debit card. I even do a lot of purchasing with cash. And almost all of my music buy is still CDs. This gives me the ability to have higher quality digital music than mp3s allow, although I do occasionally buy mp3s.

    But here are some changes. Letter writing has (mostly) gone the way of the Dodo. I used to write (and get) a lot of letters, many of which I still have and treasure. But now - pretty much all email.

    I still buy a lot of things locally, but more and more of my shopping is done online where feasible.

  4. I still run in a cash economy when I can (although I buy a lot of big ticket items over the internet). I watch that gas meter like a hawk still, and I write down the amount, the volume, and the mileage (a habit my grandfather got me into). I find it really helps me keep expenses in line. And with all that data I can tell when the gas changes over or when it's been particularly cold (my mileage goes down).

  5. I mostly listen to music files, even when I buy the CD (sometimes I even rip it before I listen to it--I probably own CDs now that I've technically never listened to). Letters, like Vince said, are gone the way of the dodo. On a related note, a book of stamps now lasts forever for me because I have maybe one bill now that I can't pay online. My land line is only used by pollsters and telemarketers. I practically never read newspapers and yet stay reasonably well informed by online news sources.

    That's a few off the top of my head.

  6. The big change for me is social. Thirty-one years ago, my husband and I met over the Cal. State University computer system. I was in Fresno, he was in Northridge, but we talked. Two years later, I realized he was the guy of my dreams and we married. My sister and I used to just talk to each other on the phone occasionally, now we e-mail, text, talk on the free-because-we-have-the-same-provider cell phone all the time and plan vacations together on-line. Before she was on-line, we didn't have anywhere near the relationship we have now.

    My oldest nephew (21) suffered a cut in income, and he chose not to keep his internet access - he uses an internet cafe now when he really really needs to be on-line. I noticed I don't talk to him as much as I used to. He is also on the same cell-phone provider that my sister and I use, but he doesn't talk - he e-mails or texts.

    I have blue-tooth in the car, an iPOD, a career in technology, all the attributes of a tech-savvy life, but all my big changes are social, not technical.

  7. I go back far enough that I remember asking for a dollar of gas, and the attendant not only not scowling, but washed the windshield as well.

    I'm also have been on the bleeding edge of technology, especially in entertainment for over 30 years. I helped document Digital Television, and chaired the group that developed Conditional Access (pay per view) in the US.

    Right now I'm on a teleconference/webcast on the topic of how your next entertainment center will deal with multiple audio tracks in the video stream, eg you don't tell it which language you want or the source neglects to announce properly an existing one.

    Unfortunately I'm hungry, this call has an hour to go and I can smell the gumbo wafting up from the kitchen.

  8. I love love love love online shopping.

    If I could get groceries online, I'd be a happy happy woman.

  9. Michelle - but you can. Oh, that's right, you're in West Virginia. :P

  10. Fewer and fewer people wear watches anymore - they have cell phones that tell them the time.

    As someone who has never worn a watch, I find this annoying because I really can't sneak a look at someone else's cell phone and know what time it is the way I used to be able to do with their watches.

    I may have to get a cell phone. Or a watch.

  11. I've become my own travel agent. I remember when I used to go to travel agent to help find the best-priced flight -- that's completely gone, now. Flights, hotels, what I'll do what I'm there -- all pre-scouted and booked via the web.

  12. Truth be told, I do a vanishngly small amount of online shopping. Perhaps that's because after working with computers all day it's nice to deal with real live people instead. I'd agree with the point about debit cards but that goes by degrees. Up until the age of 25 I didn't even have a bank account: I opened one only because I had to clear a cheque from a lawyer. Then I got a debit card, a credit card, an overdraft, a loan and a series of persistent headaches. So my descent into the electronic economy can be blamed, like so many other evil things in this life, firmly and squarely on a lawyer...

  13. The accessibility and sharability of data. I don't mean Wikipedia and Google, I mean my entire workflow as a scientist.

    Say I start a new research topic. I no longer go to the library, pull down a pile of current (heavy) volumes of Biological Abstracts and peer at the tiny print looking for relevant keywords. (I was in college, and didn't have to peer so much, but that's irrelevant.) Write down the information, carry it to the journal stacks, find the hard copy, take notes (or photocopy if I were feeling flush or the prof was paying).

    Now I do a lit search online, and download twenty relevant papers and the bibliography information that will import right into my database.

    Same on the other end, research talks for example. I missed making figures by hand, but when I started we printed them out, set them up on the light table, took photographs onto slide film. Even with the fancy computer slide recorders, you had to prep waaay in advance, just in case it decided to print your slides in magenta on red (happened to me).

    Now it's all PowerPoint, and you can tweak your figures during the talk before yours if you feel like it.

    Same for actually writing the papers.

    This may sound esoteric, but what effect has the time saved by not having to hunt down papers by hand, etc, had on the pace of scientific progress?

    [And you know what? I'm taking an internet break because I'm annoyed that an article I want isn't online and I have to go to the library to see it. Poor me.]

  14. Well, for many years the USPS hated me, either I didn't get bills or they thoughtfully lost the checks going to pay my utilities for me...until after my lights had been cut off.

    Now, ALL of my utilities email me my bill, I have most set up to prompt a reminder a couple days before a payment is due, and I then pay them electronically. The only checks I write these days are some charities and to pay my rent. Complex doesn't have online capability yet, but they do scan my check and convert it into an e-check when processed. Having given up credit cards many years ago, I exist with a debit card for everything else.

    As for other tech, I'm a mixed bag:
    No cell phone, land line at the house only. iPod as well as full stereo set-up, including turntable and dual cassette decks. Digital TV, but no cable. Slowly growing CD & DVD collection, but still have VCR & cassettes tapes in a closet. Have both a digital pocket camera and a full range of semi-pro Nikon film-based SLR cameras, one of which was purchased in 1976 and works better than all the newer stuff.

    I've really never gotten into music, movie or audio-book downloads. Prefer the heft of a real book, which is why I need shelf stretchers for my bookcases!

    I also now do most of my own travel arrangements online.

    And being an electronic solitaire or mahjongg fiend, constantly run my iPod charge down playing Klondike solitaire!! With tuneage yet!

  15. The manual typewriter! And later, the dip pen and Rapidograph pens.

    Honestly, the Cintiq, iPhone, and maybe even the SGI are just sort of enhancements (speaking personally).

    The Internet has changed things for me more--making it possible for me to get work from places I've never even been to.

  16. Ah yes, the grad student days. Ten years ago when I was one, I spent a fortune making photocopies out of the bound journals section of the library. (I still have them all, too. In a smallish but heavy box. They cost a fortune, I'm not getting rid of them. What?)

    Nowadays, my friends who are current grad students have it so easy.

  17. David,

    I find it difficult to be discreet just sneaking a look at my cell phone. (And I've stopped wearing a watch.)



  18. Oh. I refuse to use a debit card. The bank kept trying to give me on, and I kept refusing and insisted upon an ATM card.

    I don't like the idea of someone stealing my debit card number and being able to drain my checking account.

    So I use a credit card for everything, and just pay it off each month.

  19. I watch the pump because I maintain written log records of all my vehicles. It bought me an engine rebuild under extended warranty when the cam shaft failed on a Suburban just shy of the end of the warranty. (grin) (They needed proof of oil changes -- and I showed up with my stack of log cards.)

    I also calculate gas mileage from time to time, to check for operation.

    Why yes, I am a geek. Why do you ask?

    Dr. Phil

  20. Similar to what Phiala said, but more from the *sharing* side of things.

    Two examples: I've been restoring a VW Scirocco for quite some time. In the old days, if you were lucky, you could find out about a club of enthusiasts who had a news letter and a usps address list. Then information would trickle around among the group. Now, you can get an instant education from 500 helpful people all over the world, and can have your questions answered in a few min. instead of days/weeks/never.

    Second example: I needed to build a multi-user database application for work, using MS Access. I didn't know how. People on MSAccess forums all over the world taught me, answered questions, sent examples. I built it. This *never* would have been possible before. It's the *efficiency* of it all.

  21. Anonymous: y'know, that's a great point. Similarly, I think back to high school, when I was a gaming nerd and outcast geek with a handful of similarly geeky friends; back then, you were part of this small, ostracized social misfits. They weren't necessarily even similar misfits--you might find un-gothy SF nerds hanging with goths just because what they had in common was simply being "weird." These days, though, you can be a weird misfit at school during the day and a leading member of a vibrant online community of thousands or even millions by night. It has to make you happier and less lonely.

  22. Definitely, Anonymous. I have an odd hobby, and the Internet is awesome for the exchange of information.

    No, not like that, honest.

    I'm a fiber artist, and mostly interested in obscure techniques practiced a thousand years ago. When I started this fascination, I had to learn from diagrams in archaeology books written by people who've never tried it. Now there are thriving communities where you can even meet people from around the world who learned some of these techniques as surviving folk traditions.

    When the web sprang into being, I put up a web page with the information I'd found - handouts, photos, references. Stuff you could only find through laborious searching in libraries, if at all. That was 1995ish. If nothing else, I prove that longevity on the web is useful: I'm the number one google result for at least three of the textile things I talk about, and on the front page for most of them.

    So yes, the informal knowledge-transfer and social group aspects are huge.

  23. Phiala, I've checked out your site and am facinated by some of the techniques you show.

    I quilt and do needlepoint & cross stitch as well. Older arts, and the internet is a good tool for finding both older patterns or new techniques.

  24. Dr. Phil,

    I out geek you on that one. When we get gas, I write down the date, the mileage, the number of gallons, the temperature, the price of gas AND I calculate my gas mileage.

  25. Wendy, I love giving presentations to groups of knitters and spinners. They are invariably fascinated to learn that there are whole categories of things to do with string that they've never even heard of. Fun!

  26. We cancelled cable TV, and thanks to online feeds the kids watch just as much of it.


  27. The internet changed my life dramatically -- that's how I met TheHusband. I'm quite fond of the internet.


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