Sunday, July 05, 2015

Finally, we catch up with France! In technology?

Four summers ago, I was in the south of France for a week, thanks to the daughter bugging me to go with them.  "I am sure you will have a good time" she said.

I did.

Every morning, after having an espresso and a chocolate croissant, I was off for a walk in the quiet and scenic landscape of the Dordogne Valley just as the sun was barely beginning to light up that part of the world.

Morning at Carennac
I think it was a Sunday, which is why there was nobody at the gas station when we drove up to fill gas.  But, people were filling at the self-serve pumps.  We got to one.  There was no place to swipe the credit card.  The pump accepted only credit cards with embedded chips--the technology that American credit card issuers had resisted for the longest time because, well, they could.

We didn't have one of those cards.  It seemed like we were stuck.

A guy, about in his late twenties, was filling up at the adjacent pump.

"I am going to ask him whether he can pay for us on his card and I will pay him the cash" J whispered as she walked towards him.

I thought about the French stereotypes.  Won't speak in English even when they know the language. Will not want to help an American who can't speak French.  Will look down upon us.

"Oui, oui" I heard him say.  And then in English too, for a good measure, "no problems."

Stereotypes are horrendous caricatures.

After all those years, a couple of months ago, I got in the mail credit cards with chips in them.  Finally!  But, it has a magnetic stripe as well. So, I have been swiping the card everywhere as before.

A few days back, I was in the grocery store when I noticed that the machine had an option for the chip technology too.  Like a kid excited about the new toy, I eagerly placed it in that designated slot.  I wondered how the new technology will respond at the register.

"It doesn't work" the clerk said.

She smiled, and added, "I bet the day Whole Foods comes to town, they will update all these machines in a hurry.  Because Whole Foods will have it and we will have to keep up with the competition."

All those hardcore left of center people conveniently forget how the conveniences of the lives that we lead pretty much resulted from competition in the marketplace.  Everybody seems to be trying the hardest to build that metaphorical better mousetrap so that they can get rich--and, in the process, the rest of us have better television, smartphones, planes, cars, ... Without that competition to build a better mousetrap, well, the local grocery store has no incentive to upgrade their point-of-sale machines, right?

Of course, we could always argue whether we really need better television, smartphones, planes, cars, etc., when, for instance, there are hundreds of millions who are trapped in acute poverty, or when millions suffer from illnesses like malaria, or when India's millions have no place to shit but in the open. But, all those are different discussions from this one which is about competition delivering miracles in the form of various conveniences and gadgets, don't you think?

As far as I am concerned, my problem is this: I now have credit cards that will work in France, but don't have money to get there! It is tempting to charge the card and enjoy, if it were not for the unfortunate reality that people are not competing to pay my bills ;)


Anne in Salem said...

Current teenagers have a phrase for you - first world problem. You would generate little sympathy from them.

I got my chip card when I went to Europe in December because I was told I wouldn't be able to charge anything otherwise. I was also told it would be far more secure. I suppose the US resisted producing more secure cards because of the cost involved, but can you imagine the increase in business for the first card producer to announce they would be proactive in protecting their customers by offering chip cards before they were absolutely necessary? Talk about upping the competition!

Ramesh said...

America is a strange combination of cutting edge technology and stone age in finance. Your traders have the automated computer trading systems in your markets where competitive advantage is achieved in nano seconds. And yet you persist with the cheque book and antiquated cards. Most of the world has advanced far ahead when it comes to technology in consumer finance. Hell, if a Kenyan using Mpesa were to arrive in say Wyoming, your brethren might mistake him for a technologically advanced alien.

Sriram Khé said...

Yep, America has its own contradictions; everyday technology is one of those. Sometimes I assign students readings on the mobile phone banking and money transfer in Kenya and, yes, they are amazed.

And, yes, there is a cost involved with the chip-upgrade aspect. But, in the land of competition, we also run into situations like this that all the providers seem to decide, almost as if they colluded, against upgrading. We find a similar aspect in internet connection speeds (US is not anywhere near the fastest) too ...

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