Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Measuring Progress online and in the real world

The appearance of sewerage construction crew at the end of ul. Trombity has prompted me to think about Progress with a big-P. Over my 16 years in Poland, I've witnessed a tremendous amount of the stuff. Generally, Progress, big, civilisation-shifting progress, has improved the lives of most citizens – dramatically. But thinking about Poland in the late-1990s and today, I'd say that the bulk of those life-enhancing improvements have taken place in the virtual field, and only the minority can be categorised as progress delivered by physical infrastructure.

The biggest single improvement to my life was the introduction of online banking some ten years ago. Having to go and stand in a long queue at a physical branch of my bank, at least twice a month, was a huge imposition on my time and liberty. I can't remember the last time I visited my bank in person – it was probably several years ago. Today it takes less than one minute to make my mortgage payment, rather than an hour (including travel time to and from bank plus queueing).

Improvements roll out all the time, big and small. Want to know what's the weather tomorrow? Watch television? How 20th Century. I open and I have a computerised forecast for the next 60 hours, a forecast generated no more than six hours ago, which is more precise geographically and more accurate meteorologically than any hand-waving generalisation of a TV weather presenter. What's more, Warsaw University of Technology's Institute of Physics recently added a storm monitor to its home page. Very useful in summer to see which way those deluges are moving.

Bus and train timetables – I can see not only when my bus is due, but also, in the case of trains, whether they are running on time (a green tick by the train shows it is). I hope that Warsaw's public transport authority ZTM adds this excellent feature to its otherwise first-rate online timetable soon.

[PS: I would like here to note my protest at the dismissal of Leszek Ruta as the head of ZTM last month – pure political expediency – Mr Ruta improved Warsaw's public transport vastly over his watch.]

In terms of wish-lists, one technological advance I'd like to see is transponders that give traffic-light priority to approaching buses and (in particular) trams. There's nothing technologically new in this; it would speed up surface travel by public transport to speeds getting closer to those enjoyed by the Metro.

Big Infrastructure is the test of the efficiency of the state. The Polish state is poor at delivering it quickly and cheaply. The laughable progress of Poland's motorway construction compares poorly to that of Germany (where a kilometre of road costs half a much to build as in its low-labour-cost eastern neighbour). But information technology offers quick – and cheap – wins.

I'd rather travel on a clanky old bus knowing it will come on time and deliver my quickly to my destination than to wait for a super-duper brand-new bus, uncertain of its arrival time and knowing it will bog down in a monstrous traffic jam and take hours to arrive.

So here we are, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Thirteen. What Big Progress will touch our lives over the next decade or so?

Look at your wallet. Stuffed with banknotes, credit cards, loyalty cards, ID, pushing out the pocket of your otherwise svelte trousers. Bit by bit, this will all migrate to your mobile phone. RFID. Radio Frequency ID. In a chip. Yes, driving licence and passport/dowód – though, as this is handled by the state, it will take longer. Your mobile phone as payment instrument, that can vouch for who you are and what you have paid for (public transport), what your blood group is, your access rights to your workplace...

Convenience? Yes... but at a price. I feel that most of us will lazily accept that trade-off.

This time two years ago:
Raymond's Treasure - a short story

This time three years ago:
Now an urban legend: Kebab factory under W-wa Centralna

This time four years ago:
It was twenty years ago today

This time five years ago:
By bike to Czachówek again


Alexander said...

As with everything there is a flipside: 1984
Mr. Opstelten, Dutch secretary of Justice from the Dutch liberal party VVD.
Mr. Manders MEP for Dutch liberal party VVD.
SMS ; texting,. Kamer: Dutch house of representatives. Stem in auto: voice in car.
Telegraaf and Volkskrant: big Dutch newspapers. Geen Stijl: critical populair website in Holland.
Not in the articles but the Dutch government is already thinking about using RFID for automated ticketing for driving errors, toll collection everywere when driving.
Google translate is not perfect but you will get the big idea.
I think the communists will be so proud of what is becomming of the EU.
Best regards, Alexander

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Alexander

Indeed. Citizens should monitor the rise of monitoring, and where the costs to our freedom outweigh the benefits (less road accident deaths, no terrorist attacks, fewer incidents of fraud etc), raise the alarm.

Generally, I'm of the opinion that mega-invigilation becomes its own victim, like the East German Stasi, who collected so much data on everyone, it choked on it all.

I would not use the word 'communism' to describe the EU. My mother survived the very worst horrors of communism (my grandfather didn't survive); let me tell you nothing that Brussels has cooked up can compare to the GULAG.