Thursday, September 16, 2004

Faster. More Intense.

My taxi driver this morning couldn't get the credit card reader to recognise my card. So he swiped it again.

Harder.

And again - faster, and with increasing violence. Thanks to him, a groove has now been worn into a pristine card, after about 20 swipes that would've cut through the machine were there an edge on my card.

It's interesting how primitive our reactions are. People waiting impatiently at a pedestrian crossing will press the button repeatedly, with increasing frequency, and harder, even though it makes absolutely no difference to the machine. To it, a button push is just a button push, regardless of how limp-wristed or muscular the push was. The same thing happens in lifts (although I suspect people engage in intense button pushing partly as a means of avoiding eye contact in a cramped space). For all our sophistication, our instincts are still wired for a world of simple physics and interactions - action causes equal and opposite reaction, our minds tell us, so to get a bigger reaction, just start with a bigger action.

All this ignores the fact that our world is peopled with machines and technology that mediate our actions from the final reaction. The card-swiping has nothing to do with how fast or well the credit card reader processes the transaction, because of the multiple intervening steps between the start (swipe card) and the end (get printout), but because the mediation is transparent to us, we assume that one directly causes the other.

If we think of society, and social structures, as mediating our actions in a similar way, we see how simplistic thinking like this about cause and effect ultimately underlies some really dubious decisions. Like invading another country as a solution to security problems. Or monetary incentives to declining birth rates.

Or swiping someone's credit card through the reader with the force of ten ginzu knives.

No comments: