Debit cards, electric cars and ghosts of the technological past

A new item arrived in the mail this week – the first debit card issued by my main bank without a long bumpy number on the front that wears regularly and becomes unreadable when stored with others in my wallet. Since cash cards have been embossed all my life, it’s a nice change from having a flat one.

I can’t remember the last time a merchant produced a credit card printer, inserted a carbon paper form, and slid a metal bar over the embossed number with a “snap” to accept payment. Even having to swipe the magnetic strip built into cards since 1970 is a rare occurrence.

Yet the embossed numbers introduced on payment cards in 1959 by American Express are only now disappearing in the UK, and the magnetic stripes will linger unnecessarily for another few years – Mastercard has set the year 2033 for their eventual phase-out. They have lost their usefulness, like the ghosts of the technological past.

The bumpy credit card is just an irritation, but it’s representative of other historical remnants that linger because a few people still use them or companies are too committed to weeding them out. Modern cars have flat screens and Bluetooth connections, but retain round sockets that originated as cigarette lighters in the 1920s.

The classic example of a technology that has refused to disappear despite having become obsolete is the QWERTY keyboard layout, introduced in 1873 in an American Remington typewriter to prevent its keys from clashing together. The Dvorak layout designed in 1932 allowed for much faster typing, but my laptop keyboard is stuck in the 19th century.

Paul David, a Stanford economics professor, once wrote about the “absorbing delights and silent terrors of exploring QWERTY worlds” – technologies that have become popular despite their flaws. Light-water nuclear reactors, VHS video tapes, and even bland American beer are among the commodities that scholars have cited as the inferior but dominant commodities of history.

The economic term is path dependency — once industries are stuck on a trajectory or have adopted a common technology, there is no going back. They may be locked up even if a better alternative emerges. Companies have invested too much and customers have spent time and effort learning a system, like typing in the traditional way.

It takes a jolt to escape the lockdown – consumer preferences must change dramatically, or there must be a technological revolution. The encrypted smart chip that replaced dents and scratches on payment cards was such an improvement in transaction efficiency and security that retail banks were forced to change.

But old habits have lost their lives. Many US banks have stopped embossing their cards (the change was authorized by Mastercard in 2009) and UK challenger banks are issuing flat cards to signal modernity. But my main bank continued to hedge its bets by keeping all three technologies on its own.

Governments are often the last to resist changing standards – if you want to renew a passport in the United States, you still have to pay by check or money order. Bureaucrats tend not to see much urgency in abandoning a method that has worked reasonably well for as long as anyone can remember.

the hanko the seals that have been widely used in Japan as personal signatures since the 19th century still endure. The government has worked to eliminate most of the 14,900 formal procedures that required hanko to stamp on paper, but I still had to pay my energy bill in cash and have it stamped with a hanko in Tokyo in 2020.

These payment anachronisms are time-consuming and inconvenient, but trail addiction can have more damaging effects. There was a period in the early 20th century when electric (or steam) batteries nearly emerged as the dominant form of propulsion for cars, before the gasoline-powered combustion engine triumphed.

We are still trying to overcome the destructive environmental impact of this historic event, although improvements in battery technology, regulatory initiatives and changes in consumer preferences are progressing. It’s a great example of what’s known as carbon lock-in – the entrenchment of carbon-emitting industries and technologies in everyday life.

Not only have corporations invested in extracting, refining and selling fossil fuels, but people have come to love owning and driving cars. Brits also tend to prefer older homes with thin brick walls, sash windows and limited insulation. These are ingrained consumer habits.

Thus, the slow departure of the relief map is a cautionary tale. If it takes that long for outdated technology to disappear, even when the stakes are low, how much harder will it be to push societies off a carbon-dependent path? It is a worrying prospect.

At least I can be reassured to have some flat cards in my wallet. People are “slaves to the whole course of previous history”, wrote Leo Tolstoy in War and peace. It’s a little escape.

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