Convenience, inconvenience coexist in digital world

Feb. 08, 2014 @ 03:00 PM

As I start to write this column, we’re temporarily (I hope) disconnected from the computer server that manages our editing and production systems. 
A few days ago, we struggled for about four hours to mend the disruption a power blip had done to the systems that manage our email and connect us to the Internet.
On the plus side, we could spend some of that down time comparing notes on whether it was a good idea to use debit and credit cards, or to pay cash, in the wake of the massive data breaches at Target and other stores.
The brief interruptions in our workplace, of course, were minor inconveniences, quickly remedied. I know hardly anyone who hasn’t had a hiccup – sometimes a major derailment – at home, at work or both.
Those disruptions, the Target debacle, the debate over going cashless – all highlight how intertwined the Internet and on-line technology have become in our daily lives.
And they underscore the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of that dependence.
A day doesn’t pass that I – like millions of others – don’t Google a term, a concept, a phrase for instant edification. It can be as mundane as trying to remember the exact words of a song lyric or the national anthem of the Pacific island of Niue (it’s too hard to explain why I was looking for that). Or it can be getting instant access to a complex research report that, not so long ago, would have taken a week or more to acquire by mail, or rapidly transmitting life-saving medical information.
The cashless society is a special conundrum. I find the convenience of not dealing with cash – change, especially – to be irresistible. But there are risks, as the Target incident reminded us all. 
A couple years ago, Derek Thompson, writing in The Atlantic, mused on the plusses and minuses of going cashless, prompted by the introduction of Square, that service food trucks and other merchants use for quick, wireless processing of credit cards.
“Innovations that save time, even just a little bit of time, are real innovations, because in any advanced economy time and attention are currency and creating more of them can make us all richer,” he wrote.
“As Slate investigated in a fabulous series, a cashless society can make us richer, healthier (dollar bills are dirty!), and smarter.”
Using virtual rather than hard cash raises the prospect of linking “a cashless account to a service like Mint that notified you when you went over your monthly self-appointed allowance.”
But if Willy Sutton once robbed banks because “that’s where the money is,” criminals today are applying that concept to our electronic transactions. “It’s easier to move electronic currency fast,” Thompson wrote. “Paper bills can be unwieldy ... And we shouldn't forget about the hackers who would be delighted by a world in which all financial dealings took place online."
We’ve been many times before through the dichotomy of technology unleashing new possibilities and creating new opportunities for disruption when it fails. We’re reminded daily of the speed and convenience of the automobile – and almost daily of the paralytic impact of a major wreck on I-40.
We’ll manage the digital revolution, too. We’ll adopt, finally, the more secure credit card technology uses in most other industrialized nations.  Our Internet connections will become ever faster and more reliable.
No matter how deeply dependent we are, however, life will have a way of reminding us that if anything can go wrong, it will.
On the bright side, by the time I finished this, our server was back up.
Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.