The Turtle Syndrome -
The Mobility of Everyday Life

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
 

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The mobile office is a long established reality. Today’s laptops are as powerful as most desktops and have as much memory and as many accessories. One can communicate through them, using faxing and electronic mail software. They can be connected to both mobile and fixed phones. A person can carry his whole office, his home, his life with him. This is the “Turtle Syndrome”. Ensconced in virtual shells, we move about, conducting our lives, attending to our businesses, absorbing, processing, creating and emitting information in endless streams of data and voice.

Sectors, which will adapt to this sweeping, potent, trend, will survive. Those, that lag behind are doomed. Naturally, not all types of human activities and endeavours are amenable to the changes needed to endow them with the blessings of increased mobility. It is difficult to engage in manufacturing on the move. Fixed assets are required. Still, the manufacturing process itself can be (and is) distributed. Components are manufactured in different locations and assembled in another. Fleets of trucks and trains by land, ships in sea-lanes and air cruising planes shift them around in a “just in time” fashion. Through the back door, mobility reappears. Additionally, the exchange of data and its processing (=its transformation to knowledge) has, by now, become an integral and predominant part of all human activities, industrial manufacturing included.

The old worldview (inherited from the Industrial Revolution) of people moving amongst fixed locations, around which their lives revolve and evolve – is in its death throes. It is being replaced by a fascinating, brave, new vision : the locations now revolve around individuals and they both – the locations and the individuals – evolve through interaction. This is no less than Copernican. The Earth moves around the Sun – not the other way around. The more individualistic and democratic the world became – the more the individual acquired its rightful position as the source of all things, the prima causa, the ultimate cause and mover of all there is. In the past, a person would get up in the morning at his home, in the neighbourhood which he inhabited for decades and proceed to go to his workplace which he joined for a lifelong career. Today, people switch places of residence, careers, workplaces, and even families in a dizzying pace. More and more of them work at home, whenever they choose to (flexitime). The workplace comes to them, via modem, via phone, via satellite. When they travel – and they travel often – they take their office with them. These are a virtual office and a virtual home, of course. But the revolution lies in the realization that both office and home were always virtual. Witness the growing divorce rates, on the one hand – and the growing networking (internet and intranet) of the workplace, on the other. People today can and do collaborate in teams regardless of time differences or geographical disparities. Not only distance, but also time barriers are being gradually dismantled. The Berlin Wall of spatial and temporal separation is being torn down with a vengeance.

One of the more important sub-trends in this forceful trend is evident in banking and finance. Exchanges become more and more ephemeral and virtual – the more computerized they are. Physical pits and trading floors are a relic of a quickly subsiding past. Trading knows no time limits, no geographical boundaries (except those still imposed by Man). Similarly, funds are transferred electronically in minutes. People carry plastic cards that symbolize wealth stored in electronic digits halfway across the world. Ours is a meta-symbolic system. We have taken to consuming and using more and more concentrated forms of symbolism. Land and Cows were replaced by metal, which was replaced by paper, which was replaced by electronic digits, which is partially represented by plastic cards. Chequebooks, credit cards and ATMs (Automatic Teller Machines) represent increased mobility. The bank follows the client. Transactions are concluded outside the premises. Money changes hands in totally automated transactions. The culmination of all this is the smart card. Subject to more clever marketing, home banking will develop to overtake regular banking. The functions of banks might be polarized : low level functions, on the one hand (e.g., check clearing) and high level functions, on the other (e.g., investment banking and private banking).

The borders between social institutions will blur. Home and office will merge. So will the office, the car, the aeroplane and the hotel. Many hotels provide their guests with business centres. Home cinema, video-on-demand and the internet will transform the home and make it an entertainment centre. Traditional functions of the family have already been outsourced : education, health, a big part of the process of socialization. Instead of moving among rigidly defined, well separated, both spatially and temporally, realms of living – modern Man will flow, in an almost seamless flux, between one “definition” and another. This is mirrored in the attempts to provide global seamless roaming in wireless telecommunications (pagers and mobile phones) and to eliminate the question of “origin” and route in the internet (the first truly global phenomenon).

One of the grandest revolutions within this sub-trend of “blurring” is the functional merger of banks and retail outlets. On the face of it, this should have constituted no surprise. After all, banks are nothing but retail outlets : they buy and sell money the same way that a grocery store buys and sells bread. Any difference was psychological: banking was thought more respectable because it was considered to be a more intellectual pursuit (which it is not). The truth is that banks came to monopolize the flow of money and, later on, became one of the main money creators (together with the Central Bank – a glorified version of its more regular cousin). This power generated awe and respect.

In the last two decades, major retailers tried their hand in banking activities – not too successfully. Money is as specific a commodity as any and necessitates the availability of both expertise and vast historical databases. The true value added by banks to the economy is precisely in the accumulation and preservation of these data : the financial history, credit worthiness and consumption predilections of each and every one of us. Thus it would have made sense for the banks to relegate the low-level, low margin activities to outside agents in return for sharing the banks’ information with them. A typical collaboration involves a retail outlet and a bank. The retail outlet invoices the customers, collects the money, charges the credit card, collects the slips and deposits them in the bank. This is work normally done by bank clerks and tellers. The bank, on the other hand, guarantees the payment. The retail outlet pays the bank (and the credit card issuing company) a commission against this guarantee. It does not charge the bank for the work that it does – which saves the bank a lot of money. This asymmetry of payments is a result, on the one hand, of the abundance of cheap transaction processing venues (computerized and human) in the world (some banks do their processing overnight in developing countries, such as India). On the other hand, information (especially the information provided by the bank) is scarce and valuable.

It is easier for the bank to guaranty the payment because it holds, stores, analyses and evaluates all the information regarding the customer. The guarantee is issued in the form of a plastic (credit or debit) card with strict spending limits and authorization procedures. The retail outlet has to follow a simple procedure to obtain the information that it requires in order to engage in the transaction.

Until recently, the information was available only verbally. The credit card companies and the banks operated big call centres. The retail outlet would call in, provide the details of the client and the card, wait for an authorization (which took from 3-5 minutes per transaction) and only then proceed with the sale. This was time consuming, nerve wrecking, expensive and counter-productive. Hence the development of EFTPOS (Electronic Fund Transfer through Points of Sale).

An apparatus is installed in each retail outlet which can “read” the data embedded in the magnetic strips of credit cards, debit cards, loyalty cards and smart cards. It then proceeds to verify (within 10 seconds, on average) that the card is registered in the relevant database, that it is valid (not cancelled, not stolen, not lost) and what are the limitations applicable to the card (or its special features). The information flows (via phone lines and modems or by radio RF waves) between the POS apparatus and a host computer (server) of the bank, the credit card company, or the retail chain which issued the card. A sub-host can interpose between the point of sale and the main host computer, in order to address the more routine tasks and to alleviate possible bottlenecks or errors.

The advantages are immediately evident : time savings, increased efficiency and better use of resources, minimization of losses due to fraud, more secure data handling, a control of all the stages of the financial transaction in particular and of the finances of the retail outlet, in general. Suffice it to mention the ability to generate reports and statistics, which is greatly enhanced.

The same principles apply to vehicle fleet management, telemetry, service engineering and much more. In all these cases, technology allows us to make the world revolve around us, around our requirements, our money and our plans. Technology is only the way that we respond to deep-seated psychological needs. It is really the need to grow up, to mature, to finally feel at ease in this world of ours that drives this meshing of old social establishments.