Extra Charges for Special People

OPINION

By Terry Calhoun

There’s a little ditty that I embarrass my wife with sometimes when we’re shopping. I chant it (I can’t really sing very well) as we walk by the special people who park just outside the department store door, along the curb, or in your way. I also use it when we walk past someone abusing a handicapped parking spot.

I sort of think about Barbra Streisand singing it, even though she sounds nothing like me. It g'es: “Special, they’re so special, they can park anywhere that they want. They’re so special, and they didn’t have to pay a lot.” and it g'es on like this for a few puerile stanzas.

I’m a little worried about the income and spending power gaps that keep growing between the richest and poorest Americans. And I am especially worried over the trend for organizations to charge “premium” surcharges for access to fairly mundane, almost necessary things. Being able to use information technology to charge for a monitored use of such “special” services will exacerbate the already growing divide between rich and poor.

Here at the University of Michigan, the current “special or not” debate is over corporate skyboxes in Michigan Stadium. The stadium is undergoing a huge renovation. When I took a SCUP board member, Jim Zavagno of Foothills Community College, in for a look at the “Big House” a few weeks ago, the entire south end was just a pile of dirt. (Among other changes, a little more hip space for burgeoning maize and blue fans.)

The administration says no decisions have been made yet about whether skyboxes will be added at the end of the renovation. Yet something tells me that come September there will be new skyboxes gracing (one can only hope) the stadium skyline.

As noted in recent discussions, the conceit that skyboxes are too elitist for Michigan Stadium is laughable in light of the eliteness of Michigan students in the first place. Not to mention the fact that even to experience one Michigan football season in ordinary seats is going to set you back thousands of dollars. And, of course, the athletic department “needs” the additional revenues.

When I was younger, I could maybe have gotten worked up about skyboxes. Nowadays I am more worried about extra fees and charges on things that are close to being necessities. Maybe not on necessities, but given IT’s ability to track and authenticate usage of many things, it’s possible to see a near future where IT itself smoothes the way for wealthier people in everyday life.

Can you afford to pay several hundred dollars to become a Homeland Security “frequent flyer?” You would earn the right to move right around long lines at airport security. Do you have a gold card and, therefore, your Hertz rental car is waiting for you without human intervention at the off-field rental car facility?

No doubt I am proving my own specialness as a privileged, upper middle class American. Even though my wife and I can remember a time not too long ago when we would debate for a week about how to spend a $20 bill, those times are gone for us. So I worry about waiting in lines instead of having enough money to pay the fuel oil bills.

Yet there is a trend there. A trend for IT to be able to account for, monitor, track, and refuse access to all sorts of services and information – and for companies to derive additional revenues from making all sorts of such things available for a little bit more. This is not a “digital divide” as much as a “digitally-enhanced money divide.”

Other examples?

  • Aisle seats for $15 extra on Northwest Airlines;
  • Someone in Hong Kong to play your video game for you and gain you points;
  • EZ-Passes (I’m still dodging a New York ticket because I got stuck in the wrong lane at the Lincoln Tunnel a year ago and could not get into the “cash” line); and
  • Paying extra to use your cell phone on an airplane.

None of this is new, of course. Finding a public restroom in a big city was actually more difficult in the 1970s than it is now. (I am amazed that no one has found a way to get a revenue stream from nice, convenient, for-fee restrooms.)

A lot of this is “convenience,” and people with more money than time are willing to pay for it. But when that convenience disparity is created, not by making something more convenient but by making something else less convenient than it was or should be, and then charging for it, that divide widens. An analogy could be made to the disappearance of grocery stores in urban centers in the late 20 th Century.

With the right EZ-pass in your pocket, or the right RFID chip in your ear or fingertip, a very special person might walk through life with empty pockets – just like some of our wealthiest citizens already do. Only, instead of human servants to carry wallets and keys, a plethora of monitors will determine – as you walk down the sidewalk or up to a door – whether you should be there at all. Then they will decide how much of a fee you should be paying for the privilege of being there.

How about purchasing the “Deluxe “XL” Suite of authentication software for your Personal Area Network (PAN)? It could be absolute protection from accusations of shoplifting. If everything you’re carrying is going to be automatically deducted from your tab as you walk out of the store, regardless of whether you use a clerk or not, then you can carry stuff in your pockets while shopping and not feel guilty.

If, however, you sit near me on an airplane and are talking on your cell phone during the flight, don’t be surprised when I break out and start whistling patriotic martial songs. It’s what I already do in an elevator when someone is talking on a cell phone, and it’s yet another thing that embarrasses my wonderful wife.
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