“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”—American writer, Stewart Brand
Enjoying some quality time sheltering in place last week, an article about using tech to “flatten the curve” on COVID-19 caught my attention. Although I don’t recall ever hearing my father use the work ‘tech,’ the story reminded me of him—in a roundabout way.
I’m pretty sure tech wasn’t around in 1963 when Mount Pleasant Texas Department of Public Safety driver’s license officer Gene Campbell stamped my first driver’s license “Restrictions Removed.” Although legally released to roam the roads alone, it would still be a while before I would round up $250 needed to buy my first ride—a 1951 Chevrolet. That meant my newfound freedom depended on gaining my father’s favor to borrow the family’s one and only car.
While my newly minted license was unrestricted, dad allowing me to use “the car”—in its most literal sense—came with several restrictions. They included what time it had to be back in the driveway and how far it was allowed to travel. His methods for monitoring my movement required zero technology. He simply stayed awake until I arrived home at the designated curfew hour to hand him the keys, and he made notes of the mileage before and after my evening’s exploits.
What never dawned on dad was that my habits of reading more hot rod magazines than school books and hanging out with older guys graciously allowing this kid to accompany them to the drag races down the road at Bettie had its advantages. Before I was old enough to get a driver’s license, I could already overhaul a carburetor, pull a transmission to change a clutch, and assorted other automotive-related tasks with ease. Not the least of those pre-tech car tasks was knowing that it took no tools and no more than 30 seconds to reach up under the dash and disconnect the speedometer cable after leaving the house, then reversing that procedure shortly before “mileage check” later that night.
Those memories connected to last week’s social distancing read in the daily email newsletter, “Morning Brew,” via a story entitled, “United States of Distancing.” It seems Unacast, a “human mobility insights” company tracking smartphone location data, yours and mine, is performing a “public service” comparing distances people travel on certain days and issuing grades to states by county on their social distancing.
Counties contributing at least a 40-percent drop earned an A. Honor students, according to “Morning Brew,” included D.C., Alaska, Nevada, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Overall, the U.S. scored a B with movement down 32-percent. They noted Wyoming as the lone F with a less than 10-percent reduction, while Montana and Idaho earned Ds. The author added, “there’s a joke in there somewhere.”
No joking matter was a spinoff report about Chinese governmental use of smartphones tracking movement and health status, Hong Kong’s tagging travelers with wristbands to enforce quarantine, and South Korea’s compiling GPS data, credit card swipes, and more to create public logs of infected patients’ movements before they were diagnosed. “Moring Brew” also cited the Washington Post’s reporting that the U.S. may follow suit as Washington is “actively exploring options” with Facebook, Google, and other techs to access smartphone location data. Confirming that hunch was other media outlet coverage the same week of government health official’s concerns about “hot spots” of coronavirus detected by tracking cell phone data of spring break revelers who defied distancing by flocking to public beaches.
Granted, beating this virus is a serious matter warranting extreme measures to gain control. But it’s also no joke to consider government tracking mapping our every move…for any reason.
That said, growing up in the 50s and 60s before the age of tech had its advantages. I seriously doubt dad would have treated my mileage manipulating maneuver as a joke back then. So, whether for my father or for anyone else, I’m thankful that no recorded evidence remains of anything I may or may not have done in my youth…or the distance I traveled to do it.
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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune, the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, and the Alpine Avalanche.
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