Over the past month, two things struck me as indicative of our current time in space, and both are related to the availability of technology.
I live and work in Washington, DC, where we have had issues with the homeless in the past. This has lead to a number of laws and a certain cynicism about their presence. But lately I have noticed fewer of them. At first I simply thought it was the natural cycle. We got cold quickly this year and that tends to drive them indoors. Then I thought it might have something to do with the inauguration and a cleaning up of the city so that it will look good for the camera. But I was accosted the other day, and I began to think that it might be in reaction to technology.
Let me explain. I was accosted for a dollar, and I did not have one. This is not to say I did not have money, but I did not have cash. And this seems to be a trend that I did not really notice until this individual asked me for it. It was not that long ago that if you did not have cash, you could not buy lunch at most eateries in Washington. A couple would take plastic, but most are mom and pop operations and had a $10 minimum on charge purchases (despite it not being permitted in most vendor agreements) and certainly McDonalds and other major chains only took cash. Maybe the trend started at Starbucks or perhaps it was McDonalds, I really do not know, but now everyone almost expects you to pay with plastic, and cash is a detriment. Even VISA has a commercial about it. I did a very informal survey and discovered that most people do not carry any bills in their pockets on most days, relying instead on their debit cards.
Which lead me to wonder if the decrease in homeless people asking for handouts was related to the poor opportunities to get handouts? Certainly there is some fuss being kicked up in the area as our transit system eliminates paper transfers in favor of SmartTrip cards. These are plastic fare cards that have an RFID chip in them and are reloadable and used for paying bus and subway fares. In fact, they are so useful, that the transit agency requires them for covering the parking fee. Advocates for the homeless and the poor argue that this will make it harder for those that rely on mass transit to get around (currently the SmartTrip cards cost $5.00).
If you think about it, it makes sense for the agency to move this way. It costs money to maintain transfer machines and stock them. The agency also lost millions in parking funds in a scam and getting rid of manpower and money management systems probably saved them hundreds if not thousands of dollars. By moving away from paper transfers, they increase the revenue stream by reducing fraud as well as the costs associated with the transfer hardware as I mentioned. There is certainly an issue related to the cost of the SmartTrip card of course and that is difficult to argue, but I cannot see how getting rid of the paper transfers are burdensome for the homeless or poor. But I am willing to listen to arguments.
The second incident happened in Las Vegas, which is about as soulless a place as possibly exists on the planet. I was out there a week ago for a Redmond conference. I am not a gambler per se. I like to play craps and I like poker but you will not find me dropping hundreds of dollars at the tables. Upon arrival, one of the things I noticed on the casino floor was an increased number of slot machines over the year before. It almost seemed to me that the table games – poker, blackjack, and craps – had been allocated to the margins of the casino floor, almost as hard to find as the cashier. OK, so it was not that bad, but there did seem to be considerably fewer tables than the year before. And then I went over to the Excalibur hotel.
I met a buddy there and we decided we were going to check out the poker tournaments and made our way to the poker room. There were several tables in use, about 20-odd people playing poker. I looked around trying to get a feel for the place and the first thing I noticed was the lack of chips on the table. There were no chips at all, which was when it hit me. No chips, no cards and no dealer. They were playing, essentially, video poker. The traditional tables that you may have seen on television had been replaced with individual video screens in front of each player and a main screen in the middle of the table for the flop, turn and river cards as well as the pot. I was stunned. The tables, probably running Linux of some flavor, are the next generation game I was told. To quote the dealer, “There are fewer errors, you cannot bet out of turn, no errors on reading the hands and the action is faster.” OK, I can appreciate that. There is nothing I hate worse when I am playing is people betting out of turn so I initially thought this was a good idea. That feeling did not last.
To begin, there is something about the feel and sound of chips hitting the table and being scooped into the pot and then pulling them back out and counting them. There is something about turning up your hole cards to find pocket rockets (or unsuited junk) and then triumphantly throwing them onto the table or folding with feeling. To me, it was technology run amok and for no good purpose. After all, if I wanted to play video poker I could whip out my Nintendo DS and play it there. But then I am not running the casinos.
From the casino’s side, clearly there are benefits. Reducing errors and speeding up play is a good thing for the casinos. But so is some of the intangibles benefits that I discovered by talking with other dealers in other casinos. First, it only takes two dealers to run the tables instead of a dealer per table, plus the pit boss and possibly another dealer to manage the flow and check-in process. Secondly, there is the issue of chips. If you have never seen a casino floor, each table has a count of chips that are counted at the end of the day and the beginning of the day and several times throughout the day. In some cases they have to be resupplied or removed which means someone, or a group of someones, has to do the work. The new tables do not take cash. You have to use your credit or ATM card to buy-in (at least at the Excalibur). So cash management is deferred. It is all electronic. So no one had to count the bills and verify the count and move the count to the vault…you get the idea. The end result? Several dozen skilled dealers are out of work and the associated positions along with them.
My point? Technology is a tool. Good or bad, it is a tool. There are many reasons to implement technology, many of them good. It makes repetitive tasks easier, and it simplifies and speeds up a number of complicated tasks. As the people at Excalibur exalt, it increases the speed of play and decreases the errors, which benefits both the casinos and the players. But technology has a dark side and more and more companies seem to be missing the dark side of implementing technology. And more and more, those of us in technology need to be aware of the constant changes that technology brings. Good and bad.
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