Milwaukee, WI - Imagine your parking meter being able to send you a warning that it is about to expire - or being able to add time to your parking meter from wherever you are just by calling your cell phone. And wouldn't it be so much more convenient if you could just slide your credit card through the meter instead of searching for the right coins and inserting them?But do you really want inanimate objects -- especially parking meters -- having access to your most intimate contact details? Also, does it occur to anyone else that parking meters are run by city governments, and the idea that they'd phone you for another quarter while passing up the chance to pop you with a $50 ticket is just insane?
Still, I am intrigued about how far this flirtation with technology may go, which is why I've pushed aside my deadlines today in order to bring you the following scenario:
SCENE: The second floor of the Bowie Center building in Fort Worth, the clandestine workspace of Phil Harvey, Light Reading's BBQ and Modern Dance Editor. One sunny morning, Harvey, who was trying to talk the building's vending machine out of a free Devil Dog, is interrupted by his ringing cellphone. Embarrassingly, his ringtone is Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl."
HARVEY (answering the phone): Yes?
PARKING METER: Mr. Harvey. This is Niles, the parking meter at the corner of 3rd and Commerce downtown.
HARVEY: I'm sorry? This is… ?
PARKING METER: A parking meter. I'm a computerized coin taker, activated by the City of Fort Worth and powered by Duncan Solutions.
HARVEY: Well, okay, I'll take the bait. And what do you want -- was it Niles?
PARKING METER: Correct. Niles. I'm calling to inform you that you underpaid by $0.25 on your most recent visit to my space, which was only 30 minutes ago. The timer expired just as my surveillance camera shows you entered your car and began to leave.
HARVEY: Well, a tie goes to the runner, doesn't it? So I don't owe you a dime, let alone a whole quarter.
PARKING METER: I'll be happy to add the charge to your credit card account, or, upon refusal to pay, I'll instruct the other meters within the city limits to call for a tow truck the next time your vehicle is in the vicinity.
HARVEY: That's tough talk coming from a glorified fire hydrant. Would you care to patch me through to your supervisors at City Hall? I'd much rather resolve this caper with a living being -- and even a bureaucrat is slightly closer to that description than a cold, metal pole.
PARKING METER: I'll transfer you now. Thank you for choosing the City of Fort Worth.
HARVEY: I didn't choose you. It was the only place to park. Don’t get all high and mighty about it.
PARKING METER: I'll connect the call. I've got to go now. A homeless person is loitering nearby. (Just before the line transfers, a loud electrical discharge is heard in the distance, followed by a man's shrieking.)
HARVEY: Oh my…
ESMERALDA, A CITY EMPLOYEE: (Answering Harvey's transferred call.) Collections department, this is Esmeralda. May I help you?
HARVEY: Yeah. I guess I owe the city a quarter, according to a parking meter that just phoned me.
ESMERALDA: Okay, sir, I'll be happy to process that transaction for you sir. Thank you, sir. First I need to ask a question, sir. Do you happen to have your account number available, sir?
HARVEY: I don't. Why don't you ask Niles the parking meter? He's probably done electrocuting vagrants, and I'm sure he can help.
ESMERALDA: I'm sorry, sir. I don't have the ability to connect with the meters from this office. If you don't have an account number with The City, I can set up an account for you, sir. We'll just need you to come down the City Hall between the hours of 2:00 PM and 2:45 PM on Monday or Wednesday of next week.
HARVEY: This is tiring. Look, I'll do whatever. And in the future, I'm avoiding downtown altogether and shopping online.
ESMERALDA: Okay, sir. When you come to City Hall, be sure to park in the spaces marked Visitor Only. There's also metered street parking available near the corner of Commerce and 3rd.
HARVEY: Commerce and 3rd? Are you kidding?
ESMERALDA: Is there anything else I can help you with today? Just so you know, in order to serve you better, in addition to proactive parking meters, we now accept PayPal for property taxes, Flooz for school vouchers, and Beenz for death certificate payments.
HARVEY: Uh, no. You've done enough. Thanks.
ESMERALDA: Thank you for choosing the City of Fort Worth, sir.
HARVEY (Quietly): I'm moving.