Swipe-card kids

October 28, 1993

Along with the typewriter, the rotary telephone and good manners, cash is becoming obsolete in American society. Anything from a few magazines to a hot tub can be charged on VISA. Paying for a gas fill-up or a bag of groceries is easily done with an automatic teller machine card. And thanks to payroll deposits and banking by phone, folks no longer have to schlep their checks to the savings and loan to feed their accounts.

The latest bastions to fall in this coup de cash are the public libraries and school cafeterias of Baltimore County. Through a pair of new computerized card systems, county library users can pay for fines, photocopies and video rentals, and students can purchase meals at school, without the necessity of having bills and coins in hand.

Chalk it up to that juggernaut named Progress. Still, we wonder about the impact on kids. They already have too few chances to do mathematical figuring on their own, with the proliferation of pocket calculators and cash registers whose keys depict sellable items (cheeseburger, fries, etc.) instead of numerals. Where's the outcry over the fact that these card systems will snatch yet another opportunity for youngsters to do mental computations through simple cash purchases?

The electronic "swipe card" being implemented at each county school cafeteria seems especially unfair to kids. Moms and Dads appear to benefit the most. They can forgo the daily hassle of fishing out loose change for the kids' lunches and merely load the cafeteria cards with credit. They can also use the cards for tracking (read: spying on) their children's eating habits as well as restricting what they can buy. And the pay-off for kids? Zippo. No longer can they sneak in the odd ice cream cone or extra pizza slice; the swipe card means their every meal-time movement will be monitored by their elders. It's broccoli and grilled cheese from now on, kids. Even the school bully is deprived the fun of terrorizing his schoolmates for their dimes.

We josh -- a little. We know the library needs its card system (dubbed "Window on the World," or WOW) to help finance an expanded computerized information base. And we know school officials tout the swipe card system for providing quicker, more accurate tabulations of what and how much students consume each day.

Wow, indeed. Let's have more of these machines that count better than ever, because it looks as if the children of our swipe card society will need all the help they can get.

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