Watching technology change in real time

This picture shows three ways I have paid for transportation in China:

The green card at the top is the wonderful, convenient, and all-purpose Shanghai Transport debit card. It is more modern than anything in the United States. You add money to it at a subway kiosk -- for me, usually 100RMB at a time, or $13.50. Then whenever you use almost any kind of transportation in Shanghai -- a subway, a bus, a ferryboat, and, crucially, a taxi -- you swipe the card across a reader and it deducts the fare. The joys of never having to find change for taxi fare are hard to imagine until you've experienced them. (Plus the joys of flat-fare non-tipping, a subject for another day.)

The pinkish paper ticket in the middle is a 2RMB (27 cents) fare for a ride on the Beijing subway system. It's less modern than what you'd find almost anywhere in the United States. You buy these one by one from vendors, and as you enter the subway an attendant tears off a stub. As the technologists would say, this approach does not "scale."

The blue card on the bottom is Beijing's new version of the Shanghai card, though (as far as I can tell) good for subways only. I haven't seen a taxi with one of Shanghai's ubiquitous card-readers -- and even in the subways the readers are still being phased in. This afternoon, in the downtown Guomao station, I saw lots of card-readers waiting to be installed. They're the things in the tasteful pink-plastic protective wrappers:

Soon people won't be able to imagine it was ever done any other way.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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