The end of cash seems to be on the horizon these days. With innovations like Google wallet being incorporated into our cell phones, it seems likely that children born in the not too distant future may never touch paper money. In the future you’ll never need to carry a wallet. It already feels like wireless payment technology has been embedded in our credit cards for a long time. We simply tap away, 1’s and 0’s fly through the air, and somehow we get to take stuff home.
While dealing with paper money may already be on its way to becoming a thing of the past, the more important change may be somewhat more subtle. Today when we pay for something in meatspace, we are almost always looking into the eyes of the person we are exchanging with. But as our payment systems go electronic, it seems the direct exchange of money between people will become less and less common.
The loss of the personal nature of monetary exchange will have deep implications for every aspect of our society. On a personal level, how will we think about money if we are so disconnected from it? Will we be dangerously nonchalant about price in such a world? What would be the economic implications if we are less concerned with price for our goods? I would argue that just how cheap some goods are already works against us in some ways, driving us to disconnect from the true value of things.
Our growing electronic paper trail will also give companies more information about our buying and spending habits. This may also lead to new business models moving into new areas of the economy; for instance, we might see service contracts and bundling in surprising places in the future.
Imagine a simple grocery trip in the year 2025.
You just bought a brand new fridge with built-in RFID tracking so it knows precisely what items it has in it. With built-in weight sensors, it also knows exactly how much milk and sour cream you have left, and when they expire. Your fridge has already planned out possible meal ideas for the next week or two based on your calendar, cooking skill, and food preferences.
Your fridge could also potentially connect to your health records and monitoring devices so it could take into account your dietary needs as it plans your meals… but that was an expensive upgrade so you didn’t opt for it. Either way, it’s a top of the line Walmart brand fridge, and you got such a great deal – the only downside is that you’ll need to shop at Walmart to take advantage of its connective features – at least until your contract is up.
Oh well, the Google-mart is too far of a drive anyways, and you still can’t get comfortable with how your groceries come to you.
So as you wheel your cart into Walmart, the screen on the cart awakens. It asks you about what you might like to eat this week, if you are thinking of having company, and lets you know about the specials this week. The cart already has all of the data that your fridge had, so it gives you a nice list of the things you need to get. As you load the items into the cart RFID tags register the item so the store knows precisely what items you have in your cart. For fresh produce, the cart weighs the items as you add them.
Your monthly contract price might already include unlimited* groceries? (*Unlimited grocery plans are subject to certain restrictions and limitations outlined in the service contract). They know that you are locked into a contract, they know what is on your list, they know whether you have good credit, they probably even know your salary. So you march along merrily filling your cart, and adding whatever items you desire along the way. Maybe you pay a little more per month then you would using the old school shopping model, but the simplicity of a single bill has advantages for both you and the grocery store you are dealing with.
When you’ve finished with your shopping, you just walk out of the store; paying your monthly contract bill is all that you need ever worry about. Even if you are not on contract, the store simply connects directly to your credit card and subtracts your total as you walk out of the store. You never have to look at a dollar sign throughout your whole journey.
And thats it, as easy as buying a gadget over the internet seems today, so could all purchases be in the future. Similarly, you could imagine a restaurant where the server takes your order and a digital assistant in her hand or pocket digitizes the order. Instantly, the restaurant has a tally for you sent to your cellphone, and when you are finished your meal you simply walk away – perhaps assigning a tip if necessary using your phone.
This is obviously only one version of a possible future. An alternative future might use the digitization of money to make it easier for us to better track our spending. But in a world that seems always busier, I think we would jump at the simplicity offered by such a system I described. In the end, our spending choices will shape what the future looks like, even if it means we choose to remove ourselves from our day to day spending choices.