Wallet, Cash, Phone, Keys – What Did I Forget?

OLED technology allows for flexible phone design. For more, click on the link to read a good article in TechWhiz.

OLED technology allows for flexible phone design. For more, click on the link to read a good article in TechWhiz.

It’s 2013. Why are we still asking that question? Why are we still messing around with credit cards and driver’s licenses, house keys and office keys, and so much more. No need. Not any more. It’s time for somebody to invent one slim, pocketable slab that takes care of everything. Here’s my plan. Feel free to patent it and make a fortune. As I’ve thought about this–a perfect thing to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon–I’ve come to realize that the elimination of my wallet may, in fact, provide the necessary tipping point for several large industries.

How big should it be? When cell phones became very popular, the coolest ones, like Motorola’s Razr, were about the size of a credit card, and maybe four times as thick. (I just checked Wikipedia: Razr was about 4 inches high, 2 inches wide, and about a half inch thick; a credit card is about 3 1/4 inches tall.) I think that’s a good basic size because it’s so pocketable.

On one side, I think I’d want a touch-senstive display that could also respond to my voice commands. The display probably uses OLED technology so that it is flexible, and easily expanded or reshaped. On the other, I want solar cells so that I can recharge the phone whenever I am near sunlight.

Pretty much, that’s the design. Add the usual extras: camera lens, flash, microphone (detachable for some advanced Bluetooth use and stow-able within the device so it doesn’t get lost, and can be charged with the unit), speaker, AC adapter of some sort.

Can I leave my wallet and other stuff at home? Or toss it all in the trash?

Yes, but not immediately.

Let me go through my wallet first. Just about everything is associated with data–credit card or debit card, both about to go the way of the drive-in movie theater and the men’s handkerchief. My AAA membership card, health care card, drug card, and public library card can all go away; they are nothing more than physical manifestations of an account number. Pictures of my dog, and, oh right, my family, all are printed versions of digital images.  Okay, fine, I no longer need the wallet. Except for the part that, so far, Google has not been able to build a viable digital wallet business–and neither has anyone else. (The reasons: lack of public acceptance for Near Field technology [NFC], and the control exercised by the credit card companies.)

How about cash? Really, I use it only at the local farmer’s market or for a quick slice of pizza. If everybody else is using data instead of cash, I will too. So let’s just make the decision, together: no more cash or coins!

Presumably, the phone is the easiest one to eliminate. Do I need a separate wallet and phone? Nope. If I can combine a phone and a camera and an email system and VPN access, I can certainly live without a standalone phone. Gone!

Keys! There’s the problem. Yes, I have a digital key to my office. It’s the smallest thing on my keychain. Car keys are already digital, but they still resemble keys. A truly reliable digital lock, sufficiently inexpensive to serve consumer needs, remains just a few steps in the future. Recently, Gizmodo reported on a company called SmartLocks: “August is the lock that requires no key, only an invitation…” The video, below, lays out the plan.

For those who travel often, the old concept of a Passport that’s the size of an old savings passbook needs some rethinking. It should be digital, but that probably introduces all sorts of opportunities for bad guys. (Though it’s difficult to imagine how a larger vs. smaller passport would matter much.)

So what are we missing? Real-world stuff, I suppose. A few weeks back, I wrote about the real world (fun to do that, from time to time, on a blog that’s called Digital Insider) and explored the usefulness of multi-tools. It turned out to be my most popular blog article of all time, so I’m pretty sure we’ll keep those around for awhile. Which means we will still require pockets, or belt loops, or some other way to carry stuff around.

Still, wouldn’t it be nice, just once, to leave the house without asking the dog, “do you have any idea where I put my keys?” Assuming the dog’s chip is working properly (let’s assume every dog would have one; many already do), he or she would simply cause your phone to ring, which would allow you to grab your keys and your money and your flashlight and your phone on the way to the veterinarian’s office. To which the dog might bark–“aren’t you forgetting something?”

(Digital) Money, Honey

We pay for just about everything with a credit card, a debit card, PayPal. Even parking meters accept card payments. Cash is dirty, difficult to store, easy to lose, and (for better or for worse) leaves no trace. The end of money has been predicted for a long time. Maybe now’s the time that money, like photographic film, drive-in theaters, and typewriters, fades away.

That’s the theory behind WIRED contributing editor David Wolman’s book, The End of Money published by Da Capo. The book is an easy read, filled with anecdotes, interesting histories, and a great many examples of alternatives to our current cash-and-coins conception of valuable exchange. Wolman points out the present system is, in fact, quite new, and that most of human history did not involve pennies, pfennigs, or pesos. He estimates that one of every twenty British coins is counterfeit. He points to cash on ice both in Alaska Senator Ted Stevens’ freezer and also in a visit to the fallen Icelandic economy. (There are so many wonderful slang terms: cold hard cash among them). He explores alternative currencies. The one about Liberty Dollars–“a private voluntary free-market currency backed entirely by silver and gold.”–is a long trip through the complexities of alternative currencies and contemporary Federal conceptions of money.

There’s discussion–not enough for my taste–about smart cards and the use of mobile devices as digital wallets. Here, the focus is on the many small daily transactions that remain cash-intensive, and the potential for a simpler, less costly, more manageable system based upon digital transactions. The upside: you’re never short a quarter for the parking meter; the downside: every time you park your car, you’re making an entry into your permanent record.

Be sure to read the crazy story. It’s just one paragraph on Wikipedia.

It’s interesting to muse on the current use of simulated currencies, if only to understand our possible future behaviors: accumulating gold coins in games, such as World of Warcraft; the possible connections between gamefied badges and currency that can be exchanged for real or virtual goods and services; the use of Quids on the (now gone?) website Superfluid, where “they’re placeholders for favors” (perhaps not unlike the favor/exchange economy that drives power and accomplishment in the nation’s capital). Where might frequent flier miles fit into the money equation? Or Disney Dollars that pay for fun in Orlando (now largely replaced by Disney Gift Cards because they yield far more digital data, and because the residue is easily converted to profit.) How about the barter economy that has been so well-nourished on the internet: you build my website, I do your taxes.

How does taxation fit into any of this? None of us love taxes, but we’ve certainly become attached to, say, our interstate highway system. I suppose most transactions will be digital, and so, there is a trackable moment of exchange, and at that moment, the tax authorities can step-in (digitally) and collect. How about pay checks? Direct deposit eliminates the old-fashioned notion of “cashing the paycheck”–and, perhaps, acknowledging the weirdness of Big Brother, preparing one’s own personal tax return may seem equally old school (armed with your entire digital financial life, the government could certainly outsource your tax return, mine to, to an outfit in Malaysia or Peru).

Are coins and cash going away? Not this year, but maybe in ten years. It’s fascinating to contemplate the possibilities. And, along the way, it’s fun to browse or read The End of Money.

It’s also fun to watch the CBS Sunday Morning report that was inspired by the book. If you can find the link, let me know and I’ll post it (couldn’t find it on the CBS Sunday Morning site).

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