A Dispatch from the Future (of Money and Technology Summit)

From the Series: Finance

Photo by Fabian Blank.

In search of bringing some ethnographic texture to our on-going study of payment infrastructure and the “future of money” in general, I (along with a delegation from UC-Irvine’s IMTFI) checked out the Future of Money and Technology Summit, an industry conference for, as its website describes, “thought leader[s] at the convergence of currency and technology.”

Indeed, these thought leaders are an eclectic group: from the head of New Enterprise Growth at AMEX Ventures to the co-founder of the heterotopic rave Burning Man (where the gift-economy reigns supreme after one has paid the $300 ticket price); from a tech writer for Forbes to a proponent of anarcho-cryptocurrency Bitcoin.com.

This diverse crew was brought together by a shared vision of the future, one in which value is assigned, stored, and circulated using novel (and mostly privatized) infrastructures. In ten years time, one panel moderator predicted, “cash won’t be something that nice people do.” Instead, he thought, “the C word” will be tied to drugs and other illicit dealings. There was also the distinct sense that the card networks were as clunky and outdated as cash. One attendee tweeted: “Today's merchant payment system is a bit like watching Mad Men. Systems and methods from 40's through 70's.” Then came a tongue-in-cheek follow-up: “Will we see credit card payments come back like orange shag carpet?” I wondered why paper money—with its mix of neoclassical imagery and increasingly high tech materials—hadn’t become trendy among the steampunk set.

There were tensions around how this future would (and should) be accomplished. Early in the day, the AMEX Ventures executive shocked many by refusing to take a question about Bitcoin. A short time later, a reply came over Twitter: “#bitcoin response to #amex non-answer is "does it matter?"” This implied that, in the face of experiments like Bitcoin, the venture capital corporate model was just as vestigial as the penny.

Despite all of this forward leaning, the key questions that attendees seemed to be grappling with related to rather old issues of trust and risk, even if the solutions were mostly technocratic. As one attendee tweeted, “Importance of big data: "The cost of money is the risk of money, and the risk of money is based on the data behind the risk.” Another put an even finer point on it: “With all of the data available today, why can't we just drive the risk completely out of payment?”

As a communication technology researcher, I was particularly interested in the ways in which payment systems were situated not in the realm of financial but media services. One attendee tweeted, “Payment relationships will be owned through the platform, not the financial players. So Apple, Google trump Citi, Visa, more.” By integrating payment into mobile and internet systems, transactions could be incorporated into the larger ecosystem of social data driven business models.

There was concern for the increasing divide between those who have access to technology and banking services and those who do not. The “unbanked” do not generate a lot of data, so it will become more and more difficult to “include” them in this future. “We shouldn’t look down on people because they’re trapped in a cash system,” the moderator who’d predicted the end of the cash for “nice people” said. “At some point there has to be some sort of national strategy – I don’t want to sound communist – to deal with [people on the other side of this digital divide, using cash only].” But instead of seeking regulatory or policy solutions, there was a whole panel on developing automated trust systems to predict the payment-worthiness of the data poor.

At the opposite end of the spectrum were those who generate too much data but do not yet have a way of extracting value from it. There was a panel that concerned the development of a new currency system to codify the unarticulated trust that freelancers and entrepreneurs in the constantly reconfigured professional environment of start-ups rely on. These tech workers, being active users of all social networking platforms, produce an excess of data points. There must be some way, the panel asserted, to create a reliable means of exchange for the value locked in these relationships and reputational information.

The promise of payment and currency infrastructures, powered by evermore total data capture, were met with some provocative cynicism. One panelist said, “People don't care about privacy because they're stupid.” Overall, however, there was hope for corporate accountability, for a resurgence of the social. One attendee tweeted, “It's not about trusting who holds your data but it's trusting how they will use it." This was even true among the Bitcoin enthusiasts. One tweeted, “trust in money was a function of composition; with fiat was trust in entities. Is it trust in tech now?” There were two responses, divergent but certainly complementary. First, “Its trust in mathematics and Gold coins. Period.” And then, “It's not the currency technology we trust, it's the people behind the technology and transaction that we trust.”

(Thanks to Jenny Fan, Bill Maurer, Beth Reddy, and Nick Seaver for sharing impressions and notes.)