The Future of the Wallet

Stanford University is home to many of the technological innovations that drastically reshape how we relate to each other, how we live our lives, and how we interact with the world. And a newly emerging tech trend seeks to drastically reshape a component of life that has been with us as a society for centuries: the wallet.

Traditionally, the wallet has had many uses. It has reshaped itself over time from merely a means of conveyance for currency into a mobile hub for any routine personal needs. Modern wallets are normally outfitted not only with cash and credit cards, but also with various forms of identification, cards relating to different vendors (Safeway, Zipcar, sandwich cards) utilities (Swiss Army cards, bottle openers), notes, coupons, receipts, keys, etc. Wallets can be used for pretty much anything related to daily minutiae.

Yet many Silicon Valley companies seek to change the integral role that wallets play in our lives, and some of the effects can already be seen at Stanford. For instance, let’s look at one basic function of wallets: carrying keys. Apple has already patented a product that is being referred to as the “iKey,” a wireless electronic key that could be outfitted to open doors. This could mean using your phone as a mobile device to lock your room or home when you leave in the morning, get into and out of your car in the parking lot, and get into the office when you arrive at work. And Zipcar set a trend for innovative key design by distributing plastic key cards that fit into wallets to unlock its cars. The potential already exists for a smartphone to reserve and unlock a car anywhere in the world with only the touch of a few buttons. In fact, this is already possible with the Zipcar app for the iPhone.

The primary use for a wallet is to carry currency. Whether cash, check, or credit card, wallets are first and foremost a means for having mobile purchasing power at all times. A new product that has made its way aggressively to Stanford campus is the BlingTag, a small plastic sticker that can be placed on the back of a phone, which allows people to make electronic payments without a physical credit card. The BlingTag, offered by Bling Nation, can be used to phase out the traditional credit card and lead to a purchasing environment similar to Tokyo’s, where mobile-purchasing technology is already widespread. And BlingTags are already accepted around campus, at the CoHo, Treehouse, Ray’s, Fraiche, and Jimmy V’s.

Needless to say, the precedent has been set for identification to become another component of smartphones. As the mobile phone industry moves to supplant conventional mobile phones with smartphones, it is likely that personal identification as sophisticated as a government-issued driver’s license or passport will become wirelessly available. Health insurance cards, employee cards, even electronic business cards will likely follow in this digitalization trend smartphones are driving.

But is this a good thing? While it is true that the convenience of being able to use one multifaceted tool for every activity is significant, it also makes us more vulnerable. The risk of losing a phone can no longer be expressed as the cost of the phone alone, but it is now the risk that we lose everything. This trend leaves some gaping security holes to be examined, so much that losing one gadget potentially could be viewed as a loss of identity – suddenly all of our access to everything in our lives could be disrupted or stolen.

Due to its privileged seat in the heart of Silicon Valley, Stanford can expect to see many of these innovations firsthand, including in their testing phase, as wallets gradually expire in the wake of their replacement with phone technology. We need to ask ourselves, though, how comfortable we are with the rush to replace our wallets. These increasingly convenient tools we’re developing to facilitate day-to-day operations also open us up to the possibility of investing too much of our identity in one gadget, thereby making us much more vulnerable. This is a bridge that we’ll probably all have to cross at some point, but the question now is how far we should cross it?

Nik Milanović ‘11 is majoring in Philosophy and Political Science and his interests include political ethics. You can reach him at [email protected].

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