[Dave Birch] There was some fun press coverage around PayPal's space payments event last week and since I rather like talking about the future of payments, which will inevitably include payments in space, I couldn't help but pay attention.
PayPal said very little of substance during this event. There were no details on timeframe, consumer expectations, how it will work, or any other pertinent details that would-be space travelers would surely want to know.
What oddly po-faced reporting from Business Insider! This was a PR event not the launch of an actual product. Of course no-one has any idea how an online payment system will work on Jupiter with an eight-minute packet round trip delay and PayPal are no different. I really don't think this was the point. It was a stunt, and an excellent one. But it's not the first payments-in-space stunt. I remember a good one by Travelex six years ago.
The Quasi Universal Intergalactic Denomination – or Quid for short – is the world's first currency that can be used in space. Quids — plastic disks with pictures of the planets — are supposedly safe for use in zero-gravity.
So… digital wallets or hard-to-counterfeit plastic coins? Who knows how space payments will work. I don't have the imagination to see how when I'm shopping at the Weiland-Yutani company store on LV-426 they will be able to clear and settle a transaction against my Barclays account, when it will take 37 years for the authorisation request to reach the host and another 37 years for the authorisation to reach the POS. Hhmmmm.
Perhaps the future will be more like medieval times, with merchant networks and bills of exchange at the core. Bills of exchange didn't eradicate bullion transport, but they did make trade more efficient. In Peter Spufford's magnificent "The Merchant in Medieval Europe" he talks about "the specie point" where it became cheaper to transport bullion — which was expensive, as you needed guards and logistics — rather than bills of exchange. So perhaps one imaginable possibility is that I will arrive on LV-426 with a bill of exchange instructing the Barclays agent on LV-426 to pay 1,000 London Crowns into the company store account for me to draw against, but when it comes time to pay the contractors for the atmosphere processor (which has a substantial dollar value) then I will open up my lead-lined box and take out some unobtainium.
I can see how the digital bill of exchange might work — I once heard public key cryptography described as the only product of human endeavour that could be successfully exported to intelligent aliens on Jupiter! — so once the Barclays agent on LV-426 has used Barclays' public key to verify the digital signature on my bill of exchange and then topped up my account (with the appropriate discounting for risk factors, such as Earth might having been destroyed), I can see how I might spend from it using PayPal!
Incidentally, I have written before about how many science fiction views of the future of money seem implausible to me, but then that is true of many non-fictional works as well. I think I'll stick to my basic prediction: no single currency, no single means of exchange, no single store of value. And no single payment system. Think local, act global, as they say.
Cohen's cogent analysis of direction forced me to reassess some of my own fairly superficial thoughts on the topic, with the result that I firmed up on one axis of the projection. I think his view of geography is wrong: perhaps in the future, all money will be local, it just that local will mean something different in the connected world.
On the other hand, if you don't believe me and you think that science fiction movies really do tell us about the future of payments, then you'll probably find the splendid Science Fiction Currency Converter very useful before the next transit of Uranus.
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