Beyond the Cash Nexus

How Would You Like to Pay? explores the anthropology of the expanding new world of smartphone wallets and other forms of mobile payments, writes Scott McLemee.

November 25, 2015

Five years ago this month, a consortium of major telecommunications carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon) announced that it was developing a new application that would enable customers to pay for goods and services using their smartphones. This “mobile wallet,” as such technology is commonly called now, would make credit card and debit account information available to merchants by wireless.

Other enterprises, including banks and American Express, soon joined the partnership. The application seemed well positioned to enter the market for hyperconvenient consumerism, even to dominate it. But things did not work out that way. A demo during the plenary session of a major conference on new payment technologies in 2013 went badly. Consumers complained that the app’s “setup and payment processes were cumbersome and frustrating,” in the words of Chris Welch in The Verge. But those were minor scratches compared to the self-inflicted fatality of the app’s name: Isis. It gets worse. A gift card with the words “serve ISIS” was circulating even after the product’s name was changed to Softcard in 2014.

“Probably few consumers even knew of its existence until the media bump it received from its rebranding,” Bill Maurer notes in How Would You Like to Pay? How Technology Is Changing the Future of Money (Duke University Press). That bump was clearly not enough: Softcard shut down early this spring. At the same time, the range of mobile wallets on sale has only been increasing. The information technology research firm Gartner estimated the value of mobile payments for 2012 was $163 billion worldwide and anticipates it will reach $720 billion by 2017.

“This is definitely an ecosystem in flux,” one business and technology columnist wrote last month, “partly because there are so many players offering so many different solutions -- and so many questions about compatibility and security.”

“Ecosystem” seems an interesting choice of words, in this context. Maurer, an anthropologist who is also dean of the school of social sciences at the University of California at Irvine, also uses it -- but in a much thicker sense than as a synonym, more or less, for “market.” The smartphone wallet represents only one means of mobile payment, limited mainly to the world’s more prosperous sectors. It’s in the poorer countries of the global South that mobile payment (using phones with text-messaging capabilities and maybe a little built-in flashlight) looms as a much larger part of everyday life: an economic and social link between urban and rural areas.

In Kenya, the M-Pesa mobile payment service launched in 2007, and within three years, more people were using it than had bank accounts. Over half of the country’s households had adopted it by 2011, and Maurer writes that M-Pesa “processed in that year more transactions within Kenya than Western Union had done globally.”

The contrasting fortunes of Isis/Softcard and M-Pesa (where M stands for “mobile” and “pesa” is the Swahili word for money) are striking; how well each met the demands of the people using them obviously differed significantly. But Maurer’s interest runs deeper than the great disparities between the respective societies.

We’re prone to think of money as a medium of exchange originally created to get around the vagaries of barter (e.g., it’s hard to make change for a goat) and also as a tool notoriously indifferent to how it’s used. With $10,000, you can furnish your apartment or hire a contract killer. Money itself, so understood, is both fungible and morally inert. And from that perspective of money, the recent technological innovations in how it can be transferred from one person or place to another are significant chiefly for whatever changes are made in speed, ease or degree of anonymity of the exchange.

Maurer’s subtitle seems to promise speculation on how money will change, but his stress on the idea of payment (or, better, payment systems) has a decidedly retrospective component. In the abstract, the value of $10,000 in cash is the same as that of $10,000 in diamonds, bitcoins or traveler's checks. Each can be used as a form of money, for exchange.

But in practice, different kinds of social infrastructure are involved in making the transaction feasible -- or even possible -- with considerable implications about the relationships among the people involved. I have not made the experiment, but I doubt you can buy furniture using diamonds, and paying a hit man with a money order seems like a bad idea.

At some point, bitcoins might have the nearly universal acceptance that cash now does; both are fungible and, in principle, anonymous. But those qualities do not inhere in the paper or digital currency themselves: each is part of a payment system, without which it would be worthless. The same is true of credit cards, of course, or smartphones-turned-wallets.

Money of whatever sort is an “index,” the author says, of “relationships of obligation, rank, clientage, social belonging or state sanction.” Furthermore, old payment systems don’t necessarily die off; more than one can be operating in a given society at the same time. Maurer describes the interesting and intricate ways long-distance charge cards have become integrated into African economies where cash and barter also have a place. Aware of the fantastically destructive effects of the last financial crisis, he is clearly concerned that the advantages of being integrated into the global economy could be wiped out in the long term, through no fault of the continent's mobile users themselves.

In the end, How Would You Like to Pay? is of interest less for what it says about the future (the author makes no predictions -- which, given the Isis debacle, seems prudent) than for how it encourages the reader to pay attention to nuances of the present. It’s a primer of the anthropological imagination -- and a reminder that money is too important a matter to leave to the economists.


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