The Web-Wide World

Jake Keyes   June 7, 2011

In your computer and IRL (photo by Junhao)

A few weeks ago, Google announced the Google Wallet, a payment service that will allow customers to use the Android phone itself as a kind of cloud-connected credit card. There is a lot to talk about, here: the privacy concerns, the PayPal lawsuit, whether Apple will follow Google into the Near Field Communication arena, etc. But from the digital consumer’s point of view, the Google Wallet hints at something broader: the boundary between the digital and the physical has started to disappear.

It started with smartphones and data plans. Or maybe it started with the discovery of electricity. In any case, the border is blurring. As Internet-connected devices have become effortlessly portable, and their cameras and touchscreens have become increasingly good at letting us throw content up into the cloud, the content we generate has been freed of its tethers. A piece of content — say, your paycheck — can start its life as a physical object, be scanned and parsed by a bank app, and end up a figure in a checking account, stored in a database. Then, with a service like Google Wallet, it can be summoned back down into the physical world, with a swipe at a cash register and a merchant-side cash withdrawal. The essence of the check, the content it represents, can be transformed easily from physical object to digital object, and back again.

A range of apps and web services serve as gateways for these digital-physical transitions. Take Postagram, an app that allows you to “make your Instagram come true” by sending a $0.99 postcard, printed with an image you select from your iPhone. Remember the early days of the camera phone, when the photos you took would often die with the device that took them? Those boundaries are long gone.

Or take location-based social networks. Foursquare and others leverage ubiquitous GPS tech to give transmittable social value to, say, my being at a certain restaurant at a given time. Watch one of your Foursquare-using friends for a few minutes. You get the sense that there’s a hidden digital world layered over our own, with its own invisible system of status and reward.

We’re only beginning to imagine the specific economic possibilities. Pepsi is experimenting with “social vending” soda machines, which let customers send gift codes to friends or strangers, redeemable at other Pepsi social soda machines. Codes can be redeemed, or passed along to someone else. The gaming industry, too, is testing the digital-physical divide, with Wii, Kinect, and Playstation Move. A few years ago, Nintendo even put out a kind of Pokemon pedometer, which allowed players to accrue redeemable game points by walking around in the real world.

What does this all mean for people who create and curate content? Well, for one thing, the dream of a paperless ecosystem is inching closer. Taxes, visa applications, ID cards, deeds, and so on may soon have no reason to exist on paper — at least in any permanent way. And more than ever the physical location of things is less relevant: points of sale, documents, and consumer identities are portable, sharable, and extremely easy to touch.

But this is what’s most important: digital content is coming into its own as a consumable, trade-able, valued good. The exchange rate is evening out. We’re moving closer to the point where an object is universally useful, whether it lives on a desk or on a screen. 

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