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Unfolding the Fabric of the Transaction Surface

The transposition of the metaphor of spatial relationships to the realm of computing gave us purchase, a foothold, on things and how they might be organized. Our personal computers were envisioned as very large file cabinets. The size of the cabinet was proportional to the size of the hard drive attached to the CPU. As the primary connection for storage systems moved to remote network-attached systems, the cabinet has grown to an enormous size, but the organizational metaphor remains unchanged.

While capacities seem almost limitless in the “consumer” computing space, in the enterprise there are limits everywhere. The corporate enterprise’s limitation on the size of these file drawers has resulted in the phenomena of email jail. A stream of email is constantly coming in to your mail reader, but the size of your mailbox is finite. Once the box is full, the stream is shut off until you create space in your mailbox by deleting a sufficient number of messages.

It may have been Gmail that introduced the idea that nothing needs to be deleted ever. The stream of mail comes in: we look at it, ignore it, act on it, search for it, view it in threads— but we don’t need to manage the number of messages in a mailbox of limited dimensions. A stream flows into a larger river and then into the ocean. The world of social media has given us a variety of new streams with which to work. Oddly, none of them have the basic toolset that the Gmail stream offered right out of the gate.

As we begin to think about how to work with streams, we flip from metaphors of spatial organization to temporal schemes. The stream doesn’t empty into an ocean, but rather always remains an event embedded in the stream of time. The control set we seek comes from the world of digital audio/video. Jump to a point in the time line, fast forward, rewind, zoom in, give me the alternate audio channel, jump to a live real-time view. Largely, the metaphors we use in these thought experiments have been checked out from the library of physics. We move from space to time, but perhaps we really move to the space-time continuum. It’s here that the term fabric is introduced to describe the medium within which we swim.

At this point I’d to change the focus slightly and look at the fabric of the transaction surface of the Network. While cash money is generally acceptable at every transaction point in our daily lives, the Network doesn’t have an analog. Credit/Debit cards and PayPal seem to be the primary transaction networks through which goods can be purchased or money can change hands. If you were to imagine the set of points in physical and Network space where electronic monetary transactions are possible, you’d have a map with a rather sparse distribution.

While money itself is an abstraction of commodity, in its physical form, as bills and coins, it has not been able to make the leap from our lived physical world to our lived Network world. Cash almost defines the quality of fungibility. And while digital bits can be re-arranged to represent seemingly any form within computational space, there is no digital representation of cash that maintains its fungibility.

The first chief function of money is to supply commodities with the material for the expression of their values, or to represent their values as magnitudes of the same denomination, qualitatively equal, and quantitatively comparable. It thus serves as a universal measure of value. And only by virtue of this function does gold, the equivalent commodity par excellence, become money.

It is not money that renders commodities commensurable. Just the contrary. It is because all commodities, as values, are realized human labour, and therefore commensurable, that their values can be measured by one and the same special commodity, and the latter be converted into the common measure of their values, i.e., into money. Money as a measure of value, is the phenomenal form that must of necessity be assumed by that measure of value which is immanent in commodities, labour-time.

-Karl Marx, Capital

Bank of America’s Keep The Change program introduced an interesting innovation into the transaction point. While it’s been lauded for its use of behavioral economics theory in spurring its customers to save more, the program’s technical implementation suggests some interesting possibilities. In general, this program has expanded the fabric of the transaction surface for routing funds to savings by giving every purchase point the ability to apply a portion of the transaction total to a designated savings account. The number of nodes on this private network through which savings can occur is radically expanded.

While currently Keep The Change limits the funds routed through this method to the difference between the purchase price and the next whole dollar, there’s no reason that any amount couldn’t be routed through this same channel. Just as we can now use ATM/Debit cards to withdraw cash along with a purchase, this program already has the primitives in place to allow deposits anywhere a card is accepted. The limitation on this model is that transactions can only occur at official nodes of the private network.

The App Store application on the iPhone has had a similar effect in expanding the fabric of the transaction surface. Historically software was purchased in shrink-wrapped boxes from a retail store or via catalog mail order. Software delivered over the wire to the desktop expanded the transaction surface tremendously. The iPhone App Store radically expands the surface, it delivers software and completes transactions wirelessly to any location with signal. Two friends meet over coffee at a local cafe. They discuss their favorite new apps. While they talk, each purchases and downloads the new apps that tickled their fancy. And an “App” might be a game, a word processor, a social media client, a news media client, a book, a song, a musical instrument, a video of a baseball game or an application that let’s them broadcast live video and audio commentary from their table in the cafe.

Jack Dorsey’s new venture Square has the potential to build on the iPhone’s platform. While the App Store has defined the model for delivering digital goods and services, and is now being widely copied, Square potentially turns every iPhone into a node on the private credit card payment network. As a purchaser, it provides enhanced identity artifacts, and as a seller it simplifies access to the private electronic payment routing system. And while the specified accounts may start with credit cards, there’s no reason that regular bank or brokerage accounts, telecom accounts, cable television, or bandwidth accounts couldn’t be endpoints in the future. There’s a real potential for another radical expansion of the transaction surface.

Each of these innovations reduces the amount of friction on the transaction surface. The obstacles between the desire and the object of desire are removed. By activating the iPhone/iPod Touch as both a product delivery/consumption channel and a node on the electronic payment routing system, the fabric of the transaction surface gains 78 million new nodes. The small screen that you carry with you replaces the fixed screen wired to a specific location. And as this surface unfolds into the world around us, more and more transactions will be routed via electronic message. This stream of data has been largely represented as a transaction log, an audit trail. Services like Square will allow the attachment of a micro-message and photo/audio/video file to each side of the transaction and ultimately the ability to route an item to the private side of your stream management client. Need the receipt, the warranty, the assembly instructions, the nearest service center? It’s all there, in your lifestream.

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