Reflections on Digital Photos and Digital Money (With a Little Blockchain Thrown In)

Ignacio Mas ponders how benefits of digital money can be made as apparent as those of digital photography.

Adam Cohn / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Remember back when taking photos was a little indulgence, before the camera was with you all the time, and before it became essentially free to take photos?

Our behaviors and ethics around photography have changed because of the smart phone. We used to look left and right for passersby before taking a photograph, but now few bother with that nicety; you´ll just take another one if someone walks in front. That´s a simple response to shifted incentives.

Another thing you’d expect to happen with the new ease of taking photos is that interest in them would tend to fade. We´d find it too easy, we’d have too many of them. But that didn’t happen, in fact quite the opposite: the cheaper and more plentiful, the more photos people seemed to take. People now take selfies in suburban trains.

Scarcity principles do not seem to apply here. Why is that?

Personal photography has always been about manufacturing memories. When you take photographs on a trip, that´s what you are choosing to remember your holiday by. In the same way that the blockchain represents the construction of an indelible transaction history, with photos you are fixing an image-chain of memories.

But where does the image-chain reside?

Not in a hard drive or a memory stick. Memories are experiences you relive in the telling, not in the storing. Stretching the analogy a bit, your image-chain lives in your social network of friends, just as the blockchain lives in a peer network of computer nodes. Others must validate the history you are creating – with money and with memories.

And that is why the business of personal digital photography has exploded, despite the abolition of scarcity. At the same time as digital has allowed us to take pictures more easily, it has also allowed us to spread our social networks more broadly. And that’s what motivates us to take selfies.

The phenomenal success of digital photography is because it is connected with our other digital experiences, and in particular social networking.

Now let´s draw the analogy with digital money (of the traditional, non-crypto kind).

We want to lead people into a form of money that we tell them is better than cash. But it is often hard to make that case on a head-to-head feature comparison. From the perspective of someone who has always managed his business in cash, how do you trade off digital money´s benefits in terms of security, traceability, immediacy and distance invariance, against cash´s benefits in terms of familiarity, ease of use, cost, reliability, probability of acceptance, privacy, and electricity independence?

The answer is by linking digital money to broader benefits.

Think again about the runaway success of digital photography. Few got into selfies because digital cameras produce better pictures. In fact, the new digital cameras people took to so readily were often worse than the analog cameras they displaced. It was the ease of sharing photos through social networks that drove the interest in taking selfies anytime, anywhere, in a ready digital format.

It´s the same story with the Kindle e-book reader. I too prefer the printed book to the same book on a Kindle. But I prefer having instant access to any book on my Kindle, to having that one printed book. Oh, and by the way, there’s a reading light and an adjustable magnifying glass thrown in as well.

It will be the same thing with money. Few will get into digital money because they find it to be a better way to pay for half a kilo of rice at the corner shop. But they would get into digital money if you convinced them that it is a better way to, for instance, control their finances.

And by getting into digital money, I really mean into and not out. Wanting to keep money in digital form once you receive it, as opposed to the widespread current practice of cashing out upon receiving digital money, immediately and in full. In the same way that digital photos may once have been printed out, but no longer: they mostly remain in their pure digital state. So I´m talking about digitizing money, not just the odd remote payment.

Digital photography is powerful because it captures the stories you tell yourself and others about your past – your past holiday, for instance. It´s a tool to control your past. Saint Augustine referred to this as the present of the past: your present idea of what the past was.

Digital money ought to capture the stories you tell yourself and others about your future. In so doing, it would give you a sense of influence over your future. The immediate future of how you will get by the next round of bills, the further out future of how you will get out of your current economic strictures, and maybe also the longer-term future of how your children will have a better life that you did. It is the present of the future, in Saint Augustine´s terms: your present idea of what the future holds, and how much influence you will have in determining that.

You might find this esoteric and far afield from financial inclusion. It is not. Just put two thoughts together. First, people frequently manage their money by separating it out and ascribing a different story to each type of money depending on its source, destination, time horizon, moral import, savings vehicle, etc. Is that not what budgeting is all about? Second, digital technologies have a proven track record in creating not only virtual realities, but hyper-realities. Do people not feel that the hyperactive, hyper-happy, hyper-virtuous image they project on Facebook and Pinterest is more real than their real, limited self?

The question is of course how we build such a digital money system. Much research and experimentation will need to go in this direction.

Just to leave you with a kernel of a suggestion of how this might be at all possible, and to link back to the topic of digital photography where we began: how about if, within your mobile wallet application, you could set some money aside by taking a picture of your kids, or your house, or some friends, or whatever motivated your thought of creating a new type of money? Your money app is then a collection of pictures, which tug at emotions, which invite stories, which trigger actions, which pull money, which reinforce emotions… When you look at the app you should see reflected what is in your head, not what others think you should be doing with your money.

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