While we rarely think of it in this way, the payment system we use every day is among the most widespread and functional examples of an Internet of Things. It is an array of objects embedded with chips, magnetic stripes, scanners, and touchpads. These things are coordinated through networking protocols used to move information and, ultimately, monetary value.
In payment systems, as flights of imagination get grounded in real infrastructures, interoperability has gone hand in hand with technological inertia. Payment systems have to work, and they have to work everywhere. When you swipe your credit card, it works. No matter where you are in the U.S., if you have money or credit in physical or electronic form, you can pay for stuff.
The payments industry that develops and markets these systems is big business. But it is difficult to measure, since it is made up of so many different kinds of companies: companies that manufacture the plastic cards that turn into credit cards, companies that build all kinds of card readers, database companies that sit behind the major card networks, specialized banks that sit behind payment service providers; and so on. Outside of the industry, people don’t tend to notice payment systems. Like all infrastructure, they think about payment systems only when they don’t work well, when a card is declined or someone starts writing a check at the front of the line at the grocery store. But every time we try to pay for something, small bits of value get transferred between actors in this network, invisibly.
Although it works pretty well most of the time, the payment system is far from uniform. It undermines any notion of linear technological progress. Payment technologies that were invented in the 1960s, like the credit card magnetic stripe, or the 1860s, like uniformly valued, nationally-based paper currency, exist alongside technologies that haven’t been fully invented yet, like Coin, an as-yet unreleased product that permits you to store payment information from multiple cards on one device. During the same day, you might have your card carbon-copied with a zip zap machine, hear modem noises coming from an ATM when you withdraw cash, use a smartphone app to pay for coffee, and be offered the opportunity to pay for a manicure in Bitcoin.