I’m standing at the counter of a Vietnamese restaurant in Berkeley, ordering a pork bun. There was a time when I knew exactly what would happen next. I’d hand over my card, the cashier would swipe it, a little receipt would curl out of a machine, I’d sign it, and I’d crumple the bottom copy into a pocket. Easy.
Now all kinds of things can happen. I might stick my card directly into a point-of-sale (POS) system. Maybe I swipe; maybe the cashier does. Perhaps a screen is swiveled at me. I could enter my PIN on a little purpose-built machine; I could sign with my finger on a screen; I could not have to sign or enter a PIN at all. I could tap my phone on a terminal to pay. Usually, there’s a chip reader for my no-longer-new chip card. When I put the card in one of the machines, sometimes it takes four seconds; other times, I have time to pull out my phone and stare at it, which means I forget about the card until the reader begins to beep at me, at which point I pull it out, mildly flustered, as if I’d caused too much ice to pour out of a soda fountain. Ah! Okay. Sorry.
The act of paying for stuff is undergoing a great transformation. The networks of machines and code that let you move your imaginary money from your bank account to a merchant are changing—the gadget that takes your card, the computer that tracks a restaurant or store’s inventory, the cards themselves (or their dematerialized abstractions inside your phone). But all this newness must remain compatible with systems that were designed 50 years ago, at the dawn of the credit-card age. This combination of old and new systems, janky and hacky and functional, is the standard state of affairs for technology, despite the many myths about how the world changes in vast leaps and revolutions.