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Big Idea 2015: The Coming Micropayment Disruption

Dec 22, 2014
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Walter Isaacson is the author of “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.” Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, has also been chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine.

The innovation that will shape the coming year, I think, will be the consumer use of digital currencies, such as bitcoin and its derivatives. Companies such as ChangeTip, BitWall, BitPay, and Coinbase – as well as other digital wallets that make use of cyber currencies or loyalty-points/miles currencies – will empower creators and consumers of content and wrest some power from the Amazons, Alibabas, and Apples. This will upend our current kludgy financial system and ignite an explosion of disruptive innovation.

Our current way of handling small transactions is a brain-dead anachronism. Even Apple Pay and other NFC systems, alas, require that payments go through the current banking and credit card systems. This adds transaction costs, both financial and mental, that make small impulse payments less feasible, especially for digital content online.

Likewise, instantly transferring money to friends, even those who have PayPal or Popmoney accounts, is more difficult than it should be. That’s why I have become addicted to my Akimbo card, which makes instant money transfers from my phone to friends and workers simple, and why I have invested in it and other disruptive money-transfer mechanisms.

An easy micropayment system for digital content could help save journalism. At the moment, most news sites are either beholden to advertisers or force readers to buy a subscription. Digital coins would add another option: people could click and pay a few pennies for an article. Frictionless coin systems that allowed us to buy digital content on impulse would support journalists who want to cater to their readers rather than just to advertisers. It would encourage news sites to produce content that is truly valued by users rather than churn out clickbait that aggregates eyeballs for advertisers

In my new book, The Innovators, I report on how the creators of the web envisioned protocols that would allow digital payments, and I argue that this would benefit individual artists, writers, bloggers, game-makers, musicians, and entrepreneurs. Ever since the British parliament passed the Statute of Anne four hundred years ago, people who created cool songs, plays, writings, and art had a right to get paid when copies were made of them. A flourishing cultural economy ensued. Likewise, easy digital payments will enable a new economy for those who sell such creations online.

A flourishing digital economy based on easy payments might also encourage the invention of new forms of media: collaboratively created role-playing games, interactive online plays and novels, and new ways to combine art and music and narrative.

In addition, it would expand the realm of crowdsourcing. At the moment, people make additions to Wikipedia or improvements to Linux out of the joy of contributing. That’s cool. But imagine a world in which non-fiction books, in-depth reporting, and various other creations could be done collaboratively, with a digital micropayment system that divvied up the revenues based on the use of each person’s contributions. I would love to curate the crowdsourced writing of a book this way.

That’s why I believe that digital currencies and micropayments are likely to be the disruptive innovation of 2015. Then we can move on to the big disruption of 2016, which will be breaking the stranglehold that monopolistic cable companies have over the way content is bundled and distributed for our televisions, so that we pay for only what we want, from wherever we want, and watch it when we want.

This Influencer post originally appeared on LinkedIn. Walter Isaacson shares his thoughts as part of LinkedIn’s Influencer series, “Big Ideas 2015” in which the brightest minds in business blog on LinkedIn about their predictions on ideas and trends that will shape 2015. LinkedIn Editor Amy Chen provides an overview of the 70+ Influencers that tackled this subject as part of the package. Follow Walter Isaacson and insights from other top minds in business on LinkedIn.


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