How much convenience is too much?

The latest issue of Time magazine has an interesting story about how the surging popularity of the mobile wallet — a smart phone that also acts as credit card, checkbook and shopping bot — is fast putting the good old currency note out of use. The mobile wallet industry, says the report, is expected to be worth $12.5 billion this year and will change shopping habits like never before.

What this means is that you soon won't have to log on to your computer, leave alone reaching for the wallet, to make purchases: just by pressing a few keys of your mobile phone you will be able to buy everything under the sun — from a pizza to a holiday in France. Google has already launched Google Wallet, while Apple is likely to follow suit — the race has already begun among the various giants who rule the virtual world to empower the consumer's mobile phone.

This was expected. It's only a matter of time before the mobile wallet revolution sweeps through India; things are already moving in that direction — now you can buy railway tickets with your mobile.

So is this good news — the mobile wallet? Of course it is. When you want everything to be quick these days, considering you hardly have the time, why stand in queue or wait for the waiter to pay the bill? There have been countless occasions when I left behind books I intended to purchase at Landmark bookstore just because the queues were long. You spend 10 minutes to pick up the books you want, but 20 minutes to pay the bill — it makes no sense. Then the supermarkets: on the way back from work, after a long tiring day, you stop by to pick up bread and eggs but find yourself standing behind people who seem to be grocery-shopping for the whole year. You gnash your teeth as the cashier picks one item at a time from the mountain of their purchases and shows the barcode to the reader — oh, the unending beeps! How simple life would be if you could wave your phone at the reader and just walk out with your purchases.

Two things, however, worry me. One is the increasing importance of the mobile phone. It's soon going to be the monster that will take charge of our lives: we may be the ones to press the keys, but in reality it will hold the keys to our life. It has already usurped the roles of the watch, the clock, the address book, the camera, the radio, the walkman, the computer — apart from robbing your peace of mind. How much more dependent on it are you going to be — up to a point that your world comes crashing if you accidentally drop the mobile into the toilet?

The other worry is that we will end up spending needlessly and be broke most of the time. Long gone are the days when we got our salaries — in hard cash — in envelopes: the thicker the bundle, the higher your designation. Today you never get to see the cash. An SMS alert tells you that your salary has been credited, after which the credit/debit card takes over. If you got your entire salary in cash, and you touched and felt the bundle, you'd have realised how hard-earned it is. The use of a plastic card frees us from the guilt of spending.

To give my example: on New Year's eve, finding myself all alone in the city and with no party to look forward to, I decided to cheer myself up with a visit to Express Avenue. There, in a span of two hours, I bought myself two pairs of jeans, two shirts, one T-shirt, one aftershave and finally had a haircut at Toni & Guy (also bought a shampoo from them). I didn't need any of these things, but my credit card was itching to be swiped. I wanted to feel good.

Back home, I realised I had spent almost Rs. 15,000 on extravagance. Now, if I had that amount in hard cash in my wallet, do you think I would have spent it all? Or spent at all? No. My heart would have bled.