World-Information City


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  The plastic card invasion

The plastic card invasion.

The tendency of modern data-driven economies is to structure economic activity in such a way that an increasing amount of data is generated. For example, the fact that only a few years ago few people in continental Europe used a credit card, and that now almost everybody who has a bank account also has a credit card, shows that payment by credit card is preferred to anonymous cash transaction. If somebody pays by credit card, there are computers that register the transaction. They record who paid what amount where, and for what purpose. This is valuable information. It allows businesses to "better know their customers". Credit card companies today belong to the largest data repositories anywhere. However, credit card companies have tried to introduce cash cards, or "electronic purses", plastic cards which can be used in lieu of cash in shops - a type of payment, that is not really catching on. In the small town of Ennis, Ireland's "information age town" a field test carried out by Visa, found that people are extremely reluctant to change their cash into bits. "It is just too modern", was the conclusion of an Ennis shopkeeper.

Credit cards may be the most common, but certainly not the only way in which an economic activity produces a data surplus. In the end, the data surplus generated by a credit card is limited to just a few indicators. The tendency of the data body industry is to collect as much data as possible from each single transaction. Therefore, a range of new plastic card applications is emerging.

Most big retailers or service industries, offer customer cards which reward customers with certain discounts or gifts when used frequently. However, the cost of these discounts is easily set off by the value consumer data that is generated each time a card is pulled through the magnetic reading device. Frequent-flyer cards are among the most common plastic data-collecting devices. Often such frequent-flyer cards are also credit cards, in which case travel and consumption data are already combined at the point of sale, creating further rationalisation of the process.

Electronic networks have created a general tendency to move to move marketing decisions to the point of sale, rather than locating them in central locations. This way, the marketing process becomes cheaper and more efficient for the company.

The ideal situation for the data body industry and for government bureaucracy would be a complete centralised storage and management of people's data, and a collection process the pass unnoticed and ensures that the data in question are always current. Many efforts in this direction have been undertaken. One of the most recent such projects is called the smart card. Also referred to as chip cards (because it operates not just with a magnetic stripe but also an computer chip) smart cards are multi-application "intelligent" plastic cards that carry a lot more than the usual information about its holder. For example, a smart card can carry details about right of access to facilities, credit information, social security, and electoral status all in one. Technically there are no limits to the type of information stored on smart cards. In principle it is possible to store an individual's entire data body on a card. Not surprisingly, smart card technologies have been most readily accepted in places with a lack of a privacy protection culture, such as the US, the UK, Spain, and some Latin American Countries.

The Irish town of Ennis, although striving to become "one of the technologically most advanced towns in the world" may have frustrated the expectations of the plastic card industry. Yet this is only a minute, if embarrassing, setback on the path towards global rationalisation of data collection. The economic benefits which the plastic card data collection technologies promises for retailers, E-commerce, marketing and bureaucracies all over the world have given rise to a wealth of research programmes, field tests, projects and government policies, all aimed at promoting the data body economy and adopting it as the business model of the future.

Links to plastic card trade associations:

Card Europe - Association for Smart Card and Related Industries

AIM - Global Trade Association for Automatic Identification and Data Collection

Card Forum

Smart Card Industry Association

Links to plastic card research programmes:

MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Ohio University

Pittsburgh University

Cranfield University

Links to publications:

Card Technology Magazine

Links to EU research programmes












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Data Bodies
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