Impulse Buy

How instant purchases change the way we see the world.

Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images
Jeff Bezos presents Amazon’s Fire Phone, which turns the world into a store, on June 3, 2014, in Seattle.

Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images

When Amazon announced its new smartphone, the Fire Phone, in June, Jeff Bezos boasted about its image- and audio-identifying technology, Firefly. On stage he showed how Firefly could use the phone’s camera to scan a container of Nutella and prompt the user to immediately buy it on Amazon. Which, of course, will have her payment information conveniently stored.

Firefly suggests that almost every object Fire Phone users see or song they hear would soon be theirs to own, with only a split second between the moment of desire and the purchase. Baidu Eye, a recently announced prototype Google Glass-style device from the Chinese search giant, shares a similar feature. The glasses can recognize items—mostly clothes and bags—from a giant image database, and then show the wearer how to buy the item on his handheld device. Add to this the barcode-scanning abilities of retailer apps like Walmart’s, combined with coming payment platforms such as Apple Pay, and the plastic in your wallet may soon be as archaic as the rai stone.

New mobile retail and payment technologies have the potential to change how we make transactions—making the act of purchasing everything from groceries to sneakers effortless and arguably more secure from hacks like those recently at Home Depot and Target. Consumers are meant to desire this level of convenience of consumption, or, at least, Amazon thought so. But the phone’s sales have reportedly been lackluster (perhaps because it’s pricey and the hardware isn’t particularly exciting), and according to Jan Dawson, founder of Jackdaw Research, the Firefly feature is particularly unpersuasive: “It was obvious why it was good for Amazon, but it’s never been clear why it’s good for the customer,” he told me.

Of course Amazon and Baidu hope you’ll buy more, but these technologies offer another obvious benefit—data. Richard Crone, head of electronic payment advisers Crone Consulting, said that from the retailer’s perspective, “the one who enrolls is the one who controls.” That is, once the retailer has the customer enrolled in its platform or app, that customer becomes contactable. His habits are recorded and shopping personalized. It can send him incentives and marketing. Crone suggested that a mobile shopping app, combined with a payment system like Amazon’s 1-Click checkout, could generate significant advertising income—as much as $300 a year per active user, he estimates.

Clearly, that’s good for a business. But is such frictionless consumption good for the rest of us? Beyond the privacy implications of telling companies so much about our habits, the ability to make purchases so easily, anywhere, anytime, is not particularly healthy for our state of mind or for our wallet.

Elizabeth Dunn, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia and author, with Michael Norton, of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, told me that there are a lot of open questions about how this new technology will shape consumption: “All we can look at is what we know about existing technology, and what we know is the more you numb the pain of spending, the more people are likely to spend.”

Dunn told me that paying a high price for an item provokes a feeling of pain not altogether different from physical hurt. But that pain is lessened when people pay with a credit card, an “anesthetic against the immediate pain of paying,” because it doesn’t feel like you’re handing over hard-earned cash.

“The more you disconnect spending from physical spending, also known as ‘decoupling,’ the more you’re likely to spend,” said Eric Johnson, professor of business at Columbia University. Think of casinos using chips or Club Med using bead-necklace drink tokens. “If I’m taking cash out of my wallet, I’m keeping track of what I’m spending, but when I use a credit card, I don’t post those transactions until the end of the month when the bill hits, and the same with Apple Pay.”

In a study Dunn and Norton recount in their book, MBA students were asked to bid on tickets for a sold-out sports event. Those who paid in cash bid an average of $28, while those who used credit cards bid an average of $60. You can see this study writ large across the United States: The average household has a credit card balance of $6,802, according to MarketWatch, and one in 10 working Americans between 35 and 44 has his wages garnished to pay off consumer debt, including old credit card bills. These numbers are due to many factors, not least the wider availability of credit and the economic downturn. Yet we are living beyond our means in a way that could be exacerbated by increasingly effortless means of consumption.

There may even be a difference in satisfaction as the result of buying things with so little friction. As Dunn said, “Most technology pushes us to consume now, but a lot of principles of happiness conspire to make the opposite strategy better.” Although mobile retail makes buying instantly an easy option, we’re happier when we delay consumption, Dunn and Norton suggest in their book. Even Hershey’s Kisses taste better when we’re made to wait for them, they write. Not to mention, studies show that we gain more happiness from buying experiences, like trips and cooking classes, than from material purchases.

Beyond encouraging overspending, these platforms may have a more cunning effect. When your phone encourages you to make up shopping lists of items you encounter daily, it may be difficult not to begin to see the world as made of readily consumable items. Scott Huettel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, told me that if you give people the opportunity to see the world this way, they’re going to. “Let’s say you hear a song playing and have the app. That converts a situation that isn’t a decision and makes it a consumption decision. … Effectively, an app like this takes something you’re just experiencing and makes a value comparison,” he said. “It may have once been just a book that you’d enjoy reading, and now it’s something you’re able to purchase.”

Firefly and Baidu Eye may not end up being the winners of this mobile payment and retail technology arms race, but companies with stuff to sell are going to exploit your phone’s capabilities. The good news is that we have the chance to build apps and platforms that encourage smarter spending. If I could see my real-time bank balance next to the Amazon 1-Click button, I might make a lot fewer late-night, red wine-fueled purchases, for example. Dunn agreed: “Make it visually evocative to see how much money you’re spending so that it’s a fair fight.”

Huettel told me that pre-commitment is the most effective curb on spending. “Making the decision not to make a decision,” he said. “One simple thing you could do [on these apps] is add a waiting period, but of course, that’s an anathema to the developer.”

It’s not hard to imagine the dystopian extreme of Firefly or Baidu Eye. Take Frederik Pohl’s short science fiction story The Midas Plague. In Pohl’s future, the poor must frantically work to fulfill a large monthly quotient of shopping and consumption, while the rich are free to live simple, bucolic lives. Like his hero, Morey, we may soon all be a “blessed economic-consuming unit, drowning in the pipeline’s flood, striving manfully to eat and drink and wear and wear out his share of the ceaseless tide of wealth.” Before we get there, we should not be so blinded by the convenience offered by these technologies that we become shortsighted machines of consumption ourselves.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.