Practically every society or culture has a folktale with the underlying moral warning: Be careful what you wish for, because the reality may not be quite what you anticipated. In a modern policy context in which decision makers can exercise their manifest powers to turn wishes into reality, the warning can be interpreted as follows: Beware of unexpected consequences when turning apparently great policies into binding legislative obligations.
I was reminded of this wise warning earlier this week when visiting my local pub for a drink, “newly liberated” under New Zealand’s COVID-19 traffic light system. On December 2, the traffic light replaced the infamous lockdowns that have subjected New Zealand citizens to some of the most stringent restrictions in the world — particularly during the delta variant’s outbreak.
Core to the traffic light system’s functioning are requirements for individuals to use a range of smartphone applications (or some manual counterparts) to undertake a wide range of activities. For example, it is mandatory to use the QR code–based NZ COVID Tracer (NZCT) when entering any shop, business, meeting venue, public transport, taxi, or Uber — or complete a paper record. QR code–based vaccination certificates (either paper- or smartphone-based) must be presented for scanning when entering a wide range of businesses, services, or events (the exceptions being “essential services” — predominantly supermarkets, pharmacies, health centers, and public transport).
Smartphone-based apps constitute the core of these new regulatory arrangements. This is largely because of the wish from the 1990s that in a digitally-enabled world, a wide range of disparate activities could converge onto one universal and ubiquitous device, freeing individuals from the requirement to carry a plethora of paraphernalia such as keys to access certain locations, separate licenses and permits to prove one’s identity and right to participate in society, cash to pay for purchases, and so forth. In the 21st century, the smartphone has emerged as this universal and ubiquitous device. The original wish was that digital convergence onto this single device would prove to be much more convenient than the “old world” of a dedicated device for each activity.
My trip to the pub made me question whether ubiquitous smartphone apps are indeed more convenient than the alternatives, especially when they become passports for participation in a growing number of activities.
For my pub visit, I had to take the train. Out came the smartphone to “tag on.” Next came NZCT to scan the QR code before being able to select and settle into a seat. (All of this could have caused a real bottleneck during rush hour.) Leaving the train meant fiddling with the phone again to “tag off.” Anticipating this, I had taken the opportunity in advance to select the appropriate app while in transit. But had I not, I could envisage yet another bottleneck forming at the tagging point.
Next came actually entering the pub and getting a drink. First, NZCT had to be activated to get in the door. Just inside was the newly hired bouncer, charged with scanning my vaccine certificate QR code. The fiddling to find this one was somewhat protracted because it was the first time I had needed to use it. You guessed it — yet another bottleneck formed at the door. Fortunately, my more dexterous companion was quite forgiving; after all, it was my turn to pay for the drinks. The drinks duly ordered, out came the phone again to pay. All should be well, one might think, until the app refused to make the payment because the mask I had been required to wear for the entire journey (and inside the pub unless I was actively drinking) interfered with the phone’s facial recognition required to authorize payment. Yet another delay for other patrons as I removed the mask, repeated the payment, replaced the mask, collected the drinks, and moved away from the counter to join my companion at the table. I could then finally remove the mask, pocket the phone, and begin enjoying the social encounter.
My pub visit highlighted that intuitively, utilizing a device that most people carry to facilitate a new function appears to be a good idea. When the functions required are few or infrequent (e.g., scanning a mobile plane boarding pass or producing a digital driver’s license to confirm identity), there are conveniences from having all documentation in one place. But as the number of uses and frequency of use increase, each new app creates exponentially increasing externalities — in respect to both other applications and the other users of the required applications. The costs of these externalities may not be trivial, as the actual and potential bottlenecks associated with my pub visit bear testimony. Policymakers and businesses should bear this in mind when tying smartphone apps to accessing goods and services. No app exists in isolation, and externalities are frequently the reason for unexpected consequences.