A cashless society seems convenient, but it has severe drawbacks, especially for the least privileged in society: cashless transactions exclude the homeless and card-less; they have been shown to lead to increased spending; they obscure the real price of purchases behind hidden fees; and they enable the pervasive and uncontrolled surveillance of citizens by both private companies and state authorities.
The promise of a cashless life
Last Thursday, like most Thursdays, I met my friend Chris at our local coffee chain. We bypassed the long line of waiting people because we had ordered in advance using the shop’s app. We scanned our phones, grabbed our cups, and sat down.
“Look at them,” Chris said, nodding towards the queue. They hadn’t moved since we had entered the shop. “Poor souls. I wonder why they don’t use the app.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Everybody should use it.”
We were used to the newest tech. Chris is a full-stack software developer and we both were early adopters of whatever gadget shone brightest at the moment. Many turned out to be disappointments after you used them for a while, but the cashless promise had paid off for us. For years before the cards came up, my pants had been bloated with coins, and I’d have to regularly change the lining of my pockets when it disintegrated. I’d have jars of the stuff at home, worth almost nothing, yet taking up valuable shelf space in my small flat. And since I’d read an article about germs on money, I’d wash my hands every time someone gave me a bill, imagining what creep had touched that piece of paper before, and where they’d had their hands before that. I always had a vivid imagination, you see.
“And the criminals,” Chris said. “Transaction without any controls. Imagine that. Drugs. Guns. And all because of cash. Untraceable.”
I nodded and we enjoyed our lattes. I thought of the Douglas Adams story in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where they send a spaceship full of accountants to crash on an uninhabited planet. The accountants soon declare the ubiquitous leaves of the alien trees to be their new money, creating a runaway inflation as the leaves fall in autumn and everyone has their pockets full of them. Then they have the great idea to burn down all the trees to create a scarcity of leaves and stabilize the value of their currency. Madness? Well, it wouldn’t happen with my coffee shop card.
As with most technologies, the problems are usually not about the technology itself, but about us, the human beings who have to use it.
But ours would be a strange universe if the international finance world did something just to make life easier for me. If this coffee card thing works so well, what’s in it for those who make it work? And why would they bother?
As with most technologies, the problems are usually not about the technology itself, but about us, the human beings who have to use it. Why does my coffee chain try so hard to make me use their card?
A comprehensive overview of Erich Fromm’s philosophy of happiness. We discuss his life, his ideas and his main works, both in their historical context and how they are still relevant for us today.
The hidden consequences of a cashless society
Well, for one, using the card I forget how much I’ve spent. With a bunch of bills in my pocket, I know how many I had when I left the house in the morning, and I can see them going one by one out of my hand. The card, on the other hand, has some abstract amount of money: 100 dollars, 150. I don’t even know how much. When some gets deducted, I trust that it’s okay. I seldom look at the display to see how much I paid, or what’s left on the card, and the displays are made intentionally confusing, to hide that information.
The other thing is that the poor don’t have cards. The ideal world of businessmen is one in which no poor people hang around their shops, endlessly sipping on one small coffee, or, even worse, beg for money in front of the entrance, scaring away the paying folk. Cashless cards take care of that. No beggar will be able to get anything out of a cashless customer. And no one without a good enough credit score will, in the ideal future, be able to block a table for hours, paying almost nothing.
Why does my coffee chain try so hard to make me use their card?
The banks, on the other hand, get a cut of every purchase, in addition to a whole zoo of related fees for one’s account, for the gold or platinum credit card, for every late payment. The data on the card allows the bank to tailor their ads, the coffee shop to optimize their stock, offering more unhealthy options (because that’s what cardholders tend to prefer, see above) and cutting off the healthy ones, all based on the real science of big data.
And, finally, dictatorships and surveillance states can easily reconstruct a citizen’s whole day from the data on the card. Movements with public transport, taxi and Uber trips, stops at fuel stations, shopping habits, and even friendships (two card numbers always appearing together in a coffee shop on Thursday afternoons) — one’s whole life is mapped out on one’s cashless payment cards. And before you say that this does not affect you, almost every country nowadays is a surveillance state.
I looked up. Chris was lost in thought too, looking at the sunshine outside, the park, in which people were sitting on the grass, cardless, free of payments, healthy, happy.
“Maybe we should meet over there next time,” he said.
“I’ll bring some cash,” he said.
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Thanks for reading! How do you feel about cash? Leave a comment below!