The dash from cash doesn’t just contribute to social exclusion, it plays into the hands of unaccountable corporations
How convenient. The decline of cash and the rise of electronic payments makes life so much simpler: no more rooting around in purses and wallets for slippery notes and clunky coins, no awkward change bulking out our pockets. These days, whether by card or app or phone, the once-grubby business of money changing hands is all so clean and neat and quick and easy.
How convenient, indeed. The problem, though, is that it is also convenient for all the wrong people, for all the wrong reasons. And our blithe drift towards becoming a cashless society is coming at a cost.
A new study has now found that “17% of the UK population – over 8 million adults – would struggle to cope in a cashless society”. Some of our most vulnerable people are being left behind in this dash from cash. The assumption that everyone is confident with electronic payments is proving crass, elitist and dangerous. The closing of bank branches, the removal of ATMs, the migration of services from physical buildings to remote digital spaces: all are common facets of modern life, all are alienating in different ways, and all are viable only if cash is consigned to history. Under the guise of progress, a whole swath of economic, political and commercial thought and practice is racing ahead of a significant chunk of the nation. As the report says, Britain is just not ready.
But this is not just the usual story of one technology usurping another, in the way that DVDs made videotapes obsolete. Something vastly more profound is afoot. Yes, paying by card is often simply preferable for everyone involved: for the purchaser, who can spend instantly, and for the vendor, who aside from anything else is saved the laborious process of cashing up. And some may say that we’re safer when not carrying cash; a stolen bank card can be cancelled, a tenner cannot. But there are plentiful and not always benevolent reasons why banks and various other corporate interests are keen to push us away from notes and coins.
The most obvious is that we spend much more when we don’t use cash. When money loses its physicality, it’s just a set of numbers. It becomes abstract; there’s an estrangement between us and it. Our spending is not limited by the amount we have upon our person. With household debt at record levels, one possible mechanism for control and restraint – and one advocated by the charity Christians Against Poverty – is disappearing. There are of course many causes of debt – the cost of living rising while wages stagnate among them – but it is fair to say that efforts to ameliorate it are not necessarily helped by going cashless.
And it goes deeper still. At its most basic, cash requires no opaque software. It involves no computer systems. Payments by any other method are subject to an ever more elaborate, sophisticated and intrusive apparatus of surveillance. Cash transactions are between you and the vendor; anything else invites invisible and unaccountable corporations into the deal. Our spending becomes easily tracked and mined for data. And it’s not just about using cards and phones: a supermarket has encouraged customers to pay using fingerprints, while branches of KFC have tried to get people to pay by smiling. You don’t have to be a paranoid luddite to find alternatives to cash at least a little creepy.
The drive towards a cashless society is just one of the ways in which convenience is being weaponised. Having made parts of our lives that bit easier, corporations now have detailed information about what we look like, what we find entertaining, where we travel, who we’re communicating with, what we buy, where we buy it from, what we eat. It’s as if we’re living in a virtual panopticon – and one we’ve helped to build. Public space is disappearing, but so is truly private space. What space then is left for humanity?
It is difficult to argue in rational terms against convenience; I am as prone as anyone to wafting a bit of plastic in front of a beeping device to save the hassle of getting out some cash. But even the apparent freedom of a cashless world is questionable: it is freedom within a system few of us really understand, a system which incidentally is susceptible to failure. When one is trying to avoid sounding unduly apocalyptic it is generally unwise to quote from the Book of Revelation, but there is surely something chilling in its vision of a world where the simple human practice of buying and selling becomes possible only if authorised by a nefarious entity.
Cash is old-fashioned, sometimes awkward, and often not there when we want it to be. But it also feels increasingly like resistance. Its use is inconvenient – for corporations and governments. So let’s use it more.