Sean Moncrieff: Are we losing more than just cash in a cashless society?

People such a trend leaves behind are most vulnerable – the low waged or the no waged

Old-fashioned pocket money was how kids learned how much things were worth. They knew how much they had by looking in their pockets

Old-fashioned pocket money was how kids learned how much things were worth. They knew how much they had by looking in their pockets

 

Back at the start of the pandemic, you’ll remember how we were all transformed into Lady Macbeths; compulsively washing our hands and wiping down every surface.

Shops stopped accepting cash; not that there that were many shops open. I set up a Revolut account for when the offspring wanted to ‘borrow’ money. I haven’t carried cash since.

It didn’t change things for me that much. Except I stopped tipping food delivery people or giving money to homeless people; the low-waged and the no-waged. Thanks, Sean.

The cashless society has been predicted for many years: a Brave New World where we would be relieved of a terrible burden that we didn’t know was a terrible burden. It would be quick, convenient and much better for our posture once we didn’t have to carry around those massive sacks of gold doubloons.

Some of this is true. It is easier (for the kids) to siphon money out of me now that I can’t use the “I’ve no cash on me” excuse. It’s less hassle and safer for shops and various businesses not to have to handle physical cash. With no cash, a stolen wallet is more likely to be an inconvenience rather than a financial catastrophe.

Your ordinary mugger would be put out of business, but for your well-educated hacker, this would be a new and exciting challenge. The banks would be stuffed with all that tempting digital money, along with the records of every financial transaction any of us have ever made, information that we might not have wanted to surrender, but had little choice about.

The banks, naturally, will do their level best to keep it all secure, but it seems as if nowhere is impregnable.

The disappearance of cash would also seem to erode the idea of national currencies. At the moment, you can’t just print up your own money and bring it to Tesco, but in the digital realm, something like that is already happening.

The likes of Bitcoin seems to generate cult-like devotion, and cryptocurrencies are proliferating so much, Amazon might start accepting it as payment. Facebook is reported to be developing its own version. To stay relevant, some central banks are experimenting with digital versions of their currencies.

I’m completely unqualified to speculate as to where any of this will lead – and I greatly look forward to people on Twitter telling me I don’t know what I’m talking about. But the prospect of having to use Facebook dollars emblazoned with Mark Zuckerberg’s head fills me with unease.

Pocket money

So too does the idea of a generation growing up in such a world. Old-fashioned pocket money was how kids learned how much things were worth. They knew how much they had by looking in their pockets. In the future, that might require giving your eight-year-old a smartphone. Or having the crypto Zuckerchip implanted into their brains.

As usual, the people such a trend leaves behind are the most vulnerable. The low waged or the no waged. In Ireland, there are close to 200,000 people who are ‘unbanked’. The figure is in the tens of millions in the EU.

The people who queue at the Post Office for their social welfare payment in cash may find that over time there are fewer and fewer places to spend that money.

But it’s difficult to resist the enthusiasm of the banks and the card payment companies. Cash is a drain on the bottom line. In the Nirvana of a cashless society, there will be no need to spend money on stupid stuff like ATMs or bank branches. Or employees. And once we achieve cashlessness, it becomes almost impossible to reverse. We’ll be completely dependent on banks – private companies – to handle the money we own.

Listen to me being a cranky old Luddite. Banks are wonderful. Nothing bad has ever happened from our society being overreliant on the private banking sector . . .. That’s a great comfort.

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