“We’re cashless,” the shiny glass door of the cafe reveals the sign that I frequently visit. The icon predicts a glossy list of Covid-19 steps taped next to it, but together they represent a combined declaration of touchless functionality – a promise to experience a consumer space with public space, social interaction and extreme convenience and cleanliness. Although the aim of the Cashless Coffee Shop is to eliminate all friction, it reproduces more weighty social barriers and inequalities.
For individuals and communities, transactional technologies ડિ digital wallets, mobile payments and the like-can increase their decision-making autonomy, their flexibility and resilience in times of crisis, and their ability to fight victims, exploitation and humiliation. Confidence in this technology builds capacity for long-term planning and construction ત્તિ wealth, infrastructure, the foundation of prosperity for future generations તેમજ as well as capacity for experimentation and risk. Of course, the result is also true: malicious versions of these tools can rob communities and individuals of their agency.
Cash is one of the best transactional tools we’ve ever explored to enhance community and individual autonomy. It offers many affordances
Prove difficult to copy. No one’s signature is required to spend cash. It doesn’t specify where you can spend it, or what. It’s anonymous: you don’t need to know who you are to spend. It does not generate any data about your transactions for third parties. It deals free of charge for the payer or borrower. You know how much you have: it can’t be fixed on the tune by an opaque third-party payment processor in your account, or reversed by a scammer, or picked up by a fee until you tip overdraft without realizing it can not. It does not rely on many layers of brittle infrastructure, both hardware and software, to operate in a sales space.
What happens if cash is lost?
There are some lessons from history that are worth noting. Cash – defined as a universal, public, printed financial medium – is a relatively new technological and political achievement. Historically, money has often been private and plural. In the United States, the currency issued by the state after the Civil War was not fully unified. Previously, foreign currency, private banknotes and scrap produced by railroads, insurance, companies and other private businesses circulated with currencies issued by the US Treasury.
This financial cocofoni meant that significant street smarts were needed for everyday expenses. The bill may have come from a failed or fictitious bank or may be a counterfeit copy of a note from a working, real bank. Bills that were accepted at face value in one city may have been accepted at a lower cost in another city. Involved in navigating the chaotic, complex financial media environment in everyday life.
The chaotic situation also created high-level transactional communities. While the rich used redeemable notes issued by fixed banks and letters of credit and bullion, the poor were more likely to use low-value bronze or copper “patty coins” or devalued banknotes.
The future of transactional media may look something like its past. An industry consultant once told me that “in the future cash will be the ‘C word’, people don’t use anything nice.” Indeed, the future is likely to be cash-lite instead of completely cashless. Those who are only cash-strapped will deal with unequal terms.
Today, cash is a universal, print technology-mass media format. But there are major drawbacks. Cash can be lost, destroyed, stolen. Most importantly, perhaps, it cannot be spent online, and so it does not move at the pace of the rest of our conversational life.
We do not yet know the shape of tomorrow’s transactional media or the terrain of its practical communities. We can work to curb money that works like today’s social media platforms: privatization and root in data-driven business models.
In the cryptocurrency community, I often say, “If cash were to be discovered today, it would be illegal.” The point here is that cash is low value, difficult to censor and difficult to survey. At a time when almost all of our communications, practically or otherwise, are channeled through monopolistic and control platforms that collect rent in the form of fees, data or both, it is difficult to argue with this thinking.
At the same time, we need to ensure that new forms of money are reliable and stable in value, which is proving difficult for cryptocurrency to achieve. For all its unique capabilities as a transactional medium, cash અને and whatever its digital heirs-must be stable in value to function well.
So as I pay for my Cortado, I see that “we’re cashless” sign in the researcher’s eye. The stakes are high. We are empowered or disabled by the tools of the transaction we have access to. As we envision money for the Internet age, the big question is how to design payment media in the public interest. We need something that makes all things cash well – as well as things that don’t make cash.
Lana Schwartz is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and New Money: How Payment Became Social Media.
To support MIT Technology Review journalism, please consider becoming a subscriber..