Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Cashless Society: Buddy Can You Spare Me A Card-Swipe

The cover story of a recent Economist had as its headline "The end of the cash era." The illustration was terrific - dinosaurs made out of coins, pterodactyls made out of dollar bills. 

It's not just charge cards and smart cards we're talking here, either. The article led off by noting that a some hot clubs, you can only get in if you've purchased your admission's ticket using your cell phone. It went on to note that mobile phone payments for everything from groceries to railway tickets are forecast to grow by more than an order of magnitude in the next year. (From $3.2B to $37B according to an Arthur D. Little survey The Economist cited.)

Here I was thinking I've gone tech by finally getting around to paying most of my bills online when I should really be just text messaging my payments in.

Of course, I have noticed that "the young folks" are using smart cards or debit cards or whatever for small spends. What we used to call in the Jurassic credit card era a "cash transaction." Who would have thought that it was just too much effort to carry enough cash to buy a roll of LifeSavers or a honey-glazed donut at Dunkin's?

Even an old dinosaur like me is doing some smart-carding. My Charlie Card smart card for use on Boston's subway. My FastLane pass that takes me from Boston to Syracuse without having to roll down my window and hand the toll-taker my money. The card I wave at Cosi when I pick up a Signature Salad for lunch.

Will all cash uses go the way of the dodo bird?

Will I be tucking a generic all purpose piece of plastic money into my nieces' St. Patrick's Day cards, instead of a five? Will panhandlers take plastic? Will rolling pennies become a lost art?

Also of interest: it's cheaper to process smart card purchases than it is to take care of cash (sorting, counting, keeping change on hand, schlepping to the bank, etc.). So we may end someday in a reverse of the situations of yore when an establishment was Cash Only. Soon it may be Smart Only. And retailers will further look down on cash since they can't capture data from a cash transaction. Certainly, it may be possible to have anonymous smart cards, but cash will considere the currency of people with something to hide. (What's wrong with you that you don't want us to know what brand of toilet paper you buy?)

I wonder what's to become of all the terms that will be lost in translation. Anachronisms like "dial the phone", "play a record", and, well, "roll down the car window" (these days, those windows glide at the press of a button - which is not really a button).

Just think about the expressions that will pass by the wayside:

  • Spare change?
  • In for a dime, in for a dollar.
  • Penny wise, pound foolish.
  • There's not a dime's worth of a difference between x and y.
  • A penny saved is a penny earned.
  • That and a quarter will buy you - well, I guess this one's already fallen by the wayside, since a quarter won't buy you anything.
  • All she sees are dollar signs.

On the plus side, there'll be no more fumbling around looking for exact change (or rooting around in the nether regions of your big pocket book looking for all those coins that fell out of the too-small change purse part of your wallet). No more loose change buckets to contend with. No more stooping down on the sidewalk to pick up a few coins.

The more I think of it, the better off we'll be with a cashless society. In fact, what this country needs is a good five-cent smart card!


Anonymous said...

Great post, I was also remembering the first ATM cards that came out. You know back when there was only two machines and everyone was scared to use both of them. "What will happen with my money if the machine goofs" we all thought. Today I am bumping into an ATM on the way to the kitchen. Ha, I really said 'stop the world I want off' when the board game Monopoly switched from cash to debit cards. That signals the end of civilization as I know it.

Anonymous said...

The American cards better get smarter, though. On a recent trip abroad, with a tight connection to make and a departure tax to pay, we tried vainly to use our bank cards, debit cards, and credit cards to pay at a kiosk. Eventually, we stood in line at the national bank (actually, my husband stood in line while I ran around like a chicken with my head cut off, not convinced they would actually hold the plane for us and the forty seven other people in the same situation.) Turns out that there is an embedded pin number chip technology in use in Asia and parts of Europe that does on the spot verifying, rather than sending info to a central bank for checking--developed to counter underdeveloped telecommunications capacity. Our Amercian cards did not compute.