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    Wednesday, June 24, 2009

    Say Goodbye to Cash

    There have been a number of organizations looking at the concept of a cashless society recently. Here in Japan the Suica card, which started as merely an electronic railpass, has expanded to use at convenience stores, vending machines, restaurants, parking garages, and practically any business which chooses to use their card readers as a payment option. The ability to use mobile phones as Suica cards/accounts has been introduced as well. Now the GSM Association, responsible for the most widely accepted mobile phone standard in the world, is looking at bringing banking-like services, such as money transfers, bill payments, and savings to mobile phones.

    This would apparently be most beneficial to a large number of the world's poor who live without banking services but do have a mobile phone. People in this financial bracket spend an inordinate amount of time organizing these services, and making order of this chaos by tying everything easily to their mobile phone and its account would bring some much needed stability to their lives.

    I'm tentatively optimistic about the idea of a cashless society. Of course I see the benefit described above and believe this is a great step to improve the standard of living in third-world countries. I imagine it would take a huge financial burden off most countries by removing the major services and industries required to keep a cash-based society going. Financial crises could be averted or lessened as governments could minutely adjust their currencies. I'd also love to be able to stop carrying around a massive bag of change in my pocket.

    On the other hand, my inner luddite can't help but feel scared of letting go of such a central concept to modern life. My head is filled with nightmarish visions of the new kinds of financial crime and corporate abuse possible when our livelihood is converted to just 1s and 0s.

    But that may be part of its value. Converting this fetishized object of modern life to a digital number may aleviate some of the societal obsession with money and it's attainment. When all the money you have and the money you use in your daily life is simply a number instead of a physical bunch of things you can hold, carry, and hoard, accumulating those things is likely to weigh less on your mind. I'd certainly like to see our values change to shift away from assigning so much self-worth to how much money we make. Maybe a cashless society would be just the medicine we need for our collective psychosis.

    2 comments:

    SnrIncognito said...

    unfortunately i seriously doubt that a cashless society would necessarily be less greedy. most of our wealthy's wealth isn't cash anyway. it's not even money. it's property and shares and non-liquid funds.

    however, i do think this is a great idea. i too get squeamish, worrying that funds could be stolen more easily. but, at the same time, theft has a more direct method of being tracked. transactions have to occur within systems that can be monitored. if your cash is stolen, it's gone.

    we've already steered heavily toward this state of mind, as you show, and i think convenience is one of the only remaining obstacles.

    Fred said...

    That's true. Those who hold the most wealth most tightly in our society don't deal with cash on a regular basis.

    I think if it's modeled after the best credit card systems then it could work. I know American Express will take your word over a stores if you say a mysterious charge appears on your card, and I've had instances of making charges myself to my credit card in another state that were declined because of security features.