A Cashless Society?


My neighborhood abounds with “Cash Only” signs, so when I read that a cashless society is imminent; I find it difficult to believe. But perhaps my neighborhood is a lone holdout. Perhaps it is the Alamo for the cash-toting few. Perhaps I am an unwitting member of some last stand, and we are all indeed teetering on the edge of a new, cashless world where mobile payments reign supreme.

If so, is that a bad thing?

Some people think so. I understand—change can be scary.

Conspiracy theories abound regarding the possibility of a cashless future, and the Centre for Research on Globalization has published a piece by one man who has compiled many of these theories in one place in order to discuss their “sinister implications.”

The author writes, “Every revolution needs a good crisis in order to germinate its seed. The cashless revolution is no different.” He goes on to cite current global financial conditions as having the potential to serve as that crisis, and truly seems to believe that the cashless revolution is upon us. Throughout the piece, the author’s outlook is clear—society is on the brink of great economic change, which will likely usher in a new era of worldwide, electronic currencies. The cashless society is coming.

The author further cites advances in mobile payment options as evidence of this impending cashless society. One example he uses is Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT)—a modernized, electronic form of food stamps. He does not see this technological advance as a good thing, but rather as a form of excessive government control. “Where collectivist technocrats are concerned, a global digital currency is not only a means for a centrally controlled economy, but also a centrally controlled society.” (Emphasis his.)

He ends the piece with a (literally) bold statement, but this time I’ll omit the emphasis: “The cashless society is already here. The question now is how far will society allow it to penetrate and completely control each and every aspect of their day to day lives.” Clearly, in the author’s mind, a cashless society is a doomed society.

So, are we doomed? I’m neither a psychic nor an economist, so I can’t answer definitely either way, but my gut—and perhaps my penchant for optimism—says no.

Let us for a moment consider the practical benefits of mobile payments for the consumer. The most obvious is convenience. Many people prefer to swipe their smartphone atop a scanner to carrying around a stack of cash. Electronic payments are traceable, which is useful for tracking one’s spending and can add a sense of security. Also, carrying around large stacks of cash isn’t always feasible—or safe.

Mobile payments also offer interested individuals a way to incorporate social media into their purchases; they can “check-in” to a site and tell all their friends about an exciting new product they bought, or announce their presence at a new coffee shop, all with that same initial swipe of an NFC-enabled phone. Add to this the many practical benefits of mobile payments as far as business owners are concerned, and it’s easy to see why so the technology is becoming so widespread.

And yet for all the benefits of mobile payments and point of sale technology, the two don’t necessarily exclude cash—consider APG Cash Drawer. Their company focuses on blending cash transactions with POS. This allows technologically savvy businesses to incorporate POS and mobile payment technology into their business, without excluding potential customers who prefer to use cash.

It seems to me that we aren’t necessarily evolving towards a cashless society, but towards a society with a plethora of payment options. POS technology is all about options. Want to pay for that new pair of jeans with a swipe of your credit card? Swipe your credit card. Want to tap your NFC-enabled phone against a console to not only pay for your lunch, but to tell all your friends that you finally made it to the new “it” cafe? Tap away. Want to pull a crisp twenty-dollar bill from your wallet and walk away from the counter with milk and eggs in your hand and a handful of coins jingling in your pocket? Go for it.

Technological change is exciting, but it can also be frightening, especially when this change occurs quickly—and the rate of technological change only seems to be increasing. How many advances in the last decades have been cited as precursors to some terrifying Big Brother society? More than I can count—and now we can add one more to the list: mobile payments.

To return to our original question: will we ever become a truly cashless society? Maybe, maybe not, but as mobile payments become increasingly common, cash may very well fall into the “retro” category—and there’s nothing wrong with being a little retro.

To read more about the “sinister implications” of a cashless society, click here.




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