A plea for cash: Why we need to pause in our headlong rush towards a cashless society

One of the most obvious changes I have noticed since returning to live in England after 15 years in Hong Kong is that hardly anybody uses cash anymore, even for the most insignificant of purchases.

This was evident to me on earlier visits to London but the trend has now spread to engulf even the sleepy rural village where I live. Everyone uses contactless payment cards or apps in the convenience store, the café, the pubs, even at the bi-weekly farmers’ market where all stall holders have a mobile card reader. You can still use cash (for the time being) but everyone assumes you will be paying by card. Having to keep bank notes and coins on hand is now seen by business owners as an inconvenience and many actively discourage payment in cash. One of the few places I can still use cash without worry is the chicken farm where I buy eggs.

I am troubled by this development, and even more by the apparent enthusiasm of people here for a cashless society. I have always preferred cash, and generally found it to be the most convenient form of payment for daily necessities. It can often take less time paying in cash than it does waiting for a credit card or debit card transaction to be approved, especially in rural areas with poor reception. I once spent ten minutes at a farm shop waiting for the transaction to go through because the stall holder had no cash on him. In Hong Kong, most people use cards but cash is universally accepted without complaint. You are never too far from an ATM in Hong Kong and, because it is a very safe city, you don’t have worry about carrying cash around with you. The same is true in Japan, where cash is widely (sometimes exclusively) used in shops, restaurants, bars, vending machines and ryokan.

Cash provides anonymity. Bank cards, credit cards, and mobile payment platforms are all designed to charge interest or commission but also to hoover up as much information about your spending habits as possible in order to sell you more stuff or sell that marketing information to third parties.

And cash helps provide employment. As soon as automated transactions became widespread, businesses started getting rid of their human staff in banks, transport hubs, and supermarkets, leaving customers to do all the work. Many consumers in England now seem perfectly content to do the job of the supermarket checkout staff by scanning and bagging their purchases, obediently following the disembodied instructions issued by a computer program. In major Chinese cities, they have gone one step further and set up facial recognition systems that can track customers around the supermarket so that they can just walk in and walk out again with their goods and the app will automatically deduct payment from their virtual wallet.

Getting rid of human interaction in business may increase profit margins but it does necessarily not make for a better functioning society. Take a look at Japan; an ultra-modern society where cash is still used in the majority of transactions, and in-person customer service is still a fundamental part of running a good business. Even road repair crews have someone (usually an elderly gentleman) to ensure traffic flow is managed properly and bow politely to drivers as they pass. In England, there are just automated lights that drivers often try to beat if they can. Japan shows that it is perfectly possible to provide rapid fintech convenience if it is really needed but still allow consumers to conduct business at slower, more intimate, human level if that is what they are more comfortable with.

The headlong rush towards a cashless society will ultimately force everybody to bend to the will of a few massive technology conglomerates who have the ability to monitor and direct every step you take. I realise that many (mainly middle-class people in secure employment) are absolutely fine with this at the moment because it makes their lives easier and gives them more time to consume yet more goods and services. But for many others, especially low-paid workers, this is a dystopian future.

Already, as the cost-of-living crisis intensifies in the United Kingdom, many people are now reverting to cash because it is the only way they can ensure they do not overspend each month. Without a cash option, those in poverty will be trapped in system that has a vested interest in customers overspending and going into debt, while at the same time offering attractive new ways to pay off that debt, which in reality only tightens the debt trap.

Finally, for those who argue cash should be phased out because it is principally used by drug cartels and other criminals to launder their ill-gotten gains, a look at the exponential rise in online scams should tell you that criminals have no problem using the cashless alternatives available to them.

Cash is not the sole preserve of criminals, rather, the anonymity it provides shields you to some extent from the real criminals in the finance industry. It gives people the freedom to buy goods and services without being monitored, pressured and cajoled by corporations whose sole aim is make greater profits.

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