Convenience comes with a price...
Tap, tap, tap — it’s just so handy, isn’t it? A quick touch of the card, and you’re away.
Contactless payments make shopping so easy, you hardly feel like you’re spending money at all.
More and more businesses are choosing to go completely cash-free. The relentless march towards a cashless society had already begun before the pandemic, but the directive to avoid touching anyone or anything certainly hastened the pace.
Who wanted to handle dirty, germ-ridden notes and coins, or disturbingly sticky ATM pin-pads, when they could merely tap and go?
Evidence soon showed that Covid spread principally through the air, and that money was no more risky than any other object. But that didn’t stop the almost superstitious aversion to cash — a taboo which still continues.
Remarkably, there are businesses operating today, here in Northern Ireland, who refuse to accept cash for “safety reasons”. I visited a cinema in Belfast this week and noticed a prominent sign declaring that the venue was only accepting contactless payments in order to keep everyone safe. Hello, science.
That wasn’t a practical problem for me because I’d already paid for my ticket online. Much more convenient to do it at home than stand in a slow-moving queue at the ticket-desk, wondering if you’re going to miss the first ten minutes of the film.
If your device is programmed with your bank details you can just tap in the three digits of your security code or — lower effort — press your finger on the touch-pad. With the latest facial biometrics, you don’t even need a recognised finger-print: the only thing you have to do is smile.
But hang on a minute. Isn’t there something rather disturbing about all this marvellous, time-freeing, life-enhancing, super-safe ease of payment?
What are we sacrificing as we merrily tap — or smile — our money away? And is it worth the price?
Silkie Carlo, director of the human rights organisation Big Brother Watch, says that the problem with a cashless society is that it is inevitably a surveillance society: “Not only can governments, banks and tech companies monitor what you have earned and spent ... they can pre-emptively control it too.”
Carlo says that “with digital currency, the question becomes not only who watches how you spend your money, nor even who controls how you spend it, but who actually owns it?”
Once you lose hold of the physical reality of cash, and it becomes entirely virtual, then it’s more difficult to prove personal ownership. People used to stuff wads of notes under the mattress. Sure, they were running the risk of it being stolen, but at least they knew it was there — and theirs.
The other thing that struck me about that sanctimonious sign at the cinema was how exclusive it was. You only get in to see the film if you’ve signed up for the new touch-free digital economy.
Of course that isn’t a problem for the affluent laptop classes who make up most of the cinema audience.
They tap-tap-tapped their way right through the pandemic, sequestered in their sun-rooms and conservatories, ordering everything they needed online. (Shop assistants and delivery drivers had no such luxury: they had to show up in person or they couldn’t do their jobs.)
But how will vulnerable elderly people, familiar only with pounds and pence, get their shopping in this speedy, “frictionless” digital age? How will someone with a learning disability who doesn’t own a debit card, or someone whose sight is impaired, access the services they need?
And what about homeless people, or others who don’t have a bank account? How are they supposed to manage?
No cash means no change for charity boxes, and no tips for extremely low-paid workers in cafes and bars where you can’t add a gratuity to the bill. What do we tell these people — sorry, tough luck?
A campaign by the consumer magazine Which found that one in three people tried to pay for something in cash during the pandemic and were unable to do so, an experience that many found embarrassing.
Which also reported that 13% of respondents — equivalent to seven million people — said that they regularly used cash, and would struggle without it.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Several cities in the United States, such as San Francisco and New York, have banned businesses from refusing cash, in order to protect the unbanked and under-banked from being further marginalised.
Going contactless makes spending a doddle. But once again, this middle-class convenience comes at the expense of those who can least afford it.