I hate carrying cash. I prefer to have a record of every transaction show up on my phone and in my computer, to just wave my Apple Watch in the direction of the terminal and have the deal done, no change or receipt or touching anything involved. It’s so… modern.

It’s also becoming universal; as we noted in an earlier post, Should we scrap cash altogether?, in Sweden even the homeless take plastic when they sell their newspapers, and are actually making more money because of it. A cashless society would benefit everyone, wouldn't it?

Not necessarily. Writing in the Guardian, Dominic Frisby sees a dark side to the cashless, contactless society. He believes that it will entrench poverty and pave the way for terrifying levels of surveillance.

In a world without cash, every payment you make will be traceable. Do you want governments (which are not always benevolent), banks or payment processors to have potential access to that information? The power this would hand them is enormous and the potential scope for Orwellian levels of surveillance is terrifying. Cash, on the other hand, empowers its users. It enables them to buy and sell, and store their wealth, without being dependent on anyone else. They can stay outside the financial system, if so desired.

In my previous post, I was dismissive of this line of thinking, suggesting that most of us were already there, writing that, “Most people are already using online banking, credit and debit cards and even newer systems like Apple Pay to get close to cashless now.” Really, a few coffees and chocolate bars are all people use cash for anymore.

Frisby properly puts me in my place, noting that going cashless is fine for people like me with jobs and fancy smartphones and money in the bank. Whereas many people don’t even have access to bank accounts, let alone money in them. He goes on to explain some of the reasons he prefers cash:

I like to tip waiters, for example, in cash, knowing they will receive that money, without it being siphoned off by some unscrupulous employer. I also like to shop in markets, where I can buy directly from the producer knowing they will receive the money, without middle men shaving off their percentages. It also has its uses for private transactions, for which there are many possible reasons, and by no means all of them illegal. Small businesses starting out need the cash economy. Poor people need the cash economy. The war on cash is a war on them.

Cash storesAnybody need cash? (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

On the main street near where I live, two of the four corners are occupied by check-cashing businesses that charge extortionate rates to people who need cash and don’t have bank accounts. I don’t have to use a place like this or even go into my bank because I have an account and can do everything on my phone. Yet one intersection can support two of these institutions because people need them. I happen to be lucky, but as Frisby concludes:

Cash means total financial inclusion, a luxury the better-off take for granted. Without financial inclusion – and there will always be some who, for whatever reason, won’t have it – you are trapped in poverty. So beware the war on cash.

He’s right; sometimes my techno-optimism blinds me to the fact that some people can afford the tech and others cannot.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.