The cashless society is almost at hand, some claim. It’s possible today, with the right phone and app, to visit retailers and just grab what you want and go. You’ll be purchasing consumer goods without even getting out your wallet!
This is merely the next act in an epoch that began with the use of credit cards for increasingly smaller purchases many years ago, and the success of the debit card more recently. Pushing us farther into a world where spending money is even more remote from those quaint pieces of legal tender such as coins or dollar bills. Retail consumption seems on the verge of becoming nearly automatic.
I remember my surprise at seeing credit cards accepted at fast food restaurants years ago. It surely was a benchmark in the use of these financial devices. When I was a child a credit card was used only for certain things – serious things, important things. The credit cards in our family were treated almost like loaded guns, and in a way they were just that: they could provide comfort and protection, or they could inflict great harm. There was the notion that they must be handled with care.
By the time I was an adult, credit cards were far more widespread in their use (and, let’s be honest, misuse). I sadly disregarded the caution my parents practiced with credit cards, and I was hardly alone. But the spendthrift days of youth and impulse buying are long since past. Later, I also used credit cards the way a lot of those my age did – to patch over the cost of living for my family that my salary didn’t quite cover. Again, I had plenty of company. If one looks at the stagnation of salaries and the upswing in the use of credit you’ll notice an alarming but explicable symmetry. The uncomfortable place we find ourselves in is built upon our entire society making suspect choices. Working people have often victimized themselves to maintain a middle class existence, and financial industries stoked their consumption, re-purposing the credit card to function for everything from a happy meal to a vacation. The debit card, the more reasonable counterpart to a credit card, did its part to grease the wheels of making spending speedy.
A recent NPR broadcast breezed through several smartphone apps now in use that attach even less effort to spending than ever before. Apps such as CardCase, Dwolla and Google Wallet endeavor to make transactions free of even the effort to remove your wallet from your purse or pocket. It’s with a bit of trepidation one hears the enthusiasm that greets these new ways to make spending “painless.” If this is progress, what does it move us towards?
I’m not a Luddite. The convenience of these innovations can’t be overlooked, nor the many obvious benefits. On a basic level they could serve to empower us in important ways. But the same could be said of earlier innovations. The problems arise within our perception of what we do with what we earn and why. When I lost my job I suddenly felt a lot more intimately aware of every transaction. It was humbling and frightening, but (surprisingly) very empowering. It made me far more cautious, and I doubt I will return to the carefree relationship I had with money in my youth. I have embraced frugality and feel the better for it. Spending now is always a conscious act.
How painless should spending be? Presumably the pain is merely removed from the front end, for surely the results of all these invisible movements of money from one place to another will have consequences, since most of us are dealing with having less prosperity than before. And is the need to lift out your wallet and slide a card really really a pressing dilemma in need of solving? Yes, we lead busy lives, but do any of the people developing these things stop to think that accelerating this process is hardly part of an imaginative solution?
There’s also the fact that no, not everyone has a smartphone. I don’t. I have resisted the smartphone and several other innovations of recent years, mostly out of necessity, but also because I’m a bit disenchanted with the consumerist treadmill after years of unending upgrading. Will the emergence of transaction apps end up marginalizing those without smartphones?
Some theorize that we are on the verge of a technological singularity, something that will produce a greater-than-human intelligence, the sort of new age that renders the future and our place in it uncertain. But more probably we will devote the real effort to grubby little ideas like these easy transaction apps, the sort of things that merely seek to increase the profits of smartphone manufacturers and sellers, “allowing” us to indulge in conveniences we might be better off without. We may be reaching into our pockets less often, but those who want us to empty them will be all the happier.