Praise the dollar

“We don’t take cash,” declares a sign on the gleaming glass door of the cafe I frequent. This sign predates the glossy list of covid-19 metrics taped to the side, but together they represent a unified statement of unmatched efficiency — promising public space experiences, social interactions, and the like. consumer association and exchange with the most convenience and cleanliness. However, for all the conflicts that cashless coffee shops aim to eliminate, it reproduces social barriers and inequality much more heavily.

For individuals and communities, transaction technology — digital wallets, mobile payments and the like — can increase decision-making autonomy, flexibility, and resilience. them in times of crisis as well as their ability to resist victimization, exploitation and grievances. Confidence in these technologies builds capacity for long-term planning and construction — wealth, infrastructure, the foundation of prosperity for future generations — as well as experimentation and risk. Of course, the corollary is also true: malicious versions of these tools can rob communities and individuals of ownership.

Cash is the best transaction tool for community and individual autonomy that we have invented so far. It offers many possibilities
proved to be difficult to reproduce. Cash doesn’t need someone else’s signature to spend it. It doesn’t specify where or what you can spend it on. It is anonymous: no one needs to know who you are for you to spend it. It does not generate data about your transactions for third parties. It transacts without charging the payer or receiver. You know the money you have on hand: it can’t be frozen in your account by an unknown third-party payment processor at will, or reversed or eaten away by a scammer by fees until you crash into overdraft without realizing. It doesn’t rely on multiple layers of brittle infrastructure of both hardware and software to operate at the point of sale.

What if the cash disappears?

There are a number of lessons from history that deserve attention. Cash — defined as a common, public, printed means of money — is a relatively new technological and political achievement. Historically, money was often private money and plural. In the United States, state-issued currency was not fully consolidated until after the Civil War. Previously, foreign currency, private banknotes, and scripts created by railroads, insurance, corporations, and other private businesses circulated alongside currency issued by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

This monetary symphony means that everyday spending requires considerable street smarts. A draft may come from a fictitious or fictitious bank, or it may be a forged copy of a bill from a working real bank. Invoices accepted at face value in one city may only be accepted at a lower price in other cities. Daily life involves navigating a messy, complex monetary media environment.

The chaotic situation also created highly stratified trading communities. While the wealthy used banknotes issued by stable banks that could be exchanged for letters of credit and bullion, the poor tended to use low-value banknotes in copper or gold. low-value coins or “small coins” or deprecated banknotes.

The future of the trading vehicle may be the same as its past. An industry consultant once told me that “in the future cash is going to be the word “c”, not something people are used to.” Indeed, the future may be softer than going completely cashless. Those transitioning to cash-only status will trade on unequal terms.

Today, cash is a common printing technology – a form of mass communication. But it has major flaws. Cash can be lost, destroyed, or stolen. Most importantly, perhaps, it cannot be used online, and therefore it does not move at the speed of the rest of our communicative lives.

We still don’t know the shape of tomorrow’s trading vehicle or the topography of its trading communities. We can work to stop money working like social media platforms do today: privatized and rooted in data-driven business models.

In the crypto community, I often hear variations of the phrase “If cash were invented today, it would be illegal.” The problem is that cash is low-cost, difficult to censor, and difficult to survey. At a time when nearly all of our communication, transactional or otherwise, is routed through proprietary and controlled platforms that collect rent in the form of fees, data, or both, it’s hard to compete. argue with this line of thought.

At the same time, we need to ensure that new forms of money are reliable and stable in value, something that has proven very difficult for cryptocurrencies to achieve. For all its unique affordability as a medium of exchange, cash – and whatever its digital successors – must be stable in value in order to function well.

So when I pay for my cortado, I look at the “We Don’t Cash” sign with the eyes of a researcher. The stakes are very high. We are empowered or not empowered by the trading instruments we have access to. As we imagine money for the internet age, the big question is how to design means of payment for the public good. We need something that does all the things that cash can do — as well as the things that cash can’t.

Lana Swartz is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, and the author of New Money: How Payments Become Social Media.

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