What happens if the physical monetary unit goes away?
Does that mean we’re going down a bad rabbit trail to a place where society should not go?
Is a move toward digital currency like Bitcoin an inevitability?
We’ve got questions, but with no clear answer.
To start, how about we have to look at a couple of points:
- The unit of cash itself
- The payment process, security and anonymity
While this is entirely way too large to discuss all in one article, let’s start the conversation anyway.
Money, money, money…money!
I don’t know about you, but the sound of The O’Jays’ hit song, “For the Love of Money” provides a great background track.
(Go ahead. Turn it on, I’ll wait for you.)
So, is the move toward a cashless society, a good thing or not?
But first, let’s start from the beginning:
How did we get here?
The history of money
Bartering was the earliest form of money.
I have spices, you have furs – and I want those furs.
So, in exchange, I gave you spices.
The earliest form of actual currency was created by King Alyattes in Lydia, now part of Turkey, in 600BC.
While the infographic here points to some very interesting evolution of money, one thing remains certain:
As technology improves, the way (and what) we consider money continues to change.
When people wonder, “what’s this new e-money/virtual money thing?”...
In fact, the ramp-up to this started way back in 1983, leading us to where we are now, in a Bitcoin world.
The move away from government-led currency
While most people have probably only ever heard of Bitcoin, there are a number of cryptocurrencies out there.
As of July 2017, there were in fact more than 900.
One interesting aspect of cryptocurrencies is that they cannot be manipulated or altered, as most government-backed conventional currency can.
Central banks, as this video explains, have the ability to control physical money, and that’s just not how Bitcoin was designed:
While the value of Bitcoin has recently been hampered and viewed negatively by a number of people, including JP Morgan’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, and the value is certainly starting to fluctuate much like normal currencies, the supply of cryptocurrencies is generally fixed.
That means they are subject to normal supply and demand. There is no worry of someone throwing in an extra 20 million bitcoins, as that can’t happen (as noted above). More below on how these are created:
So, if we’re moving away from physical money…
Should we be worried?
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Quantities are limited.
A change for the better?
We’ve discussed the new currency forms popping up, but FinTech (Financial Technology) platforms are leading the way in how money is transferred.
While this change toward using less cash (and increased use of alternative currency) might seem disruptive to those of us who are used to “cold, hard cash”, in some societies, technology is enabling access to banking options like never before.
As an example, in some developing countries in Africa, the CDMA phone has been a revolution for those that either had no bank or were severely underserved by their financial institution. In short, Africans can now use a “basic” phone to conduct their everyday banking. As Quartz noted in 2015, in sub-Saharan Africa, only a third of adults had access to bank accounts.
Plus, the so called “mobile money” space is booming: over $5.8 billion (USD) of payments were processed in 2016.
So, while in North America, Apple Pay, Android Pay, and Paypal (just to name a few) continue to modernize how our transactions are conducted (moving us toward a cashless society), is “progress” inevitable?
Related: Intro to Robo Advisors
Security comes to mind
One of the red flags that is waved around moving to a cashless society is that of security.
You can trust money that you see in your hand. Short of getting that stolen from you, you know you have it and that provides assurance.
Yet, credit cards are still safe, right?
Well, no…not to be a fear mongerer, but it’s disturbingly easy to steal a credit card number from someone using inexpensive technology. While many banks have protection to ensure that you don’t pay for any stolen cards, it is – at the minimum – an inconvenience.
Thankfully, there are products out there like Signal Vault that can protect you.
Further, even Bitcoins aren’t entirely safe. In 2014, Mt. Gox, the world's largest bitcoin exchange, was hacked and some $460 million worth of Bitcoin was taken.
Now, I don’t want you to put on your tin hat…there are always risks associated with any form of monetary value, unless you’re hiding gold in your backyard (and yes, Fred – I know where you buried it, and I’m coming for your gold!).
All that said, banks, credit cards and even companies like Apple and Google are tightening up their payment protocols to keep your “money” safe. The next evolution seems to be going into biometric-backed payments.
Anonymity and money
You might ask, “If you’re not doing anything illegal, what do you need to pay for things anonymously?”
Some people – myself included – are concerned with where the “data” world is going.
How is my personal data being used? Is a company selling the fact that I sent money once a month to Aunt Martha? Do I have rights when it comes to that data, or if I want to use their service, do I have to take it?
While data privacy is a whole other matter, in North America, this is certainly a hot debate.
With respect to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, this is where it is stronger than perhaps conventional payments. While some people think these are totally the way to protect yourself, beware, it’s not anonymous, according to Bitcoin.org.
So, if you’re looking for a silver bullet, I’m not sure there is one...yet.
Now, while some nefarious people have been able to use Bitcoin for things like the Silk Road website, by and large, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies allow for the exchange of goods and services and it doesn’t always have an “ugly” undertone...
How is the underlying technology being used?
The underlying technology of Bitcoin is called blockchain. Broadly, this technology allows for transactions of all kinds that are recorded on a digital ledger that can’t be corrupted.
This technology is still quite young in the marketplace, but it holds a lot of promise.
Where does that leave us?
So, we’ve brought in a lot of different spokes in the wheel here in our discussion of cashless societies.
We can see that technology holds a lot of promise, yet, the concerns remain:
- Is moving away from governmental currency a good thing? A bad thing? Or just a thousand shades of gray?
- Do the new forms of transferring money hold promise, or are they just a better mouse trap?
- Should we just scrap it all and go back to trading furs and spices?
So, what do you think?
Is this progress? Or are we going the wrong way?
Let us know in the comments below.