At this year’s MoneyConf in Dublin, Ireland, dozens of international speakers alluded to the idea that the culture of nations plays a strong role in our collective journey towards a cashless society. Historical fears of inflation and data-driven surveillance in industrialised Germany have encouraged the continuation of a strongly cash-based society still to this day. On the other hand, in the “developing” nation of Brazil, street traders on São Paulo’s Rua 25 de Março will happily produce a consumer grade debit card reader to facilitate a debit card payment for a modest clothing purchase.
Of course there are contrasts even at city level: one can survive quite well in Central London, paying for Tube tickets, coffees and dinners in chain cafes and restaurants without ever putting a hand into your wallet, however turn down a side street in Hackney one morning, enter a local greasy spoon cafe and said card may be looked upon with disdain or a hefty added charge. Class, generation and business type all play a role in the handling of cashless payments across the world, with millennials leading the charge.
And although the trends show that Europe is moving towards cashlessness, infrastructure has yet to catch up – particularly in the public sector (money orders are still the stock in trade across various public sector bodies in Ireland – if you’re asking yourself what they are it means you’re young, so don’t bother looking it up: they’ll soon be dead too). Moreover, research shows that credit encourages overspending, before even considering annual fees and arcane Government levies. Although, the fintech solution would probably be a chatbot which needles you about your five euro-a-day Starbucks habit.
But could future cashlessness turn sour on us? One might argue, if you are not a Russian oligarch attempting to launder ill gotten gains overseas, we should be ok, right? Well, there is the clear and present danger of contactless payments relying on battery enabled devices. The recent Visa outage around Europe also illustrated the downsides of a fully centralised system (although, the alternative current decentralised systems like cryptocurrencies are too slow to process the amount of transactions required to keep the global economy ticking over.)
A lot of the technology buzz at this year’s MoneyConf centres around biometrics, specifically voice based identification for payments, with providers such as Pindrop, providing high tech analytics on audio streams to make sure you are who you say you are. How robust these systems are to noise, in both the statistical and aural sense, is still up for debate. Will your husky voice due to a sore throat lock you out of your weekly grocery purchase or will you be able to fall back to a retinal scan or fingerprint reading, sweaty palms and/or urban legends about “physical hackability” aside.
Voice as payment, and a general medium of interaction, might well someday be linked with crypto-styled payments. Indeed the promise of blockchain and cryptocurrency is a central topic at the conference. We are told that, while running up power bills larger than that of MoneyConf’s host country Ireland, crypto has the power to free currency from the heavy hand of central banks across the globe.
But discussion on the direction crypto is now moving is vague at best. Although the entire conference is based around ideas in the emerging fintech sector, it remains entirely unclear which “holy grail” killer app will one day make the digital currency desirable and useable, solving some daily problem that finally gets us all on board. It will probably happen, but with blockchain on the scene almost ten years now, we are more than eagerly waiting. One thing’s for sure – cash is certainly on the out.
Wide Orbits editorial team