[…] When we think about the decreasing importance of cash, if we do, it’s mostly in terms of convenience. It’s just easier to not carry cash; cash can get lost or stolen, and because it’s not tied to our identities, it’s hard to get back. It’s informal and off the information grid, representing only itself and saying nothing about its bearer (putting aside those stories about the vast amount of cash allegedly containing cocaine residue). It’s anonymous in ways that often make it inconvenient for we the consumers.
Conceived of that way—primarily as an inconvenient medium of information exchange—cash’s obsolescence seems an inevitability. But what will replace it? If history is any guide, the next stage in the evolution of money will be completely intangible, existing as ledger marks in digital databases around the world. Bitcoin notwithstanding, it will likely not be decentralized and transparent; it seems much more likely that governments and bankers will maintain their control of currency, creating an opaque system in which we will all be enmeshed, and from which the financiers will take their cut. Money will be tied to identity, its routes traced and monitored. It’ll be a surveillance dystopia, but not of the clumsy, grubby Phildickian variety. It’ll be an ultra-functional, shiny and minimalist nightmare, the kind where you’re not supposed to care how it works, as long as it works for you. Kind of like an iPhone.
That may sound cranky, but it’s worth stepping back for a second to consider how we’re persuaded about the color and contour the future will take. Cash has already begun to be replaced. That’s progress: all that is solid melts into air, software eats the world, cash becomes digits. The sense of inevitability is baked into much of our thinking about (and proselytizing for) new technology. The disrupters and the techno-utopians have a vested interest in presenting their just-over-the-horizon view not as a future, but as the future. The subtle but forceful underlying message goes something like, “A future of infinite convenience is bearing down on you; it is not to be interrogated, and you have no recourse but acquiescence.” Thus the arrival of particular systems—methods for allocating and distributing power—is presented as a law of nature, even a fait accompli.