Last year Britain processed 19,276 debit card payments every single minute.

It is a normal Saturday morning. You check your bank balance on your smartphone as you eat breakfast, and then buy a new ebook for your tablet. You leave the house and pick up a coffee, waving your contactless card as you chat to your favourite barista. You meet some friends, and remember that you owe one of them money — luckily, there’s an app for that. Each of your transactions is processed through a complex digital web of vendors, servers and banks. Numbers shift. Data is recorded.

Welcome to the cashless society.

It is increasingly normal in Britain: last year, for the first time, cash was used for less than half of all payments — only 45% of purchases involved coins and pieces of paper. Meanwhile cashless transactions tripled; there were over one billion throughout the year.

In a way, it is a familiar story. Money has only ever meant something because society says so, and it has always been linked to new technologies. When writing was first invented in 3000 BCE, it was to keep records of trade. When coins were first minted in 600 BCE, they were used as tokens between merchants. Paper money became popular in Europe in the 17th century: in Britain it took the form of handwritten notes from theBank of England which could be exchanged for gold.

Today, an English banknote still carries the words ‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of’ five, ten, or twenty pounds (and so on). It is easy to forget that it is just a piece of paper.

Now less than 10% of the world’s money has a physical form and so a cashless society is the natural next step for many. But it comes with clear consequences. For the 1.5 million British adults without bank accounts, cash is the only way to buy anything — abandoning it would exclude them completely. Meanwhile, not everyone is comfortable knowing that their every purchase is carefully tracked.

Should we really look forward to a cashless future?

Money, money, money

‘Bring it on!’ say some. Carrying around a wallet full of jangling coins is not just irritating, it’s archaic. It is also dangerous: cash attracts petty crime, and its anonymous nature makes it more attractive for dodgy deals and the black market. A cashless society would eliminate these problems, and encourage more transparency throughout the financial system.

But others warn that one man’s ‘transparency’ is another’s ‘invasion of privacy’. Recording all our financial dealings could lead to Big-Brother style surveillance for ordinary people as well as criminals. And there is no guarantee of security — in Sweden, where four out of five payments are cashless, electronic fraud has doubled in the last ten years. This is not a future to be taken lightly.

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