Why Is It so Hard to Imagine a Cash-free World?

By Sarah Wilson | Friday 2nd March, 2018

In the modern world, it’s almost impossible to go an entire day without using some kind of digital, touchscreen or hands-free technology. Think about it. Even if you’ve shunned the lure of a smartphone, self-service tills are gradually replacing staffed ones. We’re seeing companies like giffgaff eliminate telephone customer service in favour of internet enquiries.

Every day we’re hurtling towards a world where it’ll be impossible to live or work without technologies like these. With surcharges for paying on card banned in the UK last month, the next reality we look set to face is a cash-free society – and not everyone’s totally on board.

Of course, some accept these changes with open arms, or even a shrug of ambivalence. A number of advancements in science and technology have, after all, improved our personal and working lives considerably. But if the enduring popularity of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror can tell us anything, it’s that there’s a deep-seated uneasiness amongst the public when it comes to new technologies. It’s that instinctive though hard to place "oh my god" we all felt the first time we saw Sophia the robot speak.


See, the idea of a cash-free world seems attractive if you think about it for just a moment. It has the same honey-trap appeal of convenience which has drawn humankind to new technologies since we first discovered the wheel. I’ve chosen to tap my contactless a thousand times over rifling in my purse to find the correct change for my coffee. The split fare function on the Uber app has undoubtedly saved hundreds of people from the awkward “you owe me £3” conversation a week after taking the taxi. Yet mull over the idea of going totally cashless for a moment longer, and you’ll begin to hesitate.

In fact, in a survey from ING last year, just 21% of UK respondents expressed enthusiasm for a cash-free world. 79%, on the other hand, agreed that they would “never go completely cashless”. Our hunger for convenience, it seems, is outweighed by something more powerful – the need for physical (over digital) things in our lives.

Just look at consumer trends elsewhere to see how this has played out before. When Kindles hit the market back in 2007, it looked like time might be up for the humble paperback. Fast forward to 2018, however, and ebook sales have continued to fall, with a 4% decline in 2016 coinciding with a 2% increase in sales of physical books. The same goes too, for vinyl, surely the most unwieldy way anyone could choose to listen to music, and yet I find myself today the owner of several records and a brand-new Crosby player.

We’re attached to cash in the same way as we are to these tangible objects – they don’t make our lives more convenient, but they allow us to see and hold the things we’re interacting with. Simply put, we’re able to comprehend value a lot better when it looks like a pound coin than when it’s presented to us as a bank balance. It’s why many report accidentally overspending when they only use card.

Whether we like it or not, coins and notes have more than fiscal value in our lives. We rely on them so heavily for meaning in our everyday exchanges that part of our resistance to a cashless world surely comes from our simple inability to imagine it. Pound coins after the tooth fairy’s visit, 20p on the pool table, and tenners in birthday cards serve as just a few examples. You’d be pressed to find a gangster or mafia drama where a kingpin’s wealth is demonstrated by the balance on his credit card - such is the power of cash as a cultural symbol. The scene everyone unfailingly remembers from Breaking bad is Huell lying on Walter White’s pile of cash.


Of course, humans do have an impeccable ability to adjust to change. But what these everyday exchanges with money remind us is that a cashless society might have more sinister repercussions. Without cash, will homeless people suffer? Will elderly people be pushed to the fringes of society? Will all our card purchases be tracked? And by whom? In Berlin, where memory of the GDR’s oppressive state surveillance is still very much alive, there’s a reason so many places only take cash.

As usual, technology is moving much faster than our human brains have the ability to cope with. It seems we’re on an unstoppable path towards an economy ruled by Bitcoin and other such digital currencies. But on our way there, it’s key we remember that our attachment to physical cash isn’t only psychological. Cash enables our ability to spend and live as an autonomous individual, without anyone else having access to our purchases. So when we feel ourselves recoil at the idea of going without our notes and coins, it’s not an instinct you or I should be ignoring.