Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Not for the first time I am politely accosted in the street and asked for cash. The problem is I no longer carry cash – today’s society is plastic. When cash has disappeared from our pockets, what will become of those who beg on the streets, who have no bank account, and who are socially invisible?

Last month the Bank of Canada introduced polymer bank notes in an attempt to thwart counterfeiters. The new bills include security features such as complex colour images, unique transparent “windows” and a frosted area. The $100, $50, $20, $10 and $5 notes will be gradually put into circulation between November 2011 and the end of 2013. Coins will, of course, remain in circulation – at least for the time being.

Plastic debit and credit cards are ubiquitous. But get ready to start paying for sandwiches, magazines, and pints down the pub with nothing more than a swipe of mobile phone as yet another payment revolution hits the high streets. Mobile phones are being embedded with a chip that contains your credit and debit card details. For low-value items, all you’ll have to do is wave the phone in front of the shop’s sales terminal. For higher priced goods, you’ll have to punch a pin number into the phone as well.

Orange has also unveiled its Quick Tap service, while rival O2 says it is lining up for a major launch in the Fall. Meanwhile, Google has launched Google Wallet for Android phones which might soon make the traditional wallet stuffed with cards, notes, and coins a thing of the past.

Hence the question: when everyone is carrying plastic cards and mobile phones (meaning they have access to a bank account and can afford to pay their service providers), what will become of poor people who cadge a dollar or a dime for a cup of coffee or – as in my case – a ticket home on public transport?

The financial system of today’s world is the product of centuries of innovation and exploitation. What began as a barter economy moved through various incarnations in response to the needs and opportunities inherent in different systems and cultures. Changes will undoubtedly continue to occur in response to social and technological progress and contemporary discussion of likely changes has increasingly focused on the possibility of a cashless society.

The technology for such a society exists, but the benefits are not yet perceived to outweigh the disadvantages. When they do, we shall live in a plastic society where there is no place for the technological have-nots. Will society invent an alternative form of payment – vouchers or tokens or “credits” that well-meaning people can buy to give away and which can be exchanged for goods or services? Or will it simply ignore the problem? My money is on the eventual disappearance of the dime and the social outcry that will follow.


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