Shoppers could soon pay for goods using a microchip implanted under the skin, according to a report in The Times newspaper recently.
The idea, says the report, is already catching on with today’s iPod generation, with one study showing that one in 10 teenagers and one in 20 adults already willing to have a microchip implanted to pay shop bills and help to prevent identity fraud.
The VIP Baja Beach Club in Barcelona already uses implanted human body chips to identify its exclusive clientele – ostensibly because wearing bikinis and shorts leaves nowhere to carry wallets and purses. Members use the chip to gain access and to pay for services.
Made by the VeriChip Corporation, the chip is a glass capsule which sits under the skin. It carries a ten-digit personal number that can be linked to a person’s bank account.
For decades, certain prophets of our time – both Christian and secular – have warned that we’re rapidly moving into a dangerously uncertain, cashless world.
For centuries, cash money ruled the world: a world where most people traded on a local scale and where nation-states could govern their own economies and produce their own currencies.
Today's world is very different. International trading pacts drive macro-economies and everything is linked to everything else all across the globe. A financial sneeze in one major trading centre can cause whole nations to catch cold -- on the other side of the world.
To serve this new economic landscape, we’ve invented digital alternatives to cash.
The first step in the move toward a digital economy was the introduction of the now ubiquitous credit card. The process took a giant leap forward, though, when computer chips were added to those cards.
Meanwhile, the mobile phone market offered hungry companies a hot new way to offer digital cash services.
Phones have three great advantages over cards. They have keys; they have transmitters; and they have enough memory and power to handle big processors and software for encryption and accounting. The mobile phone is an amazing banking technology, because it’s so convenient for the user.
The big new developments in the digital cash world are driven by tools such as Radio Frequency ID tags (RFIDs for short).
Each one of these tiny devices is basically a radio barcode. It’s smaller than a grain of sand, yet it contains hardware, software, permanent memory, an operating system, and the ability to write and receive data. It transmits over small distances using short bursts of electromagnetic radiation and its built-in power generators could last up to 100 years.
(Ed: For more on this, watch Mal Fletcher’s interview with futurist Dr. Patrick Dixon).
Before we dump cash altogether, we should take a long, deep breath and consider a few facts.
First, despite all the bells-and-whistles technologies on offer, using cash still has its advantages: it doesn’t require any special equipment, it’s anonymous and there are no transaction costs.
Yes, digital money has the advantage of being able to handle large transactions instantly, even over long distances, but using it requires complex electronic systems. Transactions are not anonymous; they can be traced back to the user.
What’s more, several studies have shown that when people with credit card debt are confronted with their spending in terms of cold, hard cash, they are shocked. They’ve never been able to weigh their spending against their earnings while money is nothing more than numbers on a screen.
It’s only when they feel the cash in hand that they’re able to attribute value to their earnings – and their spending.
There are even bigger human issues at stake, though; issues as fundamental as freedom.
Despite the relative merits of digital money, it’s not hard to imagine how bankers and others are using it to slowly eliminate cash altogether. Twenty years ago, that would have sounded far-fetched, but not any more.
Multi-national companies are building global networks of interconnected computer databases. That’s the reason we can bank, buy, receive social benefits and even pay our taxes electronically.
Real money is being replaced with virtual money and this may very well be sowing the seeds of eventual electronic enslavement.
Our reliance on cards is actually a reliance on chips and it is already leading to unacceptable invasions of privacy. As we grow more and more familiar with a microchip culture, the easier it gets for someone to centralise all the information contained on our cards.
One chip can easily contain all the relevant information about our health, banking details, buying habits, voting preferences and so on. The technology is already in place – what’s missing is the public acceptance.
Once money becomes nothing more than numbers on a screen, our material wealth can easily be manipulated by other people.
Yes, cash can stolen, but when it is, fraudsters can’t use it to steal your identity as well – as they can with cards. Stealing your cash does not give thieves access to personal information about you.
And the drive for a cashless society may well lead to sinister attempts to control individuals and even entire populations.
Already, miniature chip technologies are being used to turn us into an extension of our bank accounts – in a world where numbers, not individuals, rule.
Cash, though far from a perfect means of trade, equals freedom. If cash is eliminated, or downgraded even further, the stage is set for companies, national governments or even global bodies to monitor and manipulate our behaviour.
The new series of ‘EDGES with Mal Fletcher’ features a 30 minute documentary on the Cashless Society. Watch this website for release dates (TV and web).
Meanwhile, catch the EDGES documentary on Privacy, at www.edges.tv.