Why I hate sticky electrons
Is cash-money the proverbial dead parrot and if so should we mourn its passing? There have been a couple of compelling obituaries for it recently: the cover story in this week’s Economist and a sonorous eulogy for the wedge by Jeff Randall in the Telegraph.
As they point out, there is a clear trend of coins and the folding stuff being replaced by electrons. There’s nothing novel about credit cards and debit cards. But many other forms of electronic money are increasingly in use all over the world – and you’ll be using them before long, whether you expect it or not.
These include smart cards for small payments – like the Oyster card which has been a great boon in paying for public transport in London. And the use of mobile phones to pay for small value items (which is already happening in Asia) or even to transfer money overseas.
Now in some ways we should welcome this, because it should bring down the costs of buying and selling, which should mean that we as consumers see lower prices for goods and services.
Although we like to think that buying and selling in cash is “free”, in fact it’s pretty expensive. Just think about the costs to a store of collecting and counting all that cash, protecting it from being stolen, transporting it and so on. When you pay by electron, via a card or mobile phone, much of that cost vanishes.
And that’s why some retailers and other businesses offer discounts for electronic payment (or the premium for non-electronic payment announced recently by BT and savaged by Jeff in his column).
But there’s an aspect of the move to a world of electronic payment which I find less appealing – which is that data about the customer attaches to those bloomin’ electrons.
When I pay with electronic money as opposed to notes and coins, a record is created of what I, Robert Peston, choose to spend my money on. And over time, a profile can be created of my tastes and preferences.
This is the revolutionary aspect of the move to electronic money and away from anonymous cash. Over time it will change the very nature of commerce.
Now there are plenty of legitimate civil liberty concerns about the use of electronic money to track our behaviour, as the Economist points out. But I have another concern: it’ll take serendipity out of commerce.
Mind you, serendipity is already on its uppers.
Tesco’s ability to give its customers what they want has been massively improved by the shopping information it collects through the Clubcards used by millions of them.
Google has for years been doing its best to kill off serendipity in advertisements with its search system that spews out ads tailored to our individual search preferences, offering us products and services that it thinks it knows will interest us because of the search terms we’ve Googled.
It won’t be long before we’re also offered television ads customised for our individual viewing habits. British Sky Broadcasting is a long way down the track to launching a system that will download ads to the hard-drives of its Sky Plus boxes tailored to the revealed viewing preferences of particular customers.
Which is great for the revenues of all these businesses. In my regular meetings with the chief executives of banks, power companies, retailers and so on, they all swagger about how they are harvesting more and more information about you and me so that they can pre-empt our next purchase of a product or service with an apposite recommendation.
However as a consumer, it’s the things I never knew I might want, the genuine surprises, that frequently deliver the most satisfaction. The notion that what I can buy, what I can see on TV, what I can read in newspapers will all be customised to fit my electronic profile is distinctly unappealing.
At the thought of this thoroughly Googlized world of commerce, my instinct is to shout – a la Patrick McGoohan in the “Prisoner” – “I am not simply an electronic record of viewing, shopping or searching habits, I am a …”