How far from a cashless society are we and does it matter?

David Jamison is writing about those items that catch his attention now looking through an older person’s eyes.  He lives in Belfast and since retiring recently he is trying to make sense of a fast-changing world and trying his best to keep up!

I happen to be the Treasurer of a small older peoples club let’s call it, and since retiring my own personal finances have come into sharper focus. This has thrown up a number of interesting although perhaps trivial but annoying situations when dealing with the Banking System.

I come for a time where cash was King although I don’t go quite as far back as to be paid in cash. I started out working in Salaries and Wages in a large organisation and out of the workforce there were only 6 people on the payroll of over 2000 that insisted on being paid in cash each week the remainder was split between cheque and bank transfer payments.

Being Salaried, I had no option when I started working but to be paid by cheque. As far as I remember BACS (Banks Automated Clearing System) which was, if not mandatory, certainly encouraged, so this was my first encounter with a chequing account and I felt very grown up going into the bank to open said account. Personal cheques were not the accepted way for small transactions in the way card payments have now become commonplace. I recall regularly cashing cheques for cash either mainly at a bank branch of which there were many about or at a local shop which allowed me to do so usually after 3:30 when the banks had closed.

An aside here is that the Bank Manager is now an extinct species, as is their habitat, the Bank Branch. Back in the day, the Manager’s word was law. Such items as Mortgages, Personal Loans mainly for Car purchases and Overdrafts (both long and short term) were often at the manager’s discretion today it is just the computer says yes or no. This, come to think about it, is probably the crux of the matter. Depersonalisation of the entire banking system. Perhaps I’ll leave this to come back to.

From my experience, banking on the Information Superhighway works 90% of the time. As always my view would be that we cannot stand in the way of progress so maybe this 90% at this time isn’t or shouldn’t be unacceptable. In terms of cheques I have just realised that I haven’t had a personal chequebook since I moved banks two years ago. With the Treasurer’s account, I am finding traders more and more reluctant to accept cheques. In this area, a double signed cheque was the standard means of completing a transaction. The two signatures provided an element of security to the Society which if I move to having a Debit Card goes away. (I learnt yesterday that bank transfers can be set up so a second person has to go into the account and authorise the payment). Increasingly the main point of “human” contact with the Bank is via Telephone to a call centre and again they are geared to answer 90% of queries there and then. There is the remaining 10% and sadly these seem to disappear into a black hole. An example is I needed to update signatories to the account rang up was told to leave in a letter detailing the changes to any branch which I did and it looks like this letter has simply dissapeared. Go to the branch and no sign of the person I spoke to. Did I know their name? Nope. Oh ok can you leave it in again please and so it goes on.

Im sure the banking industry would say they are keen to improve services and work tirelessly to do so but I think it’s just not the same as going into a branch and speaking face to face with someone who is re-contactable if necessary. It might take longer, and it might cost a bit more but is it not good PR never mind provide a better service?

Up to this point I haven’t even mentioned cash, which is telling. I’d say Money in all its forms is a very personal thing. Wealth is based around money. The ability to trade Is based around money and is as old as old can be. It is the processes around money that’s changing “The cheque is in the post” is a thing of the past. “Discount for cash” is heading the same way. Its in the personal interactions a lot of the time is being lost. Yes of course for a lot of the mundane day-to-day payments cards and the rest work perfectly fine and just about everyone can manage this.

Even with paper money technology has arrived in the form of polymer notes. These are apparently full of security features not available with paper but they do not stack well when counting and have an annoying habit of pinging out of wallets and according to the same local shop that cashed my cheques mentioned about finding notes lying on the shop floor is a common occurrence. Even this wee shop whose trade is based around a pint of milk and the Belfast Telegraph type of transaction has recently put in a card reader. Incidentally, they have the last free ATM in quite a wide area and this has proved to increase footfall, though the shop thought this does not necessarily convert to sales.

When I think about this, how many other day-to-day interactions is there that have similarly been “digitised” taking out the human to human contact? I’ve seen it mentioned several times the importance of these small conversations that we held though each day with the butcher baker and Candlestick makers. Perhaps there is scope to reshape back the way humans interact with computing or perhaps that should be how computers interact with people?

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