Last Saturday at the Airport, looking at the large number of electronic devices each travelling group had to put through the security belt, I started thinking that there is hardly anything natural left about our lives. Well, the lives of most of the people most of the time anyway! We are surrounded by technology and electronics – we communicate, move around and are assisted in our daily tasks by man-made tools: no level of minimalism and simplification of our lives are likely to change this. This set me off thinking about how our relationships with money have become/are becoming more and more mediated by technology, about money and technology: from straight forward cash to a fancy credit card terminal. And with each change the issues we face have also change: which reminded me of three illustrative stories from my life.
Cash in a box
When I was a child my parents didn’t even bother putting their pay in the bank – I have to say that we are talking several decades ago and about a country with fairly under-developed banking system. They had savings account(s) where money was transferred from their pay automatically; they also had little booklets in which transfers were written down – at the time it was not possible to check your bank balance on line or get to an ATM; this was pre-PC you see.
Instead of a current account we had ‘cash in a box’ and every month my parents put their pay in it; the whole family, including us children, knew about the box and where to find it.
There is much to be said about ‘plain vanilla’ cash and the level of trust that goes with this kind of arrangement. Of course our spending money could have been stolen, though it is hard to imagine a stranger finding it. But family members never touched it without discussion and permission – well, not before I bought myself a violin with it but in that case there was no time for consultation and my parents approved after the fact.
With ‘cash in a box’ life was easy, immediate and uncomplicated.
Manual credit card slips
Are you old enough to remember these? I suppose they can count as the grandfather of today’s sophisticated technology but the manual credit card terminals were fun. I still remember the feeling of satisfaction when the shop assistant would place my credit card in the slot, put a paper slip over it and slide the press – to create a barely readable impression of the card that had to be signed.
Much more advanced and convenient than ‘cash in a box’ – particularly for transactions far from home and of larger sums of money! Or this is what I thought until…
In the mid 1990s I found myself in Belarus; I was visiting for work and to say that I found it hard is an understatement. My colleagues and I were instructed to wash our hair every night (Chernobyl and stuff), work was not going well, social life was even worse – we ate in a place with the feel of a down market railway station eatery every night and the only bright spot was drinking vodka; and I don’t even drink. So, we decided that we will find a restaurant and have civilised dinner. So we did!
To begin with, we were asked to order when we booked – which was the day before we actually had dinner there. When we arrived at the restaurant the following evening the first question I was asked was
‘How are you going to pay?’
‘By credit card.’ – I replied.
‘Can we see it?’
Then my credit card and I were separated for the whole duration of the meal. All ended well and it was returned to me harnessed in the manual terminal; but I would have appreciated the caviar much more if my card was where it belonged – in my wallet.
Credit card terminals
Manual terminals became a thing of the past with the advent of ‘chip and pin’ technology. This was some change – I still remember seeing one of those for the first time brought to the table in a restaurant in Paris. Wow! No signing, no basic ‘indigo’ press – this is progress. I still think that these are great; except that every time I am using one I pray; pray that the message at the end is PIN OK.
Because one of my main worries about credit card terminals is about remembering the PIN and matching it to the card. I still remember the shiny, glitzy Airport shop and the lovely watch I had taken fancy to. Next, I had whipped out one of my cards and the shop assistant was placing it in the terminal.
‘Just enter your PIN, Madame.’
Great! How hard could this be? I enter four digits once – ‘pin not accepted’. I do it again – ‘pin not accepted’. I don’t try a third time, I change the card. The same thing happens again and again. My mind is blank, my fingers are shaking and my face is the colour of a ripe tomato. I am surrounded by plastic and exasperated shop assistants; a queue has formed behind me and it is still so early in the morning. Next thing I know, my name is being called out: this whole ‘I have forgotten all my PIN numbers but I really want this watch’ thing has taken so long that my flight has boarded and is about to depart without me.
Yep, I got my useless cards, apologised quickly and ran to the gate. When my embarrassment had receded somewhat and I was calm enough to be able to think again, I set my mind to working out a system to remember my PINs. And I still lust after this particular watch.
Technology has certainly transformed the way we store, access and spend our money. But it has also added a level of sophistication we had to learn to cope with.