Tuesday 22 October 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Hong Kong protests remind us of all-important power of cash'

Break-in: protesters stormed the Legislative Council building on the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China.
Break-in: protesters stormed the Legislative Council building on the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China.
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

I first noticed it, I think, in 2008 on a flight to the States.

Myself and my wife settled into the long-haul flight to LA, that bruising, gruelling, endurance test for impatient flyers like myself who simply want to get to where we're going as quickly as possible (never trust anyone who says it's "the journey, not the destination". They've obviously never been stuck on the M50 at rush hour.)

After the meal, I went back to the galley to get a can of beer and handed over $10.

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No joy.

Initially, I assumed the trolley dude was out of change, but no - they refused to take any cash at all.

It was part of the airline's "commitment to a cashless society", which meant that every transaction on the flight had to be done with a credit card. A minor inconvenience for people with credit cards, a major obstacle for those of us who don't.

The trolley dude agreed that it was nuts, and we came to an agreement - for 20 bucks he'd keep the drinks and snacks coming, as long as the two of us stayed quiet about it (the reason why I'm not naming the particular airline).

At the time, the missus put it down to one of those vagaries of American life; they can be rather odd when it comes to financial matters, as anyone who has ever tried to deal with a bank in America will know.

I was reminded of this absurd notion of a 'cashless society' for two different reasons this week - one of them depressing, and the other quite terrifying.

It turns out that some cafés across the country have recently gone totally cashless and will only accept payment by card.

In one instance, it's because of theft and they don't want any spare cash lying around, which is fair enough while another café has gone cashless because they liked that system when they were in the States - hipsters gonna do what hipsters gonna do, I suppose.

But the other reason is rather more alarming.

The protests in Hong Kong have become more febrile and violent. The mainland Chinese authorities want to introduce a new extradition law which would allow them to lift pro-democracy protesters from the streets of Hong Kong and bury them in some obscure gulag.

The protesters realised the Chinese authorities were able to discover the identity of the masked, anonymous demonstrators through the debit cards they were using in the areas where the protests took place.

Individuals are always smarter than any rigid political system, of course, so they quickly swapped debit cards for cash.

This is the face of the future - Big Brother is already here and he has been watching all of us for a long time. It's just that we've been too occupied by other issues to notice.

When I arrived back from that trip to the States, I promptly wrote a piece wondering why the Americans, citizens of a nation born from the desire for freedom, were so happy to hand over every record of their movements and purchases to any arm of the state which might want to go snooping on them. At the time that was dismissed as paranoid nonsense. But in the decade since then, we've developed a fiendish surveillance culture and it's no surprise that most Western governments are extremely keen on the idea of a cashless society - because it makes it easier to keep tabs on people.

Obviously, nobody is suggesting that Western governments are as bad as the Chinese - but don't fool yourself into thinking that they wouldn't like to have some of their powers.

It's all part of a bigger picture, which through either accident or design has resulted in a situation where virtually everything we do is recorded, detailed and tabulated. It could be something as simple as a loyalty card for your local supermarket. Or it could be something as intrusive as demanding that people provide "proof of identity" before logging on to 'adult' websites.

But while both examples rest on opposite sides of the intrusiveness-spectrum, they are all indicative of one thing - we are now simply mobile data packages, to be tracked and monitored. It was heartening to see a survey a few weeks ago in Irish Tech News which discovered that 88pc of Irish people don't want to live in a cashless society. The problem is that the 88pc have no say in the matter.

It's sold by businesses as a way of making transactions easier. It's supported by marketing companies who want as much of your personal data as possible for commercial reasons and it's quietly endorsed by Western governments who, in an era of increased state surveillance, know that's the best way to track someone's movements.

There's also a cultural dimension, because cash has been increasingly portrayed as being an outdated relic of pre-digital times, soon to be as obsolete as C-90 cassettes and stone-washed jeans.

But as the demonstrators in Hong Kong remind us, giving up cash means giving up your privacy and while things may never get as bad here as they are over there, we should remember that every government, no matter how benign, will always, always abuse any powers they are given.

No, I remain firmly in the old fashioned, Luddite camp - I love cash. Like us all, I just wish I had some more of it...

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