When I was sixteen, I worked in a leisurewear shop in Huntingdon town centre, flogging breathable raincoats and Gore-Tex® walking boots to unsuspecting retiree outdoors enthusiasts.
I learned that with great power comes great responsibility and there’s nothing good about selling the wrong product to a perfectly nice customer. Also, I once stopped Sid Owen from buying a pair of lady’s trousers.
Anyway. Another thing I remember is accepting cheques, and needing to see a cheque guarantee card. Remember those? You had to write the card details on the back of the cheque, and the little silvery hologram icon on the card indicated the size of the cheque that a retailer could accept without risk.
How things have changed in banking and finance. I haven’t really noticed it happening much, but you only have to pause for a moment and take a look back. Everything’s different. The dude in front just bought a train ticket, with his watch.
Strangely enough, twice in the last month or so, I did have occasion to write a cheque. One payee was in the public sector, and the other was a builder. The re-emerged popularity of vinyl records has been in the media a bit lately and then suddenly it struck me.
Cheques are the vinyl of payment methods.
The cool crisp paper. The perforated stub. The arresting contrast between your bank’s branding and the black monospaced type on the white stripe along the bottom edge.
So physical. So analogue. So old school. It bears the artistic mark of your glorious signature. And it’s delicate. It’s a delicate thing. Drop the needle carelessly on your record, and you’ll scratch it; rush a cheque into its envelope, and the wet ink will smudge, betraying to its recipient your violent haste.
Actually I don’t know what it’s like to own a vinyl record because I’ve never owned one. Also, thinking a bit more carefully, perhaps it isn’t a perfect analogy after all. I understand the resurgence of vinyl is partly a reaction to the lack of apparent ownership in digital music. Where is it? I can’t pick it up. I can’t throw it at the wall. I can’t sell it to my mate. Is someone making money each time I listen to it? Who? Yes, LPs are selling again partly because they’re a physical thing; but probably it’s just as much about the clarity of control and ownership that’s made easy by physicality.
When I wrote that cheque for my builder, there was still at least one bank involved. Very likely many. I handed him my financial instruction, not a purse of gold.
Contactless mobile payments and digital wallets are marketed to us as the future. PayPal, the excellent new positioning reminds us, is “New Money”, turned positive and proud: it’s innovative, progressive, and liberating. It’s broken free from the greedy, manipulative finance industry (and the evil bankers who are to blame for everything).
Except it hasn’t broken free, at all. It is a bit innovative I suppose, but really it’s just another finance industry layer on top of the banks and credit cards. Apple Pay is the same. And so is Android Pay, which I can’t use to my liking since Barclays doesn’t support Android Pay and would rather I used its own mobile payment system. Once you’ve forgotten the slick, empowering TV campaigns, in the end it all has the distinct and familiar feeling of Old Money.
Yet there is a utopian glimmer on the horizon, for me. It’s true that a lot of people don’t understand it just yet, or trust it, and that it’s a bit fiddly to use for now. And quite a few people have said to me it’ll never catch on. But when I imagine the financial machinery of the distant future, I’m sure the smart money’s on cryptocurrency. My bitcoin are mine. They go where I put them. No-one else holds them. Other people get paid to help me facilitate and record a bitcoin transaction, but those people are peers, not banks, and I could be one of them too, if I wanted. No-one keeps anyone else’s money, even for a nano-second. When one day I can pay my builder in bitcoin, my money will go from me, to him. Like a purse of gold.
Except by the time he accepts bitcoin, he’ll probably be building boats, not houses. Or we’ll all be living on the starship Enterprise with Jean Luc Picard, or in the Matrix. I don’t know if Keanu Reeves will be there.