David Bullard writes on the disturbing implications of a China-style cashless society [FOR MEMBERS]
OUT TO LUNCH
I wrote my final cheque to SARS last August. My bank informed me that they would no longer be processing cheques at the year end and so a long, and much cherished, tradition of writing out cheques had come to an abrupt end.
When I first got a cheque-book I was working for a company in London who banked at and paid salaries through Messrs Coutts & Co (the Queen’s bankers) and my branch was 15 Lombard Street. The cheques were printed in a rather austere grey colour with the name of the bank looking something like Coutts&Coand the name of the account holder as D.G Bullard Esq. Since most of the bank’s clients would probably have had titles this was to reassure me that, although a commoner, I was still a free yeoman.
A bank account at Coutts was very prestigious back then and most of my contemporaries were hugely envious of my elevated social status. The cheque book came in a handsome burgundy leather wallet with the imprint of three gold crowns and the date AD1692 just to remind any UK banking upstarts who was the boss around here.
You would have been unlikely to find a branch of Coutts&Co in somewhere like Bognor Regis so just to remind you of the exclusivity of your bank (and the enormous snob value it carried) a short list of other branches of Coutts&Co appeared at the front of the cheque book.
The branch network extended to the very ends of the known world back in the late 1970’s including branches in Kensington, Mayfair, Park Lane, Sloane Street, Eton and Cavendish Square with a rep office in Norwich and Winchester.
For some reason Bristol (home of slave traders and evil colonialists) had a full branch. However, if you had tried to cash a Coutts&Co cheque north of the Watford Gap as I once did you would have been met with stares of incredulity and an accusation that you’d bought the cheque book at a joke shop.
I thought the cheque book deserved a mark of respect so I decided to be particularly pretentious and only write cheques with a Parker fountain pen. In those days there was no carbon paper in the cheque book so one could, at the end of a meal at a restaurant, flamboyantly unscrew the end of a fountain pen, slowly fill in the cheque adding an appropriately generous tip, scribble a signature and let the waiter do the rest. Needless to say, a Coutts cheque would never have been refused because of the exalted status of the bank.
It took me a long time to migrate to online banking but, since cheques are now a thing of the past, I have been forced kicking and screaming into the twenty first century and it’s not a comfortable feeling at all.
To start with, it appears that if you want to take full advantage of online banking you need to lay out upwards of R20 000 just to access your account.
You certainly need a smart phone which, if it is an iPhone, will cost you upwards of R11 000. Then you need a computer and that’s going to set you back another R10 000 at least. Some people tell me that you can do your banking on a smart phone but that hasn’t worked for me so far.
For example, if a transaction requires a one time pin you have to switch from your banking app to incoming messages and that generally kills the banking app. So it’s laptop and cell phone for me and make sure the reading glasses are close by.
But what happens when there’s no connectivity as happened with me recently? Bills needed to be paid but I couldn’t connect to the bank’s server so there was no hope of paying anything. Fortunately everything came back on after a few hours but it reminded me of how vulnerable we all are when we have no electricity or no connectivity.
Which is why I am ever more spooked when people talk enthusiastically about a cashless society, facial recognition technology and all sorts of other geeky things that are supposed to make our lives much easier but, in reality, simply give other people far more control over us.
I watched a YouTube video recently called “New Money; The Greatest Wealth Creation Event in History (2019)”. It’s been put together by a company called Stansberry Research and it’s a heavy sales pitch for investing in China before it’s too late.
The video is full of perpetually tanned rich white guys telling you what a dickhead you would be not to join them in the investment opportunity of the millennium but what is more frightening is the world they describe.
Much is made of the fact that China is becoming a cashless society and most transactions are now carried out with a Chinese version of Snapscan. This happens even in the open-air markets and all you do is select what you want to buy and then aim your expensive smart phone at a sort of bar code and the money is transferred from you to the merchant. Couldn’t be simpler could it? At one point in the video the two hugely impressed Americans go into a convenience store to buy a couple of bottles of coke.
The store has no staff so the first thing to do is look into the camera and facial recognition technology recognizes you and let’s you into the store. Then you select what you want to buy and go into a booth where the facial recognition identifies you once more and allows you to pay with your smart phone.
Again, no cash changes hands. Lose your phone though and not only can somebody spend your money but you have no identity.
The only problem with this is that Big Brother knows exactly where you have been, what you bought, how much you paid for it and where you took it. And if we become that dependent on technology to lead our daily lives what happens when it malfunctions or, worse, when either our government or a malevolent foreign power decides to jam the system? We’ve already seen governments trying to quell riots by closing down the internet in countries.
More sinister though is the use of all this technology to reward or punish you. Imagine if you were in arrears with your municipal rates and went off to buy an airline ticket from Cape Town to Joburg. But the ticket won’t be issued because you owe money to Cape Town and might be absconding. At the same time you try to buy the ticket law enforcement officers are dispatched to the airport to have a chat with you.
Or you’ve posted an offensive Tweet and the Twitter mob have lodged a complaint. This triggers a chain reaction which involves all your credit cards being blocked pending an investigation into your conduct and your electricity and water being cut off because you have demonstrated bad citizenship. All easy to do and not too far fetched because such things are already happening in China.
Fortunately we can still take comfort from the fact that we have barely managed to cope with the third industrial revolution in this country so the fourth might still be some way off. When Cde Ace becomes president that could all change though.
I’d be very surprised if the now suspended Cape Transport MEC Bonginkosi Madikizela were to be the only politician to have inflated his credentials. His claim to hold a B.Com degree was found to be untrue after he was ‘outed’ on Daily Maverick by Rebecca Davis and Victoria O’Regan. I’m sure the timing of this revelation was purely coincidental and had nothing to do with mayoral elections.
As many commentators pointed out a B.Com wasn’t an essential qualification for any of the jobs he has had in the past so why pretend to have it? The answer to that is deeply rooted in the appalling legacy of colonialism which encourages people to get academic qualifications so that they can feel superior to those who don’t.
In a world where we are now urged to respect one another’s personal truths (even if they are lies) who is to say that Bonginkosi can’t identify as a man with a B.Com any more than Pallo Jordan can’t identify as a man with a doctorate or I can’t identify as a Professor of Applied Histrionics?
This ridiculously outdated notion that one has to pass exams or demonstrate some competence before one gets a qualification has been neatly addressed by the South African government over the years.
Their solution is to keep dropping the pass mark so that everyone can have a crack at living their dream and become an engineer or a doctor. And if a few bridges collapse or a patient has his left leg amputated in error then that is surely a small price to pay in return for being able to believe in your authentic self.
The devastating fire damage to the University of Cape Town and particularly the Jagger Library has depressed me no end. What depressed me even more though were the comments on Twitter that this was a wonderful thing to happen because the library was full of white colonialist propaganda.
One imbecilic Tweeter suggested that people should go and buy petrol to help things along and destroy the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes. All of which makes me wonder whether the fires at UCT didn’t have some outside help. On the plus side, this tragedy has brought South Africans of all races and colours together led, as so often, by the marvelous Gift of the Givers. That is what gives me hope.