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Future tension

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I was pottering around the British Library’s superb exhibition on science fiction and, since it is free, felt it only moral and just to stop off in the gift shop and buy a couple of books. Truth be told, there were a hundred books there I wanted to buy, but I decided to limit myself to two, one of them being a copy of Edwin Abbott’s magnificent Flatland, one of my all-time favourite books, for no.2 son. Browsing on, I was astonished to find a new edition of Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward, 2000-1887” from the Oxford University Press. This is dated 2009, so it didn’t exist when I wrote about the book back in 2006.

I’m always curious about the first reference to the credit card in literature. The oldest I’ve found so far is in a long-forgotten text from 1886 called “Looking Backward, 2000-1887” by one Edward Bellamy. I picked up a 1947 edition from the Amazon marketplace, which suggests it must have been reprinted a few times. Indeed, the dust jacket claims it to be one of the best selling utopian fantasies of all time.

[From Digital Money: 1886 and all that]

In this new version, according to the web site (I haven’t read it yet – will start tonight):

  • The second most successful novel to be published in nineteenth-century America–a book whose thunderous indictment of industrial capitalism and vision of life in a socialist utopia still touches a nerve in the twenty-first century.
  • The introduction offers a highly original reassessment of the novel, exploring the political and psychological peculiarities of this celebrated utopian fiction
  • Uses the second, revised edition text of the novel which made “Looking Backward” a bestseller, and the notes detail significant variations from the first edition.
  • Contains an up-to-date bibliography and chronology of the author’s life

The discovery of this new edition made me think again about just how long it takes to effect change in the conservative world of money. Yet perhaps Bellamy was only a couple of decades out in his predictions of cashlessness, which isn’t bad across a 125-odd span. Public attitudes are changing, even in conservative nations such as our United Kingdom.

Only 31% of people said using notes and coins was their preferred payment method, with 41% saying they would choose to use a card if they could, according to the Payments Council.

[From The Press Association: Consumers ‘choose cards over cash’]

Personally, I would never use notes and coins again if I had the choice, and it looks as if more and more people are coming to the same conclusion.

It found that while 83% of people aged over 55 would use cash when buying something for up to £3, 12% of under-35s would use a debit card.

[From The Press Association: Consumers ‘choose cards over cash’]

I’m certainly over 35, but I fall in the later category. I would always used a card, given the option, although I never use a debit card of course. Why anyone would use a debit card when they could use a credit card (except in the face of surcharging, about which more in a later post) I don’t know. But this leads me to conclude that Bellamy may well have been a more accurate soothsayer than anyone suspects. This is because the “credit card” that he describes in the book is actually a pre-authorised offline prepaid card, and these surely are they key cash replacement product de nos jours. In the Federal Reserve Payments Study last year, prepaid was identified as the fastest growing segment.

The Study found that prepaid cards represented the fastest growing payments segment from 2006 to 2009, with an annual growth rate of transactions at 21.5%. By way of comparison, the number of debit card transactions grew at 14.8% and the number of credit card transactions declined by .2% annually over the same time period.

[From PaymentsJournal – Prepaid Transaction Volume Continues to Grow, Even as the Size of the Transactions Gets Smaller]

I’ve just been exploring some prepaid opportunities with one of our clients, and one of the factors that we were kicking around (not giving any secrets away!) was that prepaid is a way to experiment (provided that not-too-ridiculous KYC/AML/CTF doesn’t derail it) in a way that other products aren’t.

From the consumer side, prepaid allows consumers to test new opportunities and options without risking a lot of money or putting their bank accounts or credit cards on the line.

[From PaymentsJournal – When It Comes to New Payments Technology, Prepaid Will Lead the Way]

This is a good point, but I feel there’s another factor, at least in Europe. You don’t need to be a bank to offer prepaid services: the combination of an Electronic Money Institution Licence (ELMI) and a Payment Institution Licence (PI) means that any company can offer a full service: an open-loop prepaid card. I suspect that many of the companies applying for these licences are doing so because they want to use new technology to deliver new services that need payment, if you see what I mean. That is, they don’t expect to earn money from the payments themselves, but from the value-added services that need the payments to take place (what people are starting to call the “Google Model”). Hence Bellamy’s vision may be realised not from within the payments industry, but from, say, retail or mobile or brand or somewhere else entirely.

I’ve been using the prepaid contactless MasterCard on my Orange phone for a couple of weeks now — mainly in Pret and McDonalds — and I have to say it works pretty well. I’ve very comfortable with the idea of switching to prepaid, because prepaid on the phone isn’t a pain, it’s easy. When the prepaid balance falls below a certain level, you’re asked to enter your PIN and top up. Simple. Thus while it may be initially hard to imagine prepaid cards replacing cash in retail transactions, the more I use my prepaid “card” in retail transactions, the easier it becomes.

Naturally, I obtained a spare copy of the new edition of “Looking Backward” and I have it on my desk beside me as I type. I will cheerfully dispatch it post-haste to the first person to respond to this post with the name of the first-person narrator of the story in question. In the traditional fashion, this competition is open to all except for employees of Consult Hyperion and members of my immediate family, is void where prohibited and is not connected in any way with the London Olympics 2012. The prize must be claimed within three months. Oh, and no-one can win more than one of the Digital Money Blog prizes per calendar year.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

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3 thoughts on “Future tension”

  1. mail@andrewhewitt.co.uk' Andrew H says:

    Julian West I think?

  2. Dave Birch says:

    We have a winner! Thanks for the contact details, the book will go in the post tomorrow.

  3. mail@andrewhewitt.co.uk' Andrew H says:

    Book has arrived thanks! I look forward to reading it.

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