What’s It Worth?

There are boxes at the front of the buses now. They’re little rectangular boxes at the front window, next to the fare collection box, and they have a digital screen that says “Coming in 2020!” although really they’re already here. What they portend, though, is what’s coming in 2020, and I have a pretty good idea what it is, and I have an even better idea that I don’t like it.
I like paying cash for things. Not everything–I’m not going to walk around with a briefcase full of bills like a guy in an old gangster movie, but for a lot of things, especially small purchases, I opt for paper over plastic. I’m not averse to using a card. When I was in college there was a bank right across the street from the campus and, like most of my fellow students, I went and opened an account and I thought it was really cool that a few days later they mailed me a card and a letter with my PIN so I could go to the ATM that was conveniently located in front of the bank and get money whenever I wanted it. And I could then use this money to pay for stuff. I also remember when stores had signs up that said they wouldn’t accept credit cards for purchases under a certain amount–I think it was usually $10–because they didn’t want the hassle and added charges for such a small amount.
The times they have a-changed. The other day I went into a coffee shop and, while I realize you can now easily spend $10 or more on a single cup of coffee, I was just getting a simple cup of joe to go that was two bucks, and as I started to pay for it the barista said, “We don’t accept cash.”
Now I don’t want to sound paranoid but I’m going to sound paranoid. Part of why I like paying with cash is that’s a personal transaction that’s not being processed, fed into a database, connected to my other purchases, compared to similar demographic data, and ultimately used to try to produce highly targeted advertising to get me to buy more stuff. And that’s, as far as I know, the least nefarious use of my purchasing history, but it still bothers me. It’s why I have qualms about using services like Uber and Lyft instead of a taxi. Granted I have friends who’ve driven for both Uber and Lyft, and part of the appeal was that it was easy to get into it to earn some extra cash, but the drivers for those services are earning less now than they used to even as the companies themselves go up in value. The value of those companies has also always been based less on the actual fees they get for rides and more on the rider data they collect. And while you can pay for a cab ride with a credit card I think–it’s been a long time since I took a taxi anywhere–you can still pay with cash. Parking meters are being phased out too and replaced with parking lots that require a credit card, and while it’s nice to not have to feed the meter every hour or so my experience has been that I pay a lot more for the convenience, as well as sharing my license plate number which is another data point.
Granted I see very few people paying for bus rides with cash anymore. Part of this may be the convenience of not having to carry, or worry about, change. The fare for a single ride in Nashville is now $2, although it used to be $1.70 and if you put two bucks into the fare collector you’d have to ask the driver for a change card, which you could then use to pay for future bus rides and nothing else. I never knew why you had to ask for a change card; the machine should have generated one automatically, but maybe most people just didn’t care. I’d often find seats littered with five and ten cent change cards. And a nickel has been the minimum you could drop in for I don’t know how long, probably because of the time I paid my entire bus fare in pennies, but that’s another story.
Now, if the buses are going to stop taking cash and requiring people to use credit and debit cards I think it’s fair to ask, what’s that going to cost us?


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  1. mydangblog

    In Toronto, they phased out the use of tokens for the subway and now you have to have a card that you tap. You CAN pay in cash but you have to find a staffed kiosk—not great for tourists although it’s more convenient for regular travelers. At least the price didn’t go up!
    mydangblog recently posted…My Week 261: And Now For Something Completely DifferentMy Profile

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      It’s nice that the price didn’t go up when they phased out the tokens. And, by the way, I’m still annoyed that Canada phased out the penny, because I’m a bit of a numismatist and I got a kick out of collecting Canadian pennies and seeing how they changed over time, but that’s another story.
      Anyway it seems like the move to cards is almost always an excuse to raise prices, so good for Toronto.

  2. Bookstooge

    Hate to say it, but I think we’re going to see more and more heading towards a cash-less society. I don’t like that one bit.
    Bookstooge recently posted…#6degrees – A Gentleman in Moscow To…My Profile

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I don’t like the idea of a cash-less society either. I know there are those who say “it’s fine if you have nothing to hide” but there are a lot of legitimate reasons to be concerned about our purchases being tracked, not the least of which is the high number of false positives.
      Although I do find there are advantages to being able to buy stuff online. Browsing through what’s out there I find so much stuff I want. Oh, wait, that’s not really an advantage.

  3. Ann Koplow

    I give you a lot of credit for this great post, Chris.
    Ann Koplow recently posted…Day 2494: Sometimes life sucksMy Profile

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I think you deserve more than a little credit for giving me so much to think about. If I were tracking the data I might even find your influence here somewhere.

  4. Tom

    Extremely poignant and thoughtful post, Christopher. I am one who has always welcomed the transition to the cashless society, despite the warnings I’ve been given. I love the convenience. It isn’t about convenience, though, is it? It’s about the data. I still can’t see myself hoping to go back to cash (hell, I’d love a barcode on my wrist for purchases and an implant in my head for internet and phone just so I wouldn’t have to carry ANYTHING) but your post, and those warnings from my comrades, will keep me thinking about how I’m the one who’s wrong about the whole thing. My convenience costs you some freedom.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I wouldn’t say explicitly that you’re wrong about the convenience of doing without cash. There are places where the convenience that technology offers has been a good thing. For instance I like that most libraries have made it easier to check out books, or read books online–and because a lot of librarians are concerned about privacy they deliberately don’t track patrons’ browsing data, and even delete checkout records. So it’s possible to have the convenience of not using cash combined with privacy protections. Will the powers that be allow that though? That remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely.


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