Public transport passengers in London could soon pay for their newspapers,
coffee and car parking fares using Transport for London's (TfL) Oyster travel
cards. TfL has shortlisted seven consortia to bid for the Oyster e-money scheme,
which will allow commuters to pay for low value goods and services at
newsagents, fast food outlets, supermarkets and parking machines.
reported in Computing
In the same way as Martin Heidegger only really noticed his hammer when it broke, I was without any bank cards recently which made me very aware of the shift from a cash society to a swipe-card society. The obvious thing to say about Oyster cards becoming a substitute for cash is that it infringes privacy, to which the obvious retort is that it is no worse than how credit card companies and loyalty cards operate (zzzzzz....).
But the point about privacy is not that Big Brother will snoop on where I buy my chocolate electronically (and if I was a terrorist on the run, I'd be unlikely to use electronic anything) but something about the experience and ethics of public space. As currency becomes invisible and networked, it becomes a form of authentication rather than a form of payment. Doors open, chocolate is handed over, rail cards appear out of machines. I prove that I am legit. It is exactly what Jeremy Rifkin was getting at in The Age of Access: ownership of currency is superseded by the right to pass through.
There's also something of the Me++ aspect to it, in that, as a mobile individual bearing tools, I am in constant technological dialogue with the urban environment. As the city gets smarter and wireless technologies get smaller, the individual becomes ever more efficiently churned through transport and infrastructural networks, like one of the balls in Big Loader. Is there anything to prevent the ID card eventually doubling up as a credit/Oyster/access card? That way one could authenticate oneself to anyone who requested it, be it a newsagent, a policeman or an employer. I guess that would be the consummation of the consumer-citizen concept, now increasingly used around government: your ability to pay and your membership of society would become merged into a single form of identity.
Yet once one is reduced back to fivers and coins, the city feels very different all over again. One moves from a post-pay to a pre-pay world, in which anonymity is won at the expense of convenience, something the government is convinced 'the public' don't want (William Heath has queried this repeatedly). It is a pain in the arse in many respects, but you do also get that bizarre, slightly retro feeling of being able to wander off into a crowd and be anyone you want, like the first time you go to the shops on your own to spend your pocket money. The flaneur, for instance, would surely have to use real pounds and pence (alright, francs and centimes) rather than an Oyster card or Visa. There is something rather wonderful about cash, in that if money talks, then nothing else has to.
Privacy arguments too often revolve around Big Brother vs libertarians, with extreme examples being bandied around by both sides. The ethical experience of privacy - or disconnection from the network - is that of a different type of freedom from the one being offered by the network. It's the freedom to embrace contingency and inconvenience, rather than the freedom to get what you want. I propose a 'Leave Your Wallet and Mobile Phone at Home Day', in which once a year, individuals hit the streets with nothing other than twenty quids worth of low-tech, Victorian cash. Then see what happens.