In 2014, Cass Sunstein—one-time “regulatory czar” for the Obama administration—wrote an op-ed advocating for a cashless society, on the grounds that it would reduce street crime. His reasoning? A new study had found an apparent causal relationship between the implementation of the Electronic Benefit Transfer system for welfare benefits, and a drop in crime.
Under the new EBT system, welfare recipients could now use debit cards, rather than being forced to cash checks in their entirety—meaning there was less cash circulating in poor neighborhoods. And the less cash there was on the streets, the study’s authors concluded, the less crime there was.
Perhaps burglaries, larcenies, and assaults had gone down because there was simply less to readily steal. Perhaps, also, the debit cards deterred people from spending money on drugs and other black market goods. While nothing was really stopping them from withdrawing cash and then spending it illegally, the famous Sunsteinian Nudge was in effect—the very slightest friction in the environment pushed people away from committing crime.
The year after Sunstein’s op-ed was published, in a seemingly unrelated incident,a student at Columbia University was arrested and charged with five drug-related offenses, including possession with the intent to sell. Supposedly, his fellow students and customers had paid him through the Paypal-owned smartphone app Venmo.
Venmo makes every transaction public by default. The app features a social-network-like feed where you can see your friends sending each other varying sums of money, often accompanied with cute descriptions and emoji. The alleged dealer asked his customers to write a funny description for every transaction, and in doing so, turned his feed (and others’) into an open record of drug trafficking.
Nothing was really stopping the students from going to an ATM and withdrawing cash to use in the old-fashioned way. But that takes time and energy and meanwhile Venmo is sitting right in your pocket. The Ivy League’s best and brightest were Nudged into narcing on themselves.
In a cashless society, the cash has been converted into numbers, into signals, into electronic currents. In short: Information replaces cash.
Information is lightning-quick. It crosses cities, states, and national borders in the twinkle of an eye. It passes through many kinds of devices, flowing from phone to phone, and computer to computer, rather than being sealed away in those silent marble temples we used to call banks. Information never jangles uncomfortably in your pocket.
But wherever information gathers and flows, two predators follow closely behind it: censorship and surveillance. The case of digital money is no exception. Where money becomes a series of signals, it can be censored; where money becomes information, it will inform on you.