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Deja Vu

July 19, 2011

Imagine No Cash Registers

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2011: A new app for smartphones and tablets promises to modify your shopping experience. Square, a company founded my Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, takes the power out of the hands of credit card companies and puts it into the hands of individuals—and maybe just a little into Dorsey’s. Slate reports:

The idea is simple enough: Square produces a little chip that plugs into smart phones and turns them into credit or debit card readers. Users can then accept payments for anything from a cup of lemonade to a space shuttle, were one for sale. The Square system, available for free for Apple and Android mobile devices, also works without the chip. Customers just need to type their payment information in.

The product is aimed at small businesses, half of which do not accept credit cards because of the hassle and cost of working with the major payments-network providers. Indeed, Dorsey thought of the cool little tool when a friend of his, an artisanal glass blower, no less, complained about losing out on business because he could not accept cards. But anyone can use it, for personal or commercial purposes.


1888: Minus the digital component and blatant capitalist motivations—like the 2.75% cut of each transaction to which Square is entitled—author Edward Bellamy envisioned a similar upheaval in shopping culture. His novel, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, which coined the term “credit card,” follows Julian West, a young man who falls asleep at the end of the nineteenth century only to wake up to a socialist utopia in the year 2000. In this selection, Dr. Leete, Julian’s guide through the future, explains how they get by these days without cash money:

“You were surprised,” he said, “at my saying we got along without money or trade, but a moment’s reflection will show that trade existed and money was needed in your day simply because the business of production was left in private hands, and that, consequently, they are superfluous now.”

“I do not at once see how that follows,” I replied. “It is very simple,” said Dr. Leete.” “When innumerable, different, and independent persons produced the various things needful to life and comfort, endless exchanges between individuals were requisite in order that they might supply themselves with what they desired. These exchanges constituted trade, and money was essential as their medium. But as soon as the nation became the sole producer of all sorts of commodities, there was no need of exchanges between individuals that they might get what they required. Everything was procurable from one source, and nothing could be procured anywhere else. A system of direct distribution from the national storehouses took the place of trade, and for this money was unnecessary.”

“How is this distribution managed?” I asked.

“On the simplest possible plan,” replied Dr. Leete. “A credit corresponding to his share of the annual product of the nation is given to every citizen on the public books at the beginning of each year, and a credit card issued him with which he procures at the public storehouses, found in every community, whatever he desires whenever he desires it. This arrangement you will see totally obviates the necessity for business transactions of any sort between individuals and consumers. Perhaps you would like to see what our credit-cards are like.”

“You observe,” he pursued as I was curiously examining the piece of pasteboard he gave me, “that this card is issued for a certain number of dollars. We have kept the old word, but not the substance. The term, as we use it, answers to no real thing, but merely serves as an algebraical symbol for comparing the values of products with one another. For this purpose they are all priced in dollars and cents, just as in your day. The value of what I procure on this card is checked off by the clerk, who pricks out of these tiers of squares the price of what I order.”
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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