'Not the most popular man in the ATM industry': Part I

 
April 5, 2012 | by Suzanne Cluckey

When you think about a book title like "The End of Money," you tend to picture its author as a MoPay fanatic in fashionably nerdy eyeglasses and skinny jeans, brandishing the "flaming torch" app on his iPhone and exhorting all of the virtual-villagers to storm the castle and drive a PayPal dongle through the undead heart of cash once and for all.

It's hard to tell absolutely for certain from a single phone conversation, but David Wolman actually seems pretty calm and rational about cash. And his book (full title, "The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers — and the Coming Cashless Society") is as much an exposition on our relationship with cash as an exploration of our world without it.

What Wolman's book is not is a diatribe against the dollar bill — until you get around to talking about the truly skeezy germ farm that is a typical U.S. banknote. What The End of Money is is a sort of economic-existentialist look at the real value of currency (an IOU that the government hopes you'll never ask them to redeem because, really, what are they going to give you for it?); at the cultural integration of cash (reflected in generations of slang from "pelf" to "dead presidents") and at the psychic power that it has in our lives (not "Fortunes Read, $10" psychic power, but emotional/spiritual/intellectual psychic power that makes people say, "You can pry my cold hard cash out of my cold dead fist").

The strange attachment to cash that makes us willing to spend more to produce it than its actual face value was the genesis of "The End of Money," as Wolman explained in a phone interview from his hotel room in Denver.

ATM: What made you decide to write "The End of Money?"

DW: "I, like many people, was hearing stories about the cost of making pennies and nickels; right now it's about 2 1/2 cents per penny and the nickel is up to 11 cents per unit. And that's pretty lopsided stuff for a non-economist to understand.

And that small piece of news … that got me poking around a little more about the cost of cash more broadly; cash maintenance or the cost of cash to society. So I put together a short essay for Wired on the subject positing the idea that maybe cash's time has come … It was sufficiently pugnacious, I guess, and short.

But the response was overwhelming, just in terms of the volume of correspondence I received from people, let alone the level of emotion, really — more so against the idea [of getting rid of cash] than for the idea. Talking about the fate of cash … it stirs up an incredibly powerful emotional response from people, more so than I was anticipating.

I knew it would probably strike a nerve but I didn't really think it would be the full-on hornet's nest response … I started to think, wow, why do people have such an incredibly strong reaction to this idea when we've already pushed cash rather far to the margins of our everyday lives? Of course, it's still important and all over the place — thanks in large part to ATMs — but it's not a very big part of my everyday life, or your everyday life, I would imagine.

So what is it about wondering in a kind of quasi-formal, quasi-public manner about the twilight of cash that gets people so fired up? That response, to me, signaled that there might be room here for something certainly larger than an essay. That's when I vowed to try to write this book.

ATM: You know you're not the most popular man in the ATM industry now. In fact, a guy I was talking to last week told me to give you a kick in the shins for him. I think he was kidding, though.

DW: I hope they see the get-the-conversation-going element to it and don't see me as a zealot-like campaigner. You know, it's not like the future is my doing …

ATM: "Don't kill the messenger."

DW: Right. Anyway, they'd have to get in line behind a lot of other people. You've got all the Book of Revelation people who hate me, you've got all of the big-brother conspiracy theorists who hate me, you've got all the people who hate e-books, they're the same people who don't want to get rid of the tactile experience of cash — so they're really going to have to take a number here.

In part two of our discussion of "The End of Money," Wolman talks about the pros and cons of cash and the reasons behind our psychological attachment to paper money. 


Suzanne Cluckey / Suzanne’s editorial career has spanned three decades and encompassed all B2B and B2C communications formats. Her award-winning work has appeared in trade and consumer media in the United States and internationally.
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