Visions of the Cashless Society in Science Fiction

13 04 2012

Bernardo Batiz-Lazo is Professor of Business History and Bank Management at Bangor University in Wales.  His research interests centre on the use technology in banking (e.g., the histories of the ATM, the debit card, and  direct payment technologies).

In a recent post on Bloomberg’s Echoes business history blog, Bernardo and his collaborators  Thomas Haigh and David Stearns noted that most of the classic works of science fiction (e.g., Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels of the 1950s) did not anticipate the displacement of cash by new payment technologies. The characters in these novels zipped around the galaxy in ships that exceeded the speed of light, but when they engaged in commercial transactions, they relied on coins and paper money.

As they point out,

Many technological innovations surfaced first in science fiction and then became a reality.Think of Jules Verne imagining a flight to the moon and long-range submarines decades before such things existed…but literature foresaw only limited advances in the way we exchange money. Capitalism was the default social organization of American science fiction, and few authors put much energy into imagining its future. By the 1940s, many had adopted the term “credit” as the universal name for future currencies, including Isaac Asimov in his two main strands of work (the far-future “Foundation” saga and the near-future “Robot” stories). Usually, however, “credit” functioned as a simple linguistic substitution for “dollar,” and one reads of credits being slapped onto counters, flung to parking attendants, drawn from pockets and the like.

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