Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Cashless Society
Behold the future
We were walking down Cannery Row, rechristened long ago for the John Steinbeck novel, when we came to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There was a small debate about whether we would go; we decided we would, even if the price wasn’t right. I checked my smartphone and saw it would cost $49.99 per person to enter. Plenty high, sure, but this was California and I wasn’t terribly interested in budgeting anyway, not while enjoying this escape from the East Coast.
A sunny young man outside the aquarium greeted us. I asked where we could buy tickets. He told us we needed to get them online, ahead of time. It was simply not possible to buy them in-person. Such an option didn’t exist. It was easy, you see—all you had to do was purchase them on your smartphones and surely you had those and then the QR code could be scanned.
We shook our heads, thanked him, and walked away. We weren’t going to the aquarium. Something about having to do it this way killed the mood.
A word on California. The last time I went there, I was seven, and now I’m 32. Twenty-five years is a long time to be away from anywhere, particularly when that period of time covers the great bulk of your life. I went with my girlfriend to visit my uncle in San Francisco and we decided, before going, we’d do as much of California as we could. As writers, we’d also get some material from the voyage, and we were both hungry to travel far. The last time we’d boarded an airplane was 2019. Coronavirus was a fringe fear then.
I sketched it out. We’d start in San Francisco, rent a car toward the end of our time there and drive south to Monterey and Big Sur. I knew of Monterey from Steinbeck and the Monterey Pop Festival. I knew of Big Sur because my quondam literary idol, Henry Miller, had lived there. After that, we’d make the five-hour voyage down to Los Angeles and finally, for a day, we’d go to San Diego. Drink in as much of the Golden State as possible in eight days.
My knowledge of California is mediated through popular culture, novels, and the press. I am relentlessly East Coast that way, in the antediluvian manner of old America, when journeys west were infused with all kinds of import and danger, naturally life-altering in the distance traveled. I have nothing against the West; it’s simply that my mien, my weltanschauung, has been entirely shaped by sweating, shouting New York. I’ve gone elsewhere, to the Midwest plenty and a few times to Europe, but I am not as well-traveled as others in my cohort. In my New York way, I’ve sneered at them a little.
To behold California with fresh eyes is to understand why so many fled West. Before the forest fires, the droughts, the $6.50 gallons of gas, and the starter homes going for $1 million, it was the better place to be. Northern California, at least. New York cannot rival the vistas of San Francisco, not the vertiginous hills nor the sweep of the bay. The Golden Gate Bridge, russet and majestic and haunting, transfixes more than any of the East River crossings.
And Big Sur, at least, is better than the literature. Words struggle against the vastness of the Pacific, the feeling of death that takes hold as you wind your automobile on Route 1, a single turn away from a plunge down the rocks. Pull off at some point, kill the engine, and take in the sublime edge of American land. It is like nowhere else in the world.
Coming to California is a bit like viewing the past and future simultaneously. In the enormous, glittering parking lots of Dodger Stadium, you see the startling excess of midcentury automobile culture, traffic jams piled on traffic jams. Meanwhile, the trolley cars Robert Moses destroyed in New York still putter happily in San Francisco, a remnant of the earlier twentieth century some cities didn’t leave behind. A car ride beyond the limits of either place, into the parched valleys and rolling farmlands and seesawing mountains, is a casual reminder that whatever came before you will be here long after you are gone, your flesh not even a passing fad. Without intending to, we drove the same desolate junction where James Dean was killed in 1955. I imagine it hasn’t changed very much.
Elsewhere, everything is changing.
The future is in a finger scan at In-N-Out Burger, dispensing water with just a wave. It’s in the postings at the chocolate store—and almost everywhere, really, including our hotel—warning that the materials inside cause cancer. It’s in the clear, pretty sidewalk signs telling you not to smoke—cigarettes or marijuana, not here anyway, not on Rodeo Drive. It’s in the tent cities where the hundreds and thousands of homeless are herded together, the government indifferent to their fates.
And it’s in the demands, increasingly frequent, that you don’t use cash at all. Cash is the growing domain of the poor and criminal. Real people, the new society stresses, don’t use cash. All of Major League Baseball has gone cashless, but I felt the brunt most—or was reminded of it, perhaps—at Oracle Park in San Francisco. Tickets cannot, in most circumstances, be purchased physically or printed out. They must be acquired online and displayed on a smartphone for a beleaguered attendant to scan as you enter. Inside the ballpark, cash is useless. No food stand or team store accepts it. Plastic or nothing. That’s life.
For a middle-class person, this amounts to inconvenience and little more. I have a debit card and a smartphone. I am properly banked, properly on the grid. What does it matter, for me, that now I must scan a QR code? Personally, I miss ticket stubs and the ease with which physical cardboard could show a ticket-taker where you were headed. I fear the day I show up at a ballgame with my phone battery dying, my tickets unable to be shown. Or, like enough people, I could lose my phone altogether, and be denied the pleasures of a game I rightfully paid for.
Far more disturbing, though, is the complete movement beyond all cash. More and more restaurants and cultural venues don’t want it at all. For the working-class and poor, the very poor in particular, this is the final marker of where they stand in the new age. If they can’t be properly surveilled—QR codes are popular for businesses because they store digital information on customers, allowing for the sort of sophisticated tracking that would unnerve many average Americans if they really considered it—they can’t partake in the public square. Others less comfortable with technology are also locked out. There are elderly people who would prefer not to use smartphones or, if they own them, may struggle to toggle through apps and tabs. The disabled can have a challenge too.
It was noticeable that many of the homeless in California didn’t beg for money. This was true particularly in San Diego, a city with a large number of people wandering the streets during the day and camping out downtown at night. They seemed resigned to the new regime; the affluent locals and tourists wouldn’t be carrying dollars. And if those homeless gathered up enough to try to buy a night in a hotel room, the front desk would have a quick rejoinder for them: card-only.
Cash is dirty, cash is untraceable; cash is liberating. Advertisers can’t hunt down cash in the same way. Corporations must temporarily content themselves with anonymity. Cash, once in hand, doesn’t care about class. A certain income—or at least a movement out of the most destitute of ranks—is required to open a bank account and walk around with plastic. Cash doesn’t ask for your papers.
All of this rushed through me as I walked the streets of San Francisco, Monterey, Los Angeles, and San Diego. It came to me in the hallways of the Beverly Hilton, on the hot and open roads of Route 46. I was lucky enough to seamlessly enter the new regime. I wouldn’t be left behind. I had a supercomputer in my pocket to scan a code to get me dinner. I would, if I cared enough, be able to enjoy the wonders of an aquarium. But what about all those left behind?