Settling into the Cashless Society
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
During a taxi ride two years ago in Northern China, my middle-aged driver told me to download a new ride-hailing app and to get a free ride as part of a broader promotional campaign. I remained silent – because unfortunately and paradoxically, as a “foreigner” (while Hong Kong officially remains part of China), I didn’t have a local bank account required to open a mobile wallet – a prerequisite to use any ride-hailing app. Eager to share his wisdom, the driver shrugged and said: “You must be worried about the whole non-nonsensical privacy thing. Just enjoy the free stuff young man”.
The marriage of the mobile phone and payment reflected in this encounter is a vivid example of what Star and Ruhleder (1996) considered to be an infrastructure – something that we take for granted (we only remember its existence when it breaks down) that is also seamlessly entangled with other infrastructures (bank, transportation) and conventions (to use the app, you must have mobile payment set up).
A focal point in the Anthropological study of physical infrastructures has long been the tension between promises and our actual, daily experience (Harvey and Know, 2015). What of digital infrastructure? The development of “Cashless Society” is either feverishly endorsed through a language of economic efficiency and technological competition, or demonised as yet another dystopian, institutional scheme to layoff workers and harvest data. However, neither offer an explanation of my experience of exclusion.
An answer may be found if we turn examine to how structural violence, namely systemic exclusion, has historically materialised in physical infrastructure (Rodgers and O’Neill, 2012). A classic example of infrastructural violence was the exclusion of less privileged people, who relied on public transport, from Long Island through the deliberate design of low bridges in the area to keep buses away (Pfaffenberger, 1992).
What may be the digital equivalent of the low bridge? WeChat – a poster child for China’s innovative prowess, is an integrated platform combining mobile payment, instant messaging, and social media, with a monthly user base of more than 1 billion people (I'd be surprised if WeChat isn't already part of mainstream social vocabulary by the time you're reading this). The all-encompassing reach of this “infrastructure of infrastructures” makes the app essential for everyday life and extremely difficult for users to opt-out. My mundane experience of structural exclusion only leads to more questions for a country that boasts to be a pioneer in “going cashless”:who might be excluded from this digitised system of transaction? More importantly, how might marginalisation and exclusion extend to other features afforded by the platform? The reputation of WeChat is characterised by admiration of growth as much as controversies around censorship. Politically sensitive keywords, images, and links are blocked automatically in chats and posts alike. In a more recent scandal, warnings about a forthcoming pandemic were censored at the onset of the Covid in Wuhan, and the doctors/whistle blowers who tried to alarm the public were arrested for spreading false information. How should users balance between the need for daily transactions, communication, and also privacy concerns (and by extension access to information)?
I must be worrying too much again, let’s just enjoy the free stuff, no?
Harvey, P and Knox, H. (2015). Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Pfaffenberger, B. (1992). Technological Dramas. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 17 (3), pp. 282-312.
Rodgers, D and O’Neill, B. (2012). Infrastructural violence: Introduction to the special issue. Ethnography, 13(4), 401–412.
Star, SL and Ruhleder, K. (1996). Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces. Information Systems Research, 7 (1), pp. 111-134.
Scott, B. (2018). The cashless society is a con – and big finance is behind it. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/19/cashless-society-con-big-finance-banks-closing-atms [Accessed 19 Oct. 2019].