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Money2020 Stirs Up Cashless Society Debate

While much of the chatter at the Money2020 conference in Las Vegas centered on schemes to eliminate hard cash, former Citibanker Jay Bhattacharya took a contrarian approach, brandishing a newspaper clipping from 1972 that confidently forecast the arrival of a cashless society by the end of the 1970s.

The yellowing clipping, headlined ‘Cashless Society Predicted by Credit Card Use’, claimed cash and paper cheques would disappear with the mass adoption of credit cards and the unveiling of ATM machines at more than 5,300 banks owned by the Interbank Card Association.

The article, which appeared in the January 26, 1972 edition of The Fresno Bee, forecast that the combination of credit cards and ATM machines would allow consumers the means to carry money for only emergencies.

Bhattacharya – who was at Citigroup for seven years where he was responsible for its emerging payments strategy and helped launch Citi Ventures – was at the show to promote his new start-up ZipMark, which creates digital copies of paper cheques to speed up the payment and settlement cycle.

“It’s fascinating to know that 40 years ago Americans thought we’d ditch our purses and wallets and just walk around with a credit card to pay for things,” he says. “I think the lesson learned from the 1972 article about evolving into a ‘Cashless Society’ is that technology will improve the way we conduct transactions but at the end of the day it probably won’t completely replace paper money.”

Delegates attending Money2020 were subject to a barrage of announcements from a host of start-ups and bigger companies like Google, PayPal, and Amazon, all operating from the same basic presumption that the payments industry is ripe for disruption by fresh digital alternatives.

But to be fair, much of the hype was tempered with a healthy dose of realism. As our own correspondent at the show noted, every session had caveats from speakers that cash has been around for 3000 years and isn’t going to disappear overnight.

This year’s sold-out show was double the size of the inaugural event last year, with 4000 conference-goers in attendance and much to debate and discuss. The dawn of the cashless society may still be some way off, but we’ll be packing our smart watches and mobile phones for next year’s conference…just in case.

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