Currency has come in many forms since it has been in use. Animals and vegetables, goods and services, metal and paper and even plastic have all been used to represent money. Of course, just like cows were not the final form of currency, coins, bills, and plastic cards will not be either. It’s hard to say with complete certainty what the future of currency will look like, but many signs point to digital money as soon becoming the new norm. However, will digitized money take over the use of paper bills, coins, and credit cards entirely? Will new forms of money like the Bitcoin take over common currency across the globe, or will it be a mixture of both? Many economists feel that digital dollars are on the horizon, but this is just one option among many.
The History of Money
The dictionary defines money as “something accepted as a medium of exchange.” With such a broad definition, it stands to reason that money can be anything that someone assigns any type of value to. Of course, enough people have to agree upon the value of the item for it to be considered real money, but over the years, this has happened in many ways. In their 1996 article, PBS Nova talks about the history of money, dating as far back as the last 10,000 years. Covering cattle and cowrie shells, paper bills and plastic cards, to today’s electronic money, PBS and Nova give a quick yet comprehensive look at how money has evolved and spread out worldwide.
As outlined by PBS Nova, in the beginning, we bartered. Between 9000-6000 B.C., we used cattle and other livestock. Cowrie Shells hit the scene in 1200 B.C. mainly in China and Africa, and for a time it was the longest and most widely used currency in history. In fact, the first metal money and coins were only created as a way to imitate cowrie shells. Bronze and copper cowrie creations were made by China at the end of the Stone Age and these are widely believed to be the very first iterations of metal coinage. Modern coinage, or money as we know it, did not gain traction until 500 B.C. These modern coins were made from silver and depicted images of various cultural gods and emperors, much like we depict monuments, monarchs, leaders, and important flora and fauna on our own money today. First prominent in Turkey (then Lydia), techniques to create modern coins were copied, spread, and improved upon in Greece, Persia, Macedonia, and Rome using precious metals like silver, bronze, and of course, gold. To learn more about the history of currency, you can go here and here.
Are Cash and Coin Usage Declining Worldwide?
If you’ve gone to the mall recently or you work as a cashier in retail, you may have noticed that many patrons pay for their wares using electronic money. They do this either with physical credit cards or a quick scan of their card on their smartphones. Cashless payments have certainly become more popular than using notes or coins according to the Payments Council (UK) in recent years, and many believe that this trend will only continue with time. While cash and coin usage are certainly declining, does that mean these forms of payment are going to go away for good? Most signs point to a firm no, but it is still worth exploring.
In 2014, The Atlantic reported that many find the decline of cash responsible for making America a much safer country. They speak about the declination of crime since the 1990s and attribute this to better and more secure technology, especially when it comes to making transactions. Though this argument has both its advantages and disadvantages, there is no denying that cashless payments have certainly caught on across the globe. Sites and apps like PayPal and Venmo make it easy to buy, sell, and make payments to friends and family, while large companies like Google are implementing new features that allow users to attach electronic money to emails in order to send to friends, businesses, clients, and whoever else. Even most banks allow users to take pictures of checks through smartphone banking apps as a way to deposit the cash directly into their accounts, and direct deposits from one’s employer cut out the middleman of cash, checks, and physical trips to the bank altogether.
Still, the use of cash and coins is not obsolete. While cashless payments may be on the rise, an entirely cashless society is not necessarily on the horizon by any means. Many people find value in carrying their own cash. There is fear attached to technology failing, becoming hacked, or becoming otherwise compromised so that one’s cash cannot be accessed. Carrying cash on hand provides a certain sense of security and cuts back on the confusion of how much you have to spend, and how much you don’t: it’s all in your hand or wallet. Cash payments also make some transactions easier, such as small purchases at your coffee shop or a local cafe, or even a quick run to Target or the convenience store. Why use your credit card to pay for a pack of gum or a soda from the cold case? A couple dollars would be more than enough to suffice and many individuals find both value and ease in that.
Bitcoin and Digital Currency: Will It Last?
Source: Coin Desk
Though Bitcoin has been around for some time now, not many people use it or even know how. In short, it is a pretty revolutionary form of future digital currency that has been attempting to become the mainstream method of modern currency worldwide. Of course, in the modern world where new ideas and startups are always vying for attention, it is not surprising that Bitcoin has not taken off as its creator(s) no doubt intended. In a 2016 article, “The Future of Bitcoin is Not as a Digital Currency,” Wired business writer Cade Metz outlines his meeting with Jeremy Allaire, the CEO of money sending company Circle, in which they discuss the use of Bitcoin and how the digital currency is slow to reach its full intended potential.
Like cash and coinage, Bitcoin is not yet in a space where it is completely obsolete. However, the idea of totally digital currency is not taking off in the ways Bitcoin users and supporters have hoped. Whether or not Bitcoin will last remains to be seen, but it seems clear that this idea might be a bit advanced for current global societies and markets where cash, coin, and card are still king in many ways.
What Could Be the Next Major Form of Future Currency?
While some may be putting their money on Bitcoin and digital currency (pun intended!) as the next major form of currency, not everyone is so sure. The future of currency is murky in as many ways as it is filled with possibility. It is likely safe to say that both cash and cashless payments will prevail for many years to come, but plenty of writers and economists have different ideas about what could be on the horizon for the world. In fact, The Economist spotlighted a new book, Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin by writer and consultant David Birch in which Birch explores the possibility of mobile phones ruling the economies of the world in the not so distant future. His basis for this shocking yet intriguing argument comes from the fact that hundreds of businesses in Kenya are currently processing and accepting payments “through a mobile-based system known as M-Pesa.” The rub is that cards and cash can only pay retailers, while mobile phones allow people to simply pay one another. This echoes the use of Venmo and Paypal in some ways but also takes the concept to another level. You can order Birch’s book here.
Final Thoughts: Where We Are Going and Where We Have Been
In short, it is nearly impossible to say with any certainty what the future of currency will look like. It could be something no one has yet imagined, a conglomeration of methods already in use, or something else entirely. However, when we look at where we have been, it is easy to get an idea of where we could be going. Cash and coinage have persisted the longest, and may yet continue for decades to come. Yet, digital currency and cashless payments are close to leading the world’s currency as well. The future of currency could hold many things, so it is best to do your research, stay educated, and watch as history is made before our very eyes!
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