Comment May 2010
I Was standing behind a gentleman in the queue at my local supermarket last week and was horrified to discover that the reason the simple transaction was taking so long was that he was paying for a £2 lottery scratch card with a debit card. Not a swipe card that requires no interaction you understand but rather a full blown “insert card/remember pin number/enter pin number/wait for transaction/remove card/wait for processing/take receipt” type of card. The whole thing, which could have been over in mere seconds had he reached into his pocket and produced a £2 coin took over a minute—not a great deal of time admittedly but multiply that across every transaction in every supermarket everyday and you will see why we are spending so much of our time queuing! So much simpler, surely, to have some kind of token, equivalent to the value of goods, that you could exchange for those items quickly. If the goods were worth less than the token you could perhaps get smaller tokens as “change” which you could then exchange for other goods later on. Wouldn’t that be quicker, easier, more straightforward than having to stand there pressing buttons and waiting for electronic approval while the people behind you get increasingly irate? I’m being facetious of course, but I think I have a valid point—in this never ending quest to embrace technology we seem to have made things more complicated for ourselves, we seem to have added steps that weren’t there before, and we seem to have forgotten that things that have been around for centuries have been around for so long because they work! Slowly, it seems, technology is replacing many of the things we know and love and while there have been some incredible advances, not everything is necessarily for the better. Just because it’s shiny and new doesn’t mean it has to be preferable to what has gone before, as people are beginning to realise. Take the recent furore about the phasing out of cheques—there was much trumpeting in the press about how the banks were going to get rid of cheques by 2018, then it was realised that actually this might not be practical after all, as even though there are fewer and fewer of them being written every year “fewer” still means millions and for some transactions there is just no viable alternative. For mail order particularly the cheque is a Godsend, not everybody wants to use on-line electronic shopping, few people want to send cash through the post and many baulk at the idea of sending all their credit card details out so openly—in this case, and for things like paying the plumber or decorator, the cheque is ideal. The banks, in their desire to embrace new technology (and save themselves money) hadn’t really thought it through and now it seems they have gone back to the drawing board. And actually I’m rather glad they have. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a Luddite—I have no desire to hang on to the past for the sake of it but I do feel we are in danger of hurtling headlong into the future without considering the consequences. Our hobby is, essentially, one that relies on history—even those who collect new issues do so because they recognise the place new coins have in the history of numismatics and those of us who collect ancient, hammered even pre-decimal milled all know how important our coins are in shaping our knowledge of the past. Often coinage is all that is left of an emperor, an era (without coins the Dark Ages would be even blacker) and they have taught us much. It’s the same with banknotes, or with cheques, issued by long forgotten banks that would have disappeared forever were it not for those little pieces of paper. Our hobby, the things we collect, help us and others understand what has gone before and only by understanding that can we truly appreciate what the future may hold. Now however, there are those who seek to do away with coins, with notes, with cheques, they are eager to see everything done electronically, but to my mind this is incredibly dangerous. Even if you ignore the “Big Brother” implications of having every transaction you ever make noted by somebody somewhere, you cannot ignore the issue of recording the now for those who come later, how much poorer would our understanding of history be if all we had to go on was little slips of paper with numbers on in the style of a credit card receipt rather than coins depicting emperors or goddesses? It’s not just coins and notes of course—we are, I fear, in danger of losing an awful lot to progress. Who, for example, keeps a diary, a proper diary, these days? “Blogs” abound but such is the transient nature of the electronic world that most will, in time, be lost forever, victims of system failures, software upgrades or similar—and as for photos? Well, the rich archive of memories committed to celluloid that make family history come alive for so many won’t be there for future generations—photographs are rarely seen outside of a computer screen these days and I for one think that’s a great shame. Technology is wonderful, it has given us things we could only dream of just a few years ago but being “whizzy” and electronic doesn’t necessarily make it better. There are some things, simple things, that just work—coins and notes work—and if it ain’t broke why fix it? So, nexttime you’re in a supermarket paying by cash remember this—you aren’t just helping preserve our hobby for the future, you’re actually helping to preserve history. Oh, and you will also be helping to preserve the sanity of those behind you in the queue!