To correctly predict the future is virtually impossible, even if you’re an expert on the subject at hand. So when someone gets it mostly right, they deserve a shout out.
Which is why Norman H. Carter needs three cheers, belatedly.
Back in 1969, he was the vice president of the Computer Sciences Institute in El Segundo, California. That’s when he told the Pasadena Rotary Club that a cashless society was on the way.
It would be nice to have a bitcoin for the thoughts of those in attendance.
The Los Angeles Times did a story on the speech, which I came across on the website newspapers.com. While I haven’t been able to learn much else about Carter, he had a good sense of how things unfold. We weren’t going to wake up one day and discover that Congress had outlawed cash, which may have been how many people envisioned it.
No, anyone 50 years ago who felt uneasy about the idea of cards replacing the greenbacks they used for just about every purchase should rest easy, he said. This would all unfold more as an evolution than a revolution.
But it surely would come because using cards instead of cash best fit the lifestyle of the under-35 crowd, he said. The 1969 under-35 crowd, that is. The crowd better known today as the under-85 crowd.
Well, you can’t get everything right.
I thought about Carter the other day when I read a Deseret News story that said economists today think the United States will go cashless within the lifetime of the millennial generation, better known as the grandchildren (or perhaps even great grandchildren) of those folks at that Rotary meeting.
Some changes may be easy to see coming but still are much farther on the horizon than our eyes can perceive. That ought to put some of today’s bold predictions, such as the perfection of the driverless car, into perspective.
As I read about Carter, I tried to remember the last time I actually used cash. To the best of my recollection, it was when paying a parking attendant at a major league baseball game while I was on vacation. Meanwhile, I can’t remember the last time I felt the weight of jingling change in my pocket.
The folks in Carter’s audience that day might be as astounded at how far we’ve come toward fulfilling his prediction as they would be at how long it has taken.
But while giving Carter his due, it may be just as instructive to look at some of the things he didn’t get right in that Rotary speech.
People in a cashless society, he said, would not be reckless. They would have less debt, not more. In 1969, people sometimes borrowed more than they needed. In the cashless future, they would know exactly where they stand economically and borrow accordingly, the newspaper account said.
That’s because Carter envisioned a one-credit-card society in which everyone could instantly know his or her total debts and assets.
“We’ll be living much closer to the zero credit line.”
Oh my, where to begin?
A classic mistake when predicting the future is to assume that some great change in the way people live will change human nature itself. Another is to forget to apply the rules of the present that are not likely to change. The competitive nature of good old American capitalism was going to lead banks and credit cards to compete with one another for business, just as retailers inevitably would use advertising to entice people to spend more than they have. Couldn’t he see that?
Carter wasn’t the only one in the ‘60s to talk about the coming cashless America. I remember my own mother lamenting back then how some people wanted grocery stores to accept credit cards. She and other adults saw this as immoral.
That seems quaint a half-century later when some restaurants already refuse to take cash and no one thinks twice about using a debit card to buy a few groceries.17 comments on this story
But then, total credit card debt in the United States today is $1.7 trillion and counting. Maybe mom was onto something.
The cashless present is filled with a host of pitfalls Carter didn’t see coming, such as identity theft and hacking. We are not as virtuous as he predicted. And, as the Deseret News story noted, a cashless world isn’t fair to the poor who can’t get a bank account.
Carter may have been remarkably forward-looking, but as always, it’s up to those of us in the future to turn an inevitable form of progress into something good.