First in a series
I recently came across a gem – a speech delivered at a computer conference in 1959 foretelling how technology would replace cash and checks with "a truly universal credit card system."
A mix of Jetsons retro-futurism and Mad Men-era political incorrectness makes the speech a hoot to read. But once you stop chuckling and consider the full implications of the cashless society Stanley M. Humphrey described, you get a sense of the privacy dangers that in the present day still lurk ahead.
Humphrey, a consultant with Booz, Allen and Hamilton, spoke to a gathering of users of the Bendix G-15 – a 950-pound, non-inflation-adjusted $60,000 computer that had been introduced three years earlier. He said he had "asked some of the men … [involved] with the application of computer technology to banking to let their imagination [sic] run free and tell me what the future banking system might be like, especially as it affected the day-to-day life of the average individual." (Yes, he said "the men." Remember, this was 1959.)
He then described a shopping trip by a housewife (Did I mention it was 1959?) of the future. At the department store, "no presentation of cash or check is involved; no time lost in preparation or signing of sales slips, change-making, or credit verification." Rather, that "universal" payment card "is inserted in a slot, the clerk pushes a button to record the goods selected, a master button is pushed, and the transaction is completed." So far this sounds close to many transactions today, except my wallet is stuffed with receipts from these otherwise paperless purchases (and my wife sends me to do the shopping on weekends).
The imaginary housewife's stop at the grocery store is considerably more streamlined than my outings to Stop and Shop. "No check-out station is involved," Humphrey said. "Each item of pre-packaged food is ordered by insertion of the universal credit card in a slot and buttons pushed. … The merchandise is automatically gathered in an electrified cart" – which is "routed to your wife's parked car."
Behind the scenes, the data for the shopper's transactions would be processed by the Second National Financial Utility of Metropolis (successor to a generic Second National Bank and Trust Co.), which would debit her husband's "fund account" (no longer referred to as a checking account, since checks would be obsolete) and credit the retailer's for the purchases. Unless the retailer's account was at the Union Data Processing Utility, in which case Second National would communicate with its counterpart "in machine language," automating the work of clearing houses and bank transit departments. (Humphrey's use of the word "utility" to describe an ideal financial institution would probably send chills up the spines of contemporary bankers.)
The utility, Humphrey said, could provide the customer a single statement "with data on all your transactions. All of this is done with no exchange of cash, checks, invoices, receipts, or other paper."