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How Would You Like to Pay? How Technology is Changing the Future of Money by Bill Maurer

Book Review by Anuradha Khatiyan

Source: UCI News

The book ‘How would You like to pay? How technology is changing the future?’ is written by Bill Maurer. This book is a brief and accessible introduction to the complex topic of payment systems. Written in an engagingly informal style accompanied by eye-catching photographs.

The book explains a remarkable range of contemporary phenomena, including Bitcoin, and gives a brief history of credit cards. At heart, the book is an anthropological exploration of money and many of the questions Maurer asks are familiar.

The first chapter, ‘Disruptions in Money’, begins with a discussion of mobile phone payment platforms such as M-Pesa, a banking system that revolutionized money transfer in Kenya, particularly among those too poor to be credit worthy in the eyes of formal financial institutions. Alongside M-Pesa, Maurer places ‘Square’, a mobile phone payment application launched in 2012 with considerable hype by the Starbucks coffee chain, only to be quietly forgotten two years later. These examples are merely two of many other attempts at linking smartphones and credit cards, and Maurer successfully uses the narratives of failure of now-forgotten schemes like Square as a warning against the more excited claims of revolutionary innovation in payment systems. The contrast between M-Pesa and Square introduces the classic questions that social scientists have been asking of money for more than a century, as well as some new questions raised by digital technologies of the twenty- first century. He states that even though M-Pesa and Square are different from each other (one of the reasons being the former was a big success, and still continues to be really popular, and the latter was a colossal flop) they do have some similarities. There are three key elements that can be found in many mobile phone-enabled systems: Existing Behaviour, Existing Infrastructure, Backgrounded Technology. Both M-Pesa and Square harnessed existing technology & behaviour: in this case, the text message capability of all phones and the everyday activity of sending text messages. The technology is in the background, but the results have been profound.

Maurer rejects popular theories of the evolutionary development of money from barter to primitive monies and then coins, banknotes and electronic transactions and he is careful to show the persistence of older forms of money (coins, banknotes and credit cards can all be found in our wallets and purses).

He disarms our everyday familiarity with money and poses critical questions that lead readers to reconsider how our practices of using money diverge from common sense understandings or economic ideologies of what money is. Maurer’s contention is that we treat money solely as a means of exchange and in doing so we depersonalise it, abstract it from all social relations and all we have is pure market relations. He points out that when money is seen as a means of payment, we spotlight its technologies and how it passes from one person to the other. There is a difference between exchange & payment and it is rather a subtle one. Payment brings in all other relationships (i.e. relations apart from the market relation), behaviours, infrastructures, and various meaning involved in money. “It lets us ask how do we understand the basic practice of transferring value from one person to another” and it eventually leads to the question “How would you like to pay and furthermore how we like to pay”.

As the book progresses, the key questions that Maurer addresses are straightforward: what is money, and how has technology changed the way we use it and the meanings we ascribe to it? The questions might not be wholly original. Most of us are so immersed in monetary economies that it becomes easy to lose sight of just how radically the way we use and conceive of money has evolved over time and across continents. However, in today’s continually changing technological landscape, he argues that thinking about money in new ways is absolutely essential. However, the focus on payments systems broadens out the discussion of money so that the supporting infrastructures and social ecologies of monetary exchange become visible.

When trying to answer the question what is money, Maurer says “once you start looking at money in terms of its actual use cases - you start to see our money worlds are quite complex, too. That money far more complex that simply economic”. Here he is saying that money is more than the numeric value, the economic value, it is infused with meaning, morals and material traces of our relationships with others. It is about payment- relations, infrastructures, and meaning. In the second chapter “What is Money”?,” Maurer provides various examples of what is considered money around the globe from the very common, coins, banknotes, plastic cards, to not so conventional forms such as cattle, lands, promise to use land, farm equipment, shells, airtime etc.

We also see how various forms of money, or things that partially act as money co-exist, instead of just replacing each other. This is shown by a very simple example in chapter 3 “Two Scenarios”. Where through comparison of the lives of two women Jany and Clara we see how people still use money in “unconventional” ways and use “unconventional” things as money. This becomes clear when we see how Jany still practices barter by exchanging her home grown food items for those of her friends’ and similarly Clara uses a gift card instead of real money to pay for her coffee each day. Prisoners use cigarettes and jet-setters use air miles (these unconventional things partially act as money). This is further shown in Chapter 5 “Use Cases of Money” where he calls all these alternative uses of money as “use cases” of the state issued currency.

Some examples of these use cases are : Gifts & Rituals (how people give money on Chinese new year, on birthdays, wedding pretty much on every important moment in life), Religious offerings (Money tree in Buddhist temples, coins covered in vermillion on Diwali in Hindu temples) etc.

While discussing in Chapter 4 “The Evolution Money”, Maurer says “The evolution of money, once it had been invented, is more properly understood as the shift over time in use of different tally marks or tokens to represent that relationship.” Here he is saying that all that has happened to money is not progression but addition. Maurer believes that there are some faulty assumptions we have had about money. First, we assume that each new form of money has replaced last, but these multiple “stages” of money coexist in our own monetary ecology. Plastic cards did not replace paper. Many of us still use barter and many of us mark certain kinds of monetary transactions with specific forms of money. Second assumption is that each new form of money is more efficient than those that preceded it. “More efficient means better, mean more progress” says the author. The third and perhaps the most important the author says is that if we believe the evolution story we might lose sight of the infrastructures that support each new form of money, the infrastructure that allow different forms to be converted into one another.

In chapter 7 & 8, Maurer discuses one of the most remarkable and ‘unintended’ (as he calls it) uses of the mobile phone: transformation of the phone into a money management tool (and the conversion of airtime onto money).

Maurer notes that recent development interventions aimed at ‘banking the unbanked’ were preceded by moralistic views of the poor as lacking ‘...the foresight, discipline, or financial literacy skills to enable them to save’ (139).

One of the best aspects of Maurer’s work, then, is the vivid imagery that he scatters throughout the book depicting the marvel of our wonderfully advanced money and payment ecology.

Much of this landscape has been drastically altered in recent years by technological innovations in money. Maurer points out, “Money is not just a technology. It is an extension of relationships, between ourselves and others, our pasts and futures, our world, and the worlds we can imagine” (p. 143). That is, money is fundamentally a social phenomenon.

This emphasis on the social context of money is important. As Maurer observes, “People rarely see the interpersonal relationships and regulatory infrastructures underlying their money”. The job of the economist (and monetary anthropologist), therefore, is to bring these hidden social relationships and political infrastructures into sharp focus.

Even though the last sentence of the final chapter is also a question: “So: how will we reimagine money? Maurer succeeds in highlighting the critical factors that support our diverse “monetary repertoires.” In the last chapter, entitled “Monetary Repertoires,” the photographs show technologies in Kenya and Haiti, and the final image is a coconut-water seller on the beach in California, with a barely visible iPhone and Square reader tucked into his belt. In this way, all the evidence is illustrative of Maurer’s point about monetary repertoires and multiplicity.

Anuradha Khatiyan is a 3rd Year student at JSBF.

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