The flurry of commentary on the Great Indian Demonetization of November 2016 has thrown up some nuggets of insight worth considering more deeply.
Santosh Desai explores the psychology of cash money in the Times of India blog, linking the need for tangible evidence of income to physical labour, as opposed to those of us with the contextual knowledge to understand the virtual concept i.e. digital currency.
“…there is another aspect of this situation that needs more reflection- the nature of the relationship we enjoy with cash. Cash is not merely a symbolic representation of value. Cash is the idea of value captured and owned. It is the product of labour that is an entity by itself and becomes much more than what it can buy. Sitting on a pile of cash gives pleasure both metaphorical and real.”
“…there is some value that is placed on the device of currency notes over and above the value that it signifies.”
This aspect has not been looked at deeply enough, imho, when financial inclusion is talked about, particularly in the context of digital solutions. I suspect that therein will lie behavioural insights that could conceivably drive design changes that lower the barriers to adoption in the strategies to introduce digital currencies and mobile monies to hitherto unbanked populations.
Earning money needs to be signified concretely. Those whose life’s earnings are in the form of a few high value currency notes, do not decode demonetization in quite the same way as those used to money in its conceptual form. The idea that it is possible to de-legitimise their life’s labour is to shake the foundations on which one’s life is constructed. What if some money is not exchanged? What if some paperwork, that bane of those living on the margins, is incomplete?
What if the mobile phone’s battery dies? Do my hard earned monies disappear like other unsaved data?
Trust in technology is a function of our contextual knowledge – our immersion in an environment saturated with electronic communication and screens of all types and purposes provides us with conceptual frameworks that are entirely different from someone whose daily labour is on the farm, or at a mechanic’s garage.
While those who are financially excluded might not face demonetization i.e. the de-legitimization of their labour, as Desai mentions above, the current attempts to convert their cash intensive habits into digital form via various “cashless” initiatives overlook the psychology of cash. Regardless of locale, those at the margins (the excluded) have high levels of mistrust in the system, through their experiences with institutions and the system, over time and history.
The talk of ‘cashless’ is easy, but it ignores that there is a cultural dimension to the physicality of cash. Digital wallets operate on a transfer of intention, where a promise to pay gets converted into an intention to buy. For this to work at scale, one needs to have become comfortable with the idea of surplus and develop the confidence that money will come without having to struggle or having to think about it all the time. One needs to develop trust in institutions, in a context where the evidence around is overwhelmingly to the contrary.
I suspect that if this subject was explored further, we would discover that where mobile money has succeeded, such as in East Africa, the institution that was trusted was the telco – the mobile service operator, and that the early stages of adoption have a different narrative from that being used currently in entirely new markets where mobile money still struggles to penetrate. India and South Africa are two such places where the unbanked and the financially excluded have reasons of history to develop high mistrust of the systems of the privileged.
To convert one’s worth into worthlessness, even if for a small period is to make everyone nervous. Psychologically, money works on a convention of mutual deception. We agree to call something money, and that is good enough. But to have the thinness of this convention exposed in such a way is to cause great anxiety.
The transition to a cashless future can be made gentler and more accommodating to their fears and concerns, generating a sense of security and commitment, with some empathy for an entirely different world-view and life experience.