A cashless society: believe it or not! THIS IS NOT A TEST #58 (transcript)

Published March 12, 2016

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Good day to you, fellow travelers. Greetings and kind dispensations. Alas, but that we could be together face to face, but let this modern technological marvel suffice in its stead. Yea and verily. Selah. And all that. The English language used to be so rich, so meaty and dense. I’ve talked about shows like Deadwood, that use that glorious Victorian-era language, and it’s too bad we don’t still use more of it today. But it’s too formal, isn’t it. Too buttoned up and stuffy. Too uppercrust, too high-toned. No, we are salt of the earth here. And common language will suit us just fine. Well, I reserve the right to throw in a “tally-ho!” instead of an “anyway” occasionally. It’s just how I roll. And who am I? I am Michael Phillips, and I built this modern technological marvel that we call THIS IS NOT A TEST. Address all complaints to me in care of general delivery, Los Angeles, California. They know me here.

Did you know that in the 1930s and 40s, when Ripley’s Believe It Or Not was popular, people used to address mail to “Rip” and it would get to Ripley? I was in one of the Ripley’s museums and they had an old envelope that just had a tear in it – a rip, get it? – and that was delivered to Ripley’s office. Apparently The Beatles got the same treatment. You could drop an envelope in a British mailbox addressed to “The Beatles,” or “John Lennon,” and it would get to them. Or to their office, anyway, where it likely sat around in one of those big bags waiting for a 16 year old girl to respond to it. But can you imagine doing that now? Without a zip plus 4 or a barcode. That shit would come right back to you. Or maybe it wouldn’t in some cases. I’ll have to try that. Addressing a letter just to “Barack” or “The Donald,” and see if it comes back. I’ll let you know how that goes.

If you don’t know, Robert Ripley was a newspaper cartoonist in the 20s, and he started his Believe It Or Not thing in 1930, I think. What’s that you say? What was I doing in a Ripley’s museum? A dyed in the wool skeptic such as myself? I love the Ripley’s museums. I think the first time I walked in to one is when I was passing through the sleepy town of Santa Rosa California for some reason, and the Ripley’s museum is about the only thing there that was weird or interesting, or even open. It’s a lot more low key than the rest of the Ripley’s joints – at least it was when I was there 25 years ago. It was in “The Church of One Tree,” a building made from only one redwood tree. An appropriate place for a Ripley museum I think.

If I’m not mistaken, and it’s always possible that I may well be, it was the first Ripley’s museum and it was called the Robert Ripley Memorial Museum or something. It was there because Santa Rosa was his home town. There was a true Ripley believer working there, a real strange guy who was very hairy and seemed to be in love with everything about Ripley. Even his buck teeth. He laid a lot of interesting history on me that I’ve since forgotten, and he showed me a genuine Fiji Mermaid, among other things. Every Ripley’s has a Fiji Mermaid. In fact, Every Ripley’s is just about the same, but they’re still great to walk through.

Anyway, that first unplanned and surprising trip to Ripley’s caught my attention, it made me interested in the guy and his weird life’s work. So I started going to different Ripley’s whenever I was in a town that was forward thinking enough to host one of them. Carol and I went to one in Niagara Falls, and of course there’s one in Hollywood, and I’ve probably been to half a dozen others. I can’t explain what draws me to them. Maybe it’s just the kind of lost time history of it all. You couldn’t replicate it now, the whole story of the guy. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not stared as a newspaper cartoon of weird, incredible “facts,” and it grew into some uncontrollable cultural juggernaut that everyone knew about. I mean everyone in the country knew his name and what he did. In addition to the newspaper cartoon he had a radio show, he trotted human oddities out at world’s fairs in his Odditoriums, and generally went around the world collecting weird shit. Or, you know, having people manufacture weird shit that he’d then pass off as unbelievable, rare exotica. But in his defense, he never claimed it was all real. He presented it as if it was, but then it was all under the umbrella of “believe it or not,” wasn’t it. And “not” was probably a good guess for about half the stuff he presented.

But those were the days, man, when you could have a job like that. Or when a job like that could grow out of your mundane newspaper cartoon job. Ripley died almost 70 years ago, but he was an interesting dude, you should track down a book about him and check it out. They don’t make ’em like Robert Ripley anymore. “The Modern Marco Polo” they used to call him. That’s the name of a good book about him. Go find it if you can. You can probably buy a first edition on Amazon for seventy five cents. I guarantee it’ll be a better read than a teenage vampire novel. He’s probably got a story about teenage vampires anyway, somewhere. Go check the Ripley’s website, odds are there’s a museum within a few hundred miles of you. The things are everywhere, all over the world. I wonder how they keep that up? I think if I asked everyone I work with what Ripley’s Believe It Or Not was, they’d just stare at me for a minute and walk away. Yet there’s Ripley, all over the world. Still. Somehow. That’s staying power, kids. Believe that. Or not.

Who knew that mentioning “general delivery” would result in a long blab about someone you’ve never heard of? Well that’s the power and the majesty of THIS IS NOT A TEST, isn’t it. Or any conversation with me about anything. If you want to talk about street signs, just strike up a conversation with me about tennis shoes, and eventually we’ll wind up talking about street signs and the different kinds of working dogs that came from the UK. I’m not sure why you’d want to talk about any of those things, but hey, it’s your time. Anyway, general delivery, Robert Ripley, those are all bygone things, olden timey crap that no one in their right mind cares about anymore. So let’s shake off that dust and move into the future. Let’s stumble into the brave new world and look forward. Forward ever, backward never. And Tally Ho!

So American Express sent me an email the other day asking if I’d made a $10.18 charge at some casino/club up in Renton, Washington. I hadn’t, so I called them and they said, we’ll cancel this card immediately, etc., etc., and I was like, wait a minute, I use that card for everything. And I do. I automatically pay a lot of bills to it, and I use it for day to day stuff instead of using an ATM card. Because, ironically, I don’t want my ATM card to be compromised and my accounts drained by some goofball who skimmed the card at Taco Bell or something. But that’s all they can do when you’ve been had, is give you a new account number, which means a new card, which means figuring out how far the tentacles of this thing stretch out and then updating them all. What’s funny is I’ve had an American Express card since 1988. I know, 27 years is a long time to use a card, but what can I say, I’ve been a long time proponent of a “cashless society.” I was ahead of my time I guess. Maybe way ahead, since hardly one accepted American Express 20 years ago. But now you can use it anywhere, and I pay the whole thing off every month, so it’s just a tool. But the funny part is I’ve never had a problem like this with it until they sent me a new “chip card.”

You know what those are. If you live outside the U.S. you’ve probably had them for years, but here we’re just starting to get them, and it seem like every few weeks some new modern chip card replacement is coming in the mail for cards I forgot I even had. The idea of a chip card is sort of like two factor authentication on the web. Those logins where you enter your username and password but they also text a code to your phone. The idea being it might be easy for someone to get your usernames and passwords, but it’s not very likely they’ll also have your phone. The chip cards are roughly the same idea – if you fake a card but don’t replicate the chip – which you can’t – it won’t work to swipe it somewhere. Two factor authentication works great on the web because it’s two very separate things: the password in your memory, and the phone in your pocket. On a credit card though, it’s meaningless, because I can use a chip card at Amazon, or anyplace else on the web, and the chip doesn’t come in to play.

That’s the genius of credit card companies though. Sending us all chip cards ten years after we’ve changed the way we buy and adapted to shopping on line. Yeah, I still swipe the American Express card – or stick it and wait, now that there’s a chip – six or seven times a week maybe. But I probably use it more for transactions that I’m not physically there for. Stuff on line or automated monthly payments to the electric company or a nail polish subscription. Any way you look at it, the chip card doesn’t really make you any safer. And if my experience is any indication, it makes you less safe. 27 years without a fraud charge, then two months with the chip and I’m compromised. The really funny thing is the credit card companies don’t give a shit about fraud. The loss due to fraud is written in to the fees they charge you. They expect fraud. They know the exact percentage of charges that will be fraud. And if you call them and say, “Hey, I didn’t order an above ground pool in Oklahoma,” they say, “Okay, no problem. We’ll take care of that. And a new card is on the way.”

Updating all the places I use the American Express is going to be a pain in the ass, but it’s pretty minor compared to people who get really compromised. Who get their entire identities stolen and abused. I used to think you had to be kind of lazy or stupid to let that happen, but that’s not true. I’m sure you’ve heard about a dozen data breaches at big companies in the past six months. And a lot of states, including California, still send you documents through the mail with your social security number on them, printed on paper for any knuckle-dragger to pilfer from your mailbox. So it can happen to someone who never buys anything on line, or never uses a credit card at all. I don’t know, though, I’ve been typing my credit card numbers into order forms on the web for 20 years. Back in those days normal people would be shocked that anyone would do that. Now no one thinks twice, but not so long ago your friends would think you were an idiot for buying anything on line. Or meeting someone on line. Carol and I “met” on line probably 18 years ago, and back then when we’d tell people they thought we were making up the story just to get attention or to trick them into buying us a gift or something. But using a credit card on line has become pretty normal now, and I suppose meeting people has too.

But when someone uses your credit to buy something, it makes you wonder about this cashless society that we’re barreling toward, that we’re on a collision course with. It made me wonder, anyway, about how that’s going to work. Or what a drag it’s going to be when you have to replace everything every six months, because that’s probably how often we’ll be compromised. You can introduce biometrics like fingerprints or iris scans or urine samples to buy things in person, but there’s not a way, right now anyway, to really secure any online transaction. I never thought any special protection was necessary. I mean I told you I’ve been blindly typing my credit card numbers into the void of the web for 20 years. But I was kind of right that there was nothing to worry about, for me anyway, since it took all this time for me to get stung. And what a sting, yeah? $10.18? Who goes to the trouble of getting their hands on stolen credit card information, then uses it to buy a drink somewhere? That almost makes me think it was a mistake at American Express, rather than an account compromise, but it’s a moot point now.

And think about it – in ten years everything will be on line. All of our medical records will be there, in “the cloud,” baby! That’s such soothing imagery: the cloud. Ah, let’s float around in a fluffy sea of data! We’re in the cloud! This cloud everyone talks about is just a new term for “cyberspace,” or the “information superhighway,” remember that? Just another awful attempt at giving some sort of humanly graspable name to what is really just a giant network of computers. There is no “cloud,” Dorothy, I’m sorry to shatter your colorful illusions. When you “upload something to the cloud,” you’re uploading it to a noisy metal box in a building full of noisy metal boxes connected by wires and optical fibers. It’s no different than the computers or devices in your house on a network sharing your Internet connection. No different at all, except someone who isn’t you owns the computers your data is being stored on. And guess what? Human people work those computers. All of your secret information is easily and instantly accessible by millions of nerds with questionable social skills and motivations. There is no security, that’s the first thing we should all try to remember all the time.

So there goes your medical information, your financial information, your bizarre and frankly, quite sickening sexual fetishes – it’s all there on those computers spread out across the world. Waiting for a curious or bored person to check it out while they’re stuck on the night shift with nothing to do. Does that matter? I don’t happen to think it does, but I’m weird. I don’t care if someone can see what I look at or what I do or what I think. I talk about most of that already, so it would be tough to dig up something embarrassing about me that I haven’t already admitted myself. And even if someone did, I wouldn’t care. There’s nothing I’ve done that I’d be terribly embarrassed by. I certainly regret more than a few things, but embarrassed, no. That’s not a challenge, by the way. It’s not an invitation to hack me and expose my web browsing history, or how much money I spend on poodle skirts and creamed corn. Besides, you can’t hack me, I use two factor authentication! Ha ha ha. Yeah, man, nothing is safe, and that’s the way I’ve always approached the Internet. If there was something I didn’t want anyone to know, the last place I’d put it would be in some digital form for those bored nerds eating Cheetos and drinking Mountain Dew at 3 a.m. in Colorado somewhere to look at.

That’s the thing though. There’s so much data collected in the world every single day that no one is going to “accidentally” stumble across your membership to that food squishing site or notice your predilection for ordering really long surgical gloves at 3 a.m. No one is accidentally going to find out anything about you. They can collect all the data in the world – and they do, whoever they are – but finding needles in that haystack is a different matter. Even if they’re really looking. So next time you think, “Maybe I shouldn’t Google poop sandwich…” don’t worry about it. Unless someone is looking at your computer trying to find out what you’re looking at so they can yell at you about it or take away the kids, no one is going to care. And who knows, maybe your jealous boyfriend or girlfriend will thinks it’s cute that you’re curious about poop sandwiches. Maybe they’re as weird as you are. They probably aren’t, because, let’s face it, you’re pretty weird, but you never know. Someone’s got to win the lottery, right?

But I have kind of embraced the whole cashless thing. To get back to that. I used to carry a lot of cash. Not, like, Tony Soprano cash, but a few hundred dollars. Because you never know when you might need a few hundred dollars to get out of a jam, right? I don’t know. I don’t know why I carried it around, it isn’t like I ever whipped out $250 to buy a VCR or something. But it was there. The first time I went out with Carol we had lemonade at some hippie place over in Studio City and when I pulled out my normal walking around money to pay, she said, “Jesus Christ! Why do you have so much money?” It never occurred to me that it was a lot of money, but I guess it might have been. But now I rarely have cash in my pocket. I keep a little cash in my car – again, this is not an invitation to rob me – but not much. 20 or 30 dollars. And that’s just in case I find myself needing to park in a pay lot somewhere or give some filthy street punk five bucks for a can of paint to huff or something. But if you think about a cashless society, this thing we find ourselves in, it’s really taken the concept of money to the most abstract place we can take it.

The pay from my job goes right into my checking account. I never see a check, so I never see any cash. For a long time I worked at manual labor jobs and I often got paid in cash, and it was a more satisfying kind of transaction. I worked hard, sweat, bled, and then when I was wiped out at the end of the day some guy handed me some green money that I could take to the grocery store. It was a trade of work for money. Which I still do, but the way it works now is so clinical. No one talks about it, I never see it, it’s all just numbers on a screen. It shows money for what it really is, which is nothing. Money as a promise of something. Even paper money is just a promise of something now. Back in your great, great grandparents day you could take a dollar to the bank and get a dollar in silver, or trade a lot of dollars for gold. But think about that – silver and gold are a promise too. An agreement that we all believe that a piece of metal has a certain value, and we can use that value to buy actually useful things like pickaxes or corsets or buggy whips. But what is the value of a gold nugget? Nothing. It has no value. It’s less valuable than a coconut or a piece of bread.

But we need something, some representation of value or promise of value to trade things with each other. So that folding money at the end of a day on a hot roof or busting up concrete was really me trading that labor for a loaf of bread and some peanut butter at the grocery store. It’s all a trade. And now that it’s all electronic you have those clever assholes who make money by buying and selling stocks in fractions of a second. They only make one or two cents on each trade, but they do a million trades a day. Well, actually they don’t do any trades, they don’t buy or sell anything. Computer programs do. So basically, they turn on a computer and money goes into their bank account. It doesn’t get much more abstract and ridiculous than that. That’s the epitome of the abstraction of money. It’s also a perfect demonstration of how valueless it is and how fucked we probably all are. But money fucks most of us anyway. Money or the lack of money or the desire for money. Chasing after what those Wall Street douchebags have. When what they really have is nothing.

An interviewer asked Bob Marley once, “Are you a rich man?” And Bob said, “When you say ‘rich,’ what you mean?” And the guy said, “Do you have a lot of possessions? A lot of money in the bank?” Bob Said, “Possessions make you rich? I don’t have that type of richness. My richness is life. Forever.” And that’s a pretty good take on wealth and money and possessions that we spend our lives chasing. At the end of the day you’d trade it all for another hour. But here we are, with all the hours we need, and we spend them working and chasing. Ah, well, that’s another subject, isn’t it. Work. Wealth. Possessions. I’ve probably already talked about all of that. I wonder what I said? It was probably very deep and profound, right? Well, maybe not, but que sera, sera, yeah? Here we are.

A cashless society has nothing to do with wealth anyway. Most wealthy people have been cashless for decades, so this is nothing new to them. They wouldn’t dirty their hands with that folding green. Besides, their stacks would be far too thick to fold. And everyone knows that rich people never pay for anything anyway. They’re cheaper than your 90 year old neighbor who’s on social security. The people who really be screwed by a cashless society are the poor, and people who work what they call “non-traditional” jobs that pay in cash. Or people who prefer cash because they aren’t into sharing with the government, or the rest of us who pay for roads and cops and things. Those people will have a tough go of it when the folding money disappears. Maybe they’ll start an underground economy that uses tinfoil or jasmine blossoms as currency.

There’s a difference between the dollar dying because we want to be a different kind of society, and the dollar dying because the card makers and banks and legislators just want to know where all of your pennies go, and make sure they take a few for themselves. I’m not a believer in conspiracies, but I’d imagine that most people who do everything they possibly can to avoid banks or any kind of electronic exchange of funds probably are. I get that feeling, call me crazy. But currency going away for the first reason, because we want to change, well, we’re way too far gone for that. So the second option is probably where we’ll end up. How different will it be? I don’t know, man. Everyone likes to have choices. Even if I hardly use cash now, I wouldn’t want to see it go away. How would I buy my crack and heroin? I tried to give them my American Express and they said, “Man, we don’t take American Express!” and pushed me down into a pile of garbage. They never got any more of my business, I can tell you that.

Ah, yeah. Okay. Well. We’ve done it again. Survived another episode together. Those of you who stay until the end, anyway. My people. You one percenters. You malcontents, misanthropes and mugwumps. All of you M words. You connoisseurs of conviviality, you lovers of liveliness and locution. You…you…people. Yes, be proud that you’ve lasted, that you have the fortitude to stick it out. That you can’t be swayed by society and influenced by the intelligentsia. Ha – okay, okay, that’s it. I can’t do that all day. If I could I’d be famous and you’d stop listening because I’d sold out and you couldn’t stand hearing me reading the Volvo ads every 15 minutes. No need to worry about that. I just blew it all here. All the wordplay I’ve got. That’s it, it’s all gone. Next time I’m just going to mumble and say “bro” a lot. You’ll see. Adios.