In our first post in this series, we argued that even if cash is disappearing (which it may not be, at least not completely, and at least not any time soon!), it’s important to analyze the stuff of money, its material infrastructures and entailments. In this post, we look at one example. In keeping with our museum catalog concept, we’ve selected an example that is particularly difficult to curate.

The Automated Clearing House (ACH) is the electronic backbone of the payments system in the United States. It is the network that clears and settles transactions between member banks whenever an employer directly deposits a paycheck into an employee’s account, whenever a mortgage payment or utility bill is automatically deducted, or whenever you use PayPal linked to your bank account to make a payment. It is one of the core systems of the payments industry, the vast, vital yet little understood network of government, corporate and nonprofit entities that helps the money move in physical and digital space. In fact, over the past couple of years there’s been a revolution in how the ACH operates, so that payments can move faster, approaching real time settlement. It’s a big deal but something you probably don’t think about every day, if ever.

You can’t “see” the ACH. There are servers and cables and electronic files and file transfer protocols; there are rulebooks and codes. Codes like:

R14 Representative payee deceased or unable to continue in that capacity The representative payee authorized to accept entries on behalf of a beneficiary is either deceased or unable to continue in that capacity

 

Imagine you are a museum curator from the future. You have been tasked with creating a gallery about this thing called “money” that people used to use to keep track of debts and to pay taxes to support the common welfare through the institutions of the state. You look into the history records and find that this ACH thing was really, really important: accounting for over 80% of the electronic value transferred in the United States in 2016 (Federal Reserve Payments Study 2016).

Now how are you going to curate that?

The Atlanta Federal Reserve has tried to imagine how our future curator would capture the ACH. Off to the side of its main money gallery is its slightly tongue in cheek “Museum From the Future of Money”—you are greeted by a large flat screen on which appears a woman in full body unitard who intones the story of how people in the distant past of the 20th and 21st centuries paid for goods and services using different tools and techniques. Slightly tongue in cheek side. Objects are reverently displayed on black velvet under glass—a coin, a paper check, a credit card… and a laser printed piece of paper illustrating an actual ACH transfer.

This object would normally be a piece of sensitive garbage headed for the shredder. Lost to history forever.

What does its curation inspire?

Fieldwork story: We are at a bar in Las Vegas during Money2020, an annual payments industry conference. We are with a new friend, drinking and debriefing on the day’s presentations of the latest in fintech, developed by financial and payment technology startups as well as the dominant players (Visa, PayPal, but also FirstData, Fiserv and other not-so-household names that operate behind almost all electronic payments). There had been a lot of griping on the day’s panels about the US Federal Reserve’s slowness in embracing fintech, and about the ACH’s slowness in advancing “faster” payments—as close to real-time settlement as possible.

We were getting a little drunk. We asked our new friend:

“The ACH is a) good; b) bad; c) awesome!”

Without missing a beat, she replied: “AWESOME!!”

Why is the ACH so awesome? As we said, it’s the backbone of payments in the US. Almost all new payment systems use it in one way or another. Federally mandated and majority owned by the Fed, it is managed by a consortium of banks and governed by a not for profit association, NACHA (formerly, the National ACH Association).

Is it a public good? It certainly behaves like one. Is it a utility? Hard to say. It’s ubiquitous in the US payments landscape even if it is hidden from view. It’s awesome!

One of our hopes in assembling Paid is to shed light on payment infrastructures, their weirdness, their politics, their awesomeness, in all senses of the word.

 

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At SocFinance we have invited Bill Maurer and Lana Swartz, the authors of Paid, a fascinating book on money published recently, to write a few posts with us. This is the first of three series.

The Coming Cashlessness?

On 16 November 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the surprise announcement that all 500 and 1000 rupee notes were being demonetized—they would become worthless paper within 30 days and people had a short window of 50 days (it was later shortened) to exchange their existing notes for new ones. The initially stated purpose was to stifle “black money,” corruption and tax evasion. Over the ensuing weeks, however, Modi spoke more and more of ushering in a digital economy, and digital payment platforms saw a brief uptick in demand for point-of-sale devices.

Modi’s move is one example of a growing anti-cash consensus, based on the idea that cash is linked to crime, terrorist financing, money laundering and the like. The Better Than Cash Alliance is a consortium of governments, nonprofits, philanthropic organizations, and corporations all united in the goal of moving the world away from physical cash and coin and toward digital payments. Sweden, ever the vanguard of modernism, is, we’re told, well on its way to a cashless society.

EMBED VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nl3lxc2lXYM

CAPTION: The Better Than Cash Alliance argues that by moving away from cash, we can offer greater financial inclusion to millions.

Is Cash Still King?

Of course, many readers of this blog already live in a near-cashless state. Our paychecks are automatically deposited; we use credit and debit cards at brick and mortar stores; we shop online with PayPal or send money to friends using Venmo. When we need cash, we have to go to an ATM and get it. Cash is not just there waiting for us to use it the way it might have been when our mothers or grandmothers went to the bank every month to take out a huge wad of bills that they stored in envelopes in the kitchen cabinet next to the flour jar.

But is cash actually going away? Maybe, but probably not completely, and certainly not anytime soon. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Cash Product Office, cash continues to be the most frequently used payment instrument for American consumers. This is true across a variety of contexts, but especially small value payments.

Consider another 20th century digitization dream: “the paperless office.” Many of us work in “paper light” offices, but rare is a workplace with no printers, no filing cabinets, no signs reminding us that the communal fridge will be cleaned out on Friday. A character in Jim Butcher’s 2010 novel Changes compared the paperless office to Bigfoot, “Someone says he knows someone who saw him, but you don’t ever actually see him yourself.”  Cash, like many paper technologies, will likely linger.

And yet we are seeing an explosion of innovation in the money technology of everyday life. Since 2012, according to the Fed, cash’s share of transactions in 2015 dropped from 40% to 32%. According to that same Fed data, preference for cash as a primary form of payment is declining across all age groups. In our research and from our students, we are always hearing about the fascinating—sometimes terrifying ways—that person-to-person payment apps like Venmo are shaping friendships and romances. Cashless need not be total to have an impact on our everyday lives.

Cash and Stuff

With all this talk of cashlessness, we’re often asked about the “dematerialization” of money. What will it be like when all transactions are “frictionless”?

But where others may see dematerialization, we see all sorts of new stuff. The world of digital payments depends on vast and variegated infrastructures, many interacting agencies and entities, and material stuff in the form of cables, wires, microchips, servers, air conditioners, boxes of all shapes and sizes full of circuitry, magnets, camera lenses, light-emitting crystals and plasmas, glass, metal and precious elements.

What are the cultural meanings and politics of these new technologies? How do they map onto existing social problems and opportunities? How do they create news ones?

Witness, for example, this image that circulated on Twitter the aftermath of Modi’s demonetization. Of course, a mobile money system would be happy to see paper bills pulled out of circulation. Does it matter that a private company was now doing the work that cash—a public infrastructure produced by the government—has long performed?

In Paid: Tales of Dongles, Checks, and Other Money Stuff, we asked scholars across fields, journalists, practitioners, and other folks interested in the future (and past!) of money to consider the meaning and politics of money stuff. Each chapter is robustly illustrated, like a museum catalog—indeed, the impetus was to imagine a catalog for an exhibition that never took place. We imagined a book about objects that, in their time, might have been considered trivial or trash, things that, once their network had died or their internal gizmos had worn out or their empire collapsed, would have gone to the dust heap of history. Not like the traditional objects of numismatics—gold and silver coins, hoarded, collected, and counterfeited for millennia. But physical things like the magnetic stripe credit card; digital things like the cryptocurrency Dogecoin; ephemeral things like the signature. The e-waste of money. Thinking about money stuff also opened the door to objects you might actually find in a museum, because money stuff is so often about record keeping and accounting. So, you will find point-of-sale devices alongside Inkan khipu, throw-away receipts next to Ben Franklin’s banknotes. This collision of objects creates a wonder cabinet: rather than sparking insight into Creation, we hope it sparks conversations about value, transactions, and transience—even the transience of the dream of a cashless society.

 

 

In the wake of the global financial crisis, the various political responses it has triggered, and the emergence of new forms of fiscal and monetary policy, the need for a more sophisticated encounter between economic theory and the social sciences has become pressing. The growth of new forms of money and finance is increasingly recognised as one of the defining developments of our time, and it is beginning to yield innovative research across the humanities and social sciences.

Following on from the success of our inaugural conference last year, this two-day event aims to foster the further development of dialogue between the diverse camps that make up the new field of ‘finance and society’ studies. In particular, it seeks to identify new synergies between heterodox political economy and various sociological, historical, and philosophical perspectives on the intersections of finance and society.

Confirmed keynotes

  • Melinda Cooper (University of Sydney), ‘Anti-austerity on the far right’
  • Joseph Vogl (Humboldt University of Berlin), ‘The ascendancy of finance’

Submissions are invited in two formats

  • Papers; abstract of up to 300 words
  • Panels; panel proposal plus paper abstracts

Please submit abstracts and proposals by 1 August 2017 to Martijn Konings and Amin Samman at the following address: intersectionsfinancesociety@gmail.com

Finance and Society are encouraging paper submissions from conference participants. If you would like to discuss this further then please contact one of the journal editors. The full programme for last year’s event is available from the 2016 conference website.

From Christian Borch:

Special Issue of Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory 

Guest Editors:

Lisa Adkins (University of Newcastle, Australia)

Turo-Kimmo Lehtonen (University of Tampere, Finland)

Liu Xin (University of Tampere, Finland)

Submission deadline: September 30, 2017

Publication of the special issue in Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory: 2018/2019 

Background and key themes

One feature of the contemporary present is persistent instability and indeterminacy in regard to price and pricing. While classical social theorists and especially Marx recognized that the problem of price is fundamental to capitalism, this problem is mutating in the context of a proliferation of pricing technologies. These include, but are by no means limited to, the operations of apparently localized devices such as surge pricing and the ostensibly abstract techniques of financial instruments designed to continuously contest price. Such technologies have not only made the contestability of price explicit, but also raise the question of how exactly price and pricing should be understood. Should price be understood as an algorithm, a sensation, an index, a measure, a risk position, a mode of valuation, a benchmark, a function of money, a market device, or a socio-technological engagement with the future?

While mutations to price and pricing have certainly not gone unnoticed in economic sociology, critical finance studies, and in certain branches of pragmatic sociology, these mutations raise the question of what is at stake for social theory in the question and problem of price. What might an interrogation of price entail for social theory? Would this include the changing relations between measure and value? The retreat of the state from price setting? Shifting relations between the future and the present? An intensification of capital accumulation? A rewriting of value? Transformations to money? A thoroughgoing entanglement of price and pricing in the co-ordination and making of social worlds? 

This special issue invites contributions on the theme of price to address these and related questions. It seeks contributions which move away from the narrow concerns of an economics focused on price as information and from a sociology focused on the meaning of price to deliver state-of-the-art engagements with the problem and question of price. These engagements might take the form of considerations of what socio-theoretical resources are best equipped to come to terms with the problem and question of price including the resources of an actor-network-theory-inflected economic sociology, critical and social finance studies, pragmatic social theory and new media theory. These engagements can be set in specific case studies and draw on a range of materials but submissions should aim to advance social theory. The overall aim of the special issue is to prompt new socio-theoretical understandings of price and pricing. 

Submissions

See instructions for authors on the journal homepage for details about style and form. All submissions should be made through the journal’s manuscript submission site.

For further information about this Special Issue, please contact one of the Guest Editors:  Lisa Adkins(lisa.adkins@newcastle.edu.au), Turo-Kimmo Lehtonen(Turo-Kimmo.Lehtonen@staff.uta.fi), and Liu Xin(Xin.Liu@staff.uta.fi).

 

By Ursula Dalinghaus

From the centers of banking and finance to the payment peripheries in the global south, one finds an increasing push toward digital money futures – a future without cash and a future where the means of payment are digitized and privatized, globally. Some see this as a more inclusive future, especially advocates and practitioners of financial inclusion efforts to include the poor within formal banking systems. Others are more upfront about the profit-making value of what one might call “digital payment enclosures,” where one now has to “pay” to pay and where money is no longer a public good that all can access equally. The recent demonetization move in India is therefore highly relevant to broad debates occurring globally on the future of money and state-issued currency, what forms state-issued legal tender should take, and to what (and whose) ends.

Cash is a crucial technology of everyday financial life across the globe and a “public good.” A change in money, even “if only” to cancel or replace particular denomination banknotes, therefore entails different stakes for individuals, segments of a society, as well as national and transnational communities. Such infrastructurally and politically complex operations, including but not limited to the initial rollout phase, can disrupt or unsettle a whole array of social practices and overlapping monetary ecologies with implications for relationships, social hierarchies, and the daily and informal ways of making do. But so often, how these major monetary changes are experienced and negotiated on the ground, especially by those with little power and influence, is rarely documented in detail and indeed largely silenced. Diverse actors, intermediaries, and institutions “for and against” such policy moves fill the space of analytical possibility, reiterating the desired and “inevitable” outcomes. But the details of such monetary and technological shifts matter greatly to those of us engaged in the social studies of finance and who are working to historicize, track, and critically engage processes of marketization and financialization across time and space.

In order to document and develop an on-the-ground understanding of unfolding events around demonetization in India, The Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) organized a special blog series on the demonetization move with perspectives from IMTFI Research Fellows. Series contributors assess the impact of demonetization from the ground up and create that essential space for the stories and insights of people negotiating these monumental shifts that will inform our analyses of this major policy event, now and for years to come.

IMTFI’s Special Perspectives Series on Demonetization in India can be accessed through this curated blog post (here), which provides an overview and links to each post in the series. The series aims to foster an open dialogue on issues around money, technology and financial inclusion for the world’s poor. To learn more about the Institute for Money, Technology, & Financial Inclusion, or to access our growing archive of research and publications on the intersections of mobile money technology and monetary practices, see here.

From Stefan Ouma

We live in financialized times. The wellbeing of states, companies and households as well as politics are increasingly shaped by financial markets. The financial economization of almost everything not only manifests itself in the increasing dominance of the financial sector over other domains of the economy, but also in the progressive incorporation of ever new frontier regions into global financial circuits. In mainstream economics, as well as in much of the media, financial markets are usually framed as anonymous entities whose workings are based on certain inner laws. This representation of financial markets has been further accentuated since the global financial crisis, and we have been frequently told that ‘the markets’ are nervous, or even lose trust in whole states.

In the 2016-17 lecture series on Frontier Regions of Global Finance hosted by the Department of Human Geography at Goethe University Frankfurt, leading scholars of money and finance such as David Bassens (University of Brussels), Karen P. Lai (University of Singapore), Sarah Bracking (Universities of Manchester/Kwa Zulu-Natal), Brett Christophers (University of Uppsala) and Paul Langley (University of Durham) transcend popular and scholarly abstractions of financial markets and illuminate the practical, materially entangled operations of financial global finance from different theoretical perspectives. They shed light on the manifold frontier regions which are being incorporated as new fields of accumulation or sites of financial economization into global circuits of finance. 

 To access recordings of the talks, connect here

Please follow the link „Videoaufzeichnung“ appearing under each talk.

For further information, please contact Stefan Ouma, ouma@geo.uni-frankfurt.de

Sent by John Morris

The 9th annual international Critical Finance Studies conference will be held at the University of Leicester from the 3rd to 5th August 2017. The conference is part of an on-going project that seeks to engage with finance in critical and creative ways. Although critical attention is regularly devoted to finance, it usually takes the form of a call for transparency, regulation or restructuring. It also tends to centre on ‘high finance’ rather than processes of financialisation, a term coined by Randy Martin that has proven useful for past Critical Finance Studies discussions. Indeed in this conference we plan to honour Randy’s legacy, following his untimely death, by focusing our keynotes and panel discussions on consideration of the ongoing implications of his work.

Contributions that engage with the discourse of financialisation, perhaps in unexpected spheres or through historical examples, are especially welcome, as are new approaches to ‘high finance.’
We invite papers that critically discuss the workings of finance (for example: its material culture, labour practices, conceptual models, technologies, built environments, authorized or unauthorized forms, etc.) in novel ways. We are interested in engaging with the problematic divide between the way finance is simultaneously lauded as a wealth creator and idealised career path, but also critiqued by popular culture and protest movements. Especially welcome are papers that approach finance through avenues that have been so far underexplored such as: theology, philosophy, art, music, film, new media, television, literary aesthetics, and popular culture.

Possible topics may include, but are not limited to:

Financialisation of daily life
Finance and desire
Financial publics, financial social imaginaries
Finance and risk society
Financial media and advertising
Finance and exclusion
Visualizing finance
Gambling and finance
Financial technologies
Built environments of finance
Stereotypes in financial discourses
Finance and neoliberalism
Philanthropy and finance
Finance in popular culture
Finance and gender, race, or religion
Finance and discrimination
Financial history for the present
Banking: structures, procedures and cultures
Money, credit and derivatives
Finance and postsecularism
Rethinking finance and critical theory
Finance and utopia
The poetics of finance

Finance’s role in the somewhat surprising political events of 2016
Communicating critical finance

Confirmed keynote contributors are Dick Bryan, Joyce Goggin and Bob Meister.

Please send proposals for panels as well as individual contributions (i.e. abstracts of up to 250 words or full papers if wished) to the conference organisers, John Morris (john.morris@ucl.ac.uk) and Simon Lilley (s.lilley@le.ac.uk) by 31st March 2017. As in previous years, we envisage a conference fee of around £100.