Illustration by Martin Rowson, 'Sorry, card only'

When I was a boy growing up in South Africa, I would go to a church where the preacher would passionately lecture us about a benevolent God who wanted everyone to come into his fold. The only condition was that you had to bow down to him. Failure to do so would result in doom.

Christianity, as I experienced it, presented a utopia and a dystopia – heaven and hell – and assumed you wanted to get to the former. The priest showcased two groups who were at risk of not making the cut. The first was bad people, who knew about God but refused to follow him. The second was ignorant people, who didn’t yet know about God. Those were the ones missionaries were supposed to rescue.

Around this time, the book series Left Behind came out (later turned into a Nicolas Cage film). It was a fictionalised account of “the Rapture”, a belief (originating from evangelical American Christianity) that God would one day teleport all true believers up into heaven at once, leaving sinners to fend for themselves in the hellish days of the Antichrist. Christians had a visceral fear of missing this ride to utopia, and I remember the fearful confusion I faced when thinking about my atheist uncle. I saw him as a good person, but he didn’t follow God, despite knowing about him. I was terrified that he would be left behind.

Three decades later, my uncle still has no interest in being included in the Rapture, but neither do I anymore. In retrospect, my early experiences with evangelical Christianity have left me with an ability to see how an eerily similar formula is used to promote digital corporate expansion today. And much like the missionaries who express incredulity that you wouldn’t want to go to heaven, these firms think it’s outrageous that you wouldn’t want to ascend to “the cloud” – their world of hyper-connected and hyper-global digital markets that are supposed to free us from “inconvenience” and “friction”, by which they mean all that physical interaction between people on the ground.

Surveillance capitalism

The term “surveillance capitalism” was first popularised by Shoshana Zuboff’s 2018 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It refers to the now widespread business model of digital corporations that seek to profit by gathering our personal data. The parallels between surveillance capitalism and the spread of monotheistic religion are striking. Consider the fact that tech giants like Amazon seek to extend themselves across the Earth, aiming for the same app to appear before you wherever you are. It’s not dissimilar to those crusaders who sought to spread uniform monotheistic religions across borders, barging out smaller and more diverse “pagan” systems, refocusing spirituality on a singular sky god.

Once a sky god has taken over, there’s no need to consult a directory of minor deities to see who you have to appeal to in order to get a river to flow again, or for your business to succeed, or for your tribe to win a war. There’s only one divinity, who intermediates between everything from above. No act is a private act – it is watched and judged – and all “correct” acts route through the god (which contributes to a pervasive feeling of guilt, as your desires are scanned by an all-seeing eye).

How does this relate to corporate surveillance capitalism? Well, collectively, we can see that major tech firms are establishing themselves as an interconnected cartel of sky gods that hover over us, watching us and getting us to route all our interactions with each other through them. Indeed, Facebook and others are even positioning themselves to create a “metaverse”, a virtual reality realm where you can leave the physical world of your body and live life as an avatar in their data centres (see Jay Owens’ feature in the New Humanist spring 2022 issue).

Ascending to "the cloud"

It’s always risky to extend a metaphor, but we could see firms like Facebook, Amazon and Google as promoting a corporate “Rapture”: a future in which we all get absorbed into their systems via our various devices and smartphones. Don’t get left behind!

Before this can happen, however, a key transition needs to take place: the abolition of cash. Tech firms cannot fully lock you into dependence on their data centres unless physical cash is pulled away from us. The ongoing use of cash hinders the consolidation and expansion of the digital corporate sector, because cash is offline and fundamentally incompatible with the promotion of online life.

To spread seamlessly across the Earth, tech firms need to automate payments for their services, but this requires them to enter into partnerships with digital payments and fintech firms who plug into the digital money infrastructure run by the banking system.

At this point it is crucial to note that modern monetary systems are only partially run by state institutions. While it is true that central banks issue physical cash, it is commercial banks that issue the digital money that we use when tapping our contactless cards. If the central bank is an old financial sky god, these banks are somewhat like a ring of powerful angels that surround it, slowly usurping its power by getting us to convert to their digital money. Indeed, Bank of America’s CEO openly stated in 2019 that “we want a cashless society”, and that they have “more to gain than anybody” from the decline of cash.

In my new book – Cloudmoney – I trace how financial firms have engaged in a “war on cash” for at least the last three decades, sowing moral panic about it by casting it as a favourite of criminals and tax dodgers. During the pandemic, this war was accelerated, with digital finance players only too happy to take advantage of the heightened fear of physical interaction. With almost no scientific evidence of the actual risk of disease transmission, many retailers began urging shoppers to switch to digital payments as a safer option, despite the fact that pre-eminent health research bodies like Germany’s Robert Koch Institute insisted that “cash poses no particular risk of infection for the public”.

The promotion of a cashless society

Digital bank money – and all the apps and cards that depend upon it – is now presented as a safer and more efficient “upgrade” to the monetary system, but really what is happening is a restructuring of power, away from the state and towards the banking sector. Central banks now find themselves caught between a legacy commitment to provide public money in the form of cash, and a commitment to serve their private commercial banking partners, who compete against cash.

This is why central banks only make half-hearted attempts to protect the cash system, and why, during the early days of the pandemic, the Bank of England stood silent while misinformation about cash being a Covid transmitter was spread. Major retailers like Tesco, for example, would loudly request that their customers use cards instead of cash, citing safety concerns, but it was only after several months of this that the Bank of England finally took a meek stand: they released a quiet research report in their November 2020 Quarterly Bulletin, showing that cash was far safer than card terminals, goods on open shelves, trolley handles and the digital touch screens of self-service checkouts found at supermarkets.

But let’s face it. The reason the digital financial sector promotes digital payment is not for your personal safety. It’s because it’s profitable. Digital payment routes through banking and payment company data centres, leaving a long trail of data of when, where and with whom you interact. That data can be used to decide whether to punish you or not (are you doing something bad?), to give you access or not (are you worthy of receiving a particular service?) and also to promote things to you (are you the kind of person who will respond to our prompts?).

This commercial agenda in turn empowers new political agendas. In religions, a sky god can watch you and store up judgement for later, but not stop you in the moment. Corporate capitalism, by contrast, is building systems that enable the act of watching to be enlisted into the act of stopping. Once you are dependent on digital payments, they form an extremely effective vector via which states and companies can influence and restrict certain actions. The geopolitical element of this is well-known – for example, Russian citizens have had their ability to transact across borders severely curtailed as Russian banks are ejected from the SWIFT international payments network. But the ability to prevent the authorisation of payments for goods or services which an authority deems undesirable is beginning to be seen within countries too. The trend can be viewed everywhere from Australia – with its controversial “cashless welfare card” that regulates what a welfare recipient can buy (and from where) – to China, with its nascent Social Credit System: a nationwide system for collating multiple sources of data about individuals into scores that can trigger restrictions on certain goods or services.

The promotion of a “cashless society”, then, is ideological, with cash cast as a fallen angel – a sinful and backward form of payment used by dirty people to pick up dirty goods from street-side markets while leaving no data trail. You’re supposed to desire seamless digital efficiency, not that hell of the cash economy. According to the ideology of digital innovation, there are – apparently – only two groups at risk of being “left behind” in that hell. Bad people – criminals – who wish to remain in the darkness of physical cash, and ignorant people, who haven’t yet realised that they desire digital payments and fintech apps (or who struggle to adopt them). The former should be arrested, while the latter need to be on-boarded into financial surveillance capitalism by its missionaries.

Silicon Valley and the "Singularity"

For those who feel I’m exaggerating the religious metaphor, it is worth introducing the concept of the technological “Singularity”. This is the idea that, at some hypothetical time in the future, technological growth will become self-perpetuating, irreversible and all-encompassing, culminating in a “point of no return” at which we get absorbed into a vast intermeshed “super-intelligence”.

The concept is promoted by Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurweil, who has written books on the topic – such as The Age of Spiritual Machines – and who co-founded the Singularity University in Silicon Valley, along with space entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, to solve all earthly problems through technology.

I have taught as a guest lecturer at the Singularity University, and have witnessed first-hand the almost evangelical belief that “Singularitarians”, as they call themselves, have in the power of digital tech to allow humans to not only “transcend” all problems, but to transcend their very bodies (immortality research is an old favourite of transhumanists, who tend to hover around the Singularity scene).

Within religious teleologies, it is often imagined that history unfolds towards a final reckoning – like the Rapture – in which a single order will emerge. The Singularity vision is not so different. In her essay “God in the machine”, former Christian evangelist Meghan O’Gieblyn argues that belief in the Singularity mirrors biblical salvation stories almost exactly. The only difference is that heaven is replaced with a transnational agglomeration of corporate data centres. Not everyone in Silicon Valley buys into the Singularity vision, but milder versions of the “transcendence-through-technology” belief are endemic to tech culture.

Really, though, this belief is inherent within the ideology of modern capitalism more generally. It is common to speak of the economy as “naturally” becoming ever more technologically complex and interconnected as it expands, and for this tendency to be cloaked in cliched phrases, such as that we are living in “a rapidly changing world”. The global economy appears to us as a vast procession moving inevitably towards ever greater growth, and against this backdrop we are constantly asked to catch up or adapt.

The benefits of a syncretic economy

To understand why this ideology is so problematic, consider the following. Much as we maintain transport systems that keep multiple options open – roads for cars, lanes for bicycles, and tracks for trains – we should be aiming for payment systems that do the same. If the transport system was left to the car industry, it would vote to remove bicycle lanes in order to help accelerate a “bicycle-less society”, whilst lobbying government to subsidise the purchase of cars under the guise of “inclusion”. Similarly, it’s the finance and tech industry that spends so much time trying to convince us that moving over completely to digital payments would be in all our interests, and that everyone must be saved from cash at all costs.

Religious systems that maintain multiple deities, and the ability to switch between them, are often called “syncretic”. A syncretic religion is a hybrid religion, where – for example – animist spirits are consulted alongside a Christian sky god. This is found extensively in my home country of South Africa, where European economic colonialism often followed in the same tracks as missionaries, creating zones of both economic and religious mixing, or “syncretism”.

Just as a syncretic religion can mix river gods with angels living in the clouds, we can think of a “syncretic economy” as one in which traditional informal economic practices continue alongside transnational corporate ones. I extend this ethos to payments systems. I believe in defending a syncretic system, with cash-based street trade being allowed to operate alongside digital payments.

It’s normally at this point that somebody asks me, “But what about Bitcoin?” Cryptocurrency tokens like Bitcoin or Ethereum are somewhat like limited-edition digital medallions, their movements tracked on a decentralised network. Bitcoin promoters specialise in encouraging hundreds of millions of people to buy these cyber-collectibles, a process that makes early adopters very wealthy in dollars. They were initially presented as being a challenge to the existing monetary system, but the vast majority of people who hold such crypto-tokens view them as speculative objects priced in money, rather than being money themselves.

That said, tokens like Bitcoin are accelerating a practice called countertrade, which is the process of using non-monetary objects for exchange, via their monetary prices (much as I can swap a rare antique medallion with a monetary price for something of equivalent price). Crypto countertrade is certainly adding some interesting new textures to the monetary system, but a far more effective way to resist corporate surveillance capitalism is simply to protect the use of cash.

In continuing to use the notes and coins in your wallet, you are not some laggard who’s behind the curve. You are someone who refuses to accept the myth that progress lies in ever larger systems presided over by small groups of mega-firms. Humans are slow physical creatures, and we should be allowed to use slow physical money. So the next time a fintech company tells you to “upgrade your life”, or a yuppie shop informs you that they no longer accept cash, you’re perfectly entitled to tell them to go to hell.

This piece is from the New Humanist summer 2022 edition. Subscribe here.