The stereotype of people of my age is someone who, when asked to press “any key” on the computer, asks, “where’s the anykey”. I’m not like that. Although my children might smile when I claim to be technically savvy, I like technology and I’m generally the antithesis of a Luddite. Just recently, for example I was introduced to Apple Pay and the idea of holding all my plastic credit and cash cards in a virtual wallet on my iPhone, I find quite inspiring.
I am nevertheless of an age where I can remember a world long before the internet – actually even before the common use of the transistor. I thought perhaps I’d take a short journey down memory lane so these young whippersnappers who take modern technology for granted, understand what it was like – all within a single lifetime.
My first memory of virtual money was in the 1960s when the Co-op man came to visit. In those days it was always a man. He came round once a week and my father deposited money into a Co-operative fund. Co-operative stores were not little corner shops but places where us working class bought clothes, furniture, Christmas presents and anything else you could think of. Money deposited in the Co-op fund was recorded in a book – yes by pen and ink – and then placed into the Co-op man’s brown leather satchel. He carried a lot of cash around and “the Co-op man’s been robbed again”, was an often heard phrase. When you wanted to spend some of the fund, he issued you with Co-op money, also from his satchel.
These were tin tokens that you could then exchange for goods in Co-op stores. I think the idea was you got discounts if you used Co-op money as opposed to real money, which of course they still accepted. That was a time of mostly cash. My father got his wages paid in cash and although cheques were about, many people didn’t have bank accounts. Down the street where I lived, cheques were considered a little bit posh.
I got a bank account when I started work in the 1970s. To get cash meant queueing up in the bank and handing over a cheque. Banking hours were 10 am to 4 pm and so it wasn’t unusual to run out of spending money. By the 1970s a new innovation arrived – the cash machine. They were available 24 hours a day – a huge improvement, but they were nevertheless, a little different back then.
The bank issued a plastic punch card which dished out a set amount of money – typically £10 from the cash machine. They retained the card and then posted it back to you in the mail to arrive a few days later. Pause for a moment and imagine that – a snail mail cash card.
I’ll skip the part when transistor radios first arrived. In those days you needed a radio licence, just like a TV licence today*, and I remember inspectors from the BBC going around sunbathers on the beach asking if they had a licence for their transistor radio. I’ll mention that I also remember when telephones became common. These were big black heavy devices a long way from today’s mobiles. My next-door neighbour had a telephone installed, the only one in the street. They were, my father said, getting a bit above their station. My mother didn’t like telephones, she said it would ruin the art of letter writing.
Credit cards came to the UK in the form of an ACCESS card – “your flexible friend”. To use it in the shops, it had to be placed in a little machine that took an imprint which was followed by a physical signature. Credit card fraud rose dramatically and over time, other innovations were introduced such as PINs then chip and PIN.
Internet banking came in by the 1980s. I recall many saying it wouldn’t catch on because it was too impersonal. I remember the actor, Robbie Coltrane, advertising internet banking, telling everyone it was liberating. I guess it was but remember this was the time of dial-up modems with speeds equivalent to the rate grass grows. Email was born around the same time (in common use anyway) but again, there were some who resisted because they thought it would replace the telephone and ruin the art of conversation. I worked for ICI at the time and they adopted one of the first email systems called all-in-one. It only worked internally within the company but we loved it because you no longer had to write a memo and put it into the internal post.
The first computer I bought was an Olivetti with, what was then, a massive 100 MBytes of memory. You might laugh but this was when word processors replaced the old typewriter and gallons of correction fluid. It was bliss, I can tell you.
So as I now add my cards to Apple Pay and it does it by scanning the card via the phone’s camera, I spent just a moment remembering what life was once like. And I wonder, when my grandchildren get to working age, what will things be like then? Impossible to say, I think, but I hope I live to see it because I am, in truth, a bit of a technology geek.
* if you are from the USA it might surprise you to hear you need a TV licence in the UK, when you are from a country where a gun licence is optional.