The power of texting

Mobile phones and alternative currencies are changing how the whole world pays for everything
By JEFF INGLIS  |  March 2, 2012

Money — crispy banknotes and jangly coins — is as old-fashioned as, well, mechanical typewriters. We all know what a typewriter is, and some of us — in a pinch— might even be able to operate one. But by and large, typewriters are quaint cultural artifacts fit for exhibiting in museums or selling at flea markets.

And so it is with greenbacks, cash, money.

Music has been digitized; so have movies, books, and most of the commodities we call media. And whether we recognize it or not, the way we buy and sell things, be it a cup of coffee or an automobile, is likewise being transformed and revolutionized.

Two recent books, Robert Neuwirth's Stealth of Nations (Pantheon) and David Wolman's The End of Money (Da Capo), show us different aspects of that transformation. It's a world with prices charged in prepaid cell-phone airtime minutes, and with earnings transferred from urban workers to rural dwellers in seconds over phone-to-phone money-transfer services like Kenya's wildly popular M-Pesa.

Wolman, who reads at the Harvard Book Store on Tuesday, March 6, at 7 pm, shows us that physical currency (paper banknotes and metal coins) are disappearing in the West, where savvy consumers walk around with PayPal and Google Wallet apps in their pockets — and in the world's poorest places, where even a very rudimentary flip-phone can send money safely across miles of rugged terrain, or let a tiny streetside tinkerer open a bank account.

Neuwirth, for his part, visits unlicensed and unregulated markets around the developing world and explores how they avoid government regulation while conducting massive import-export and street-market sales operations. While much of his book is about the cash-only model that has dominated what he calls the "informal economy," various scenes throughout his reporting illustrate the ubiquity of money-enhanced cell phones in even the poorest slums and villages.

Given their overlapping — and mutually enlightening — viewpoints on how money can and soon will be used by regular people the world over, the Phoenix got the two authors together by telephone. They talk about how mobile phones are the basis of a coming revolution in how money is stored, transferred, saved, and spent.


ROBERT NEUWIRTH I'll start by saying there's cool congruencies and some differences. Being contentious by nature, I'll start with the differences. I think I'm writing about the people who avoid the tracked and scrutinized economy of the bitmap dollar, if you will. And so in my view, from what I gleaned from David's book, whether or not money as a physical form (the germ-ridden bills) disappears, there are going to be people who find alternative ways of doing business. And the folks that I've written about in my most recent book definitely depend on that kind of strategy, and I think for them it doesn't matter whether money stays in the physical form or not, they're going to find ways of doing business that get around all the reporting requirements.

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