From ApplePay to Bitcoin or Kenya’s famous M-Pesa mobile money system, digital payment systems are proliferating at a pace never before seen. People are predicting the end of cash and coin. And many promoters and start-ups in payments pitch their service as the next stage – even the final pinnacle! – in the evolution of money. Advertisements for mobile phone-based payment systems sometimes exploit this. PayPal’s iPhone application, which can allow users to send small amounts of money to each other just by tapping their phones together, was released with an advertising campaign that explicitly drew upon this evolutionary story. The ad included mock cave drawings, hieroglyphics and even a narrator speaking in tones familiar to many people as those of a natural history documentary. The narrator identified the two characters in the ad as ‘specimens’, again invoking the familiar terms of popular natural history. Similarly, the mobile phone provider Zain advertised its mobile money service, Zain Zap, with images of ‘ancient’ systems of barter and money, before bringing the story up to the present or near-future with the advent of its mobile service.

The evolutionary narrative is important not just because it has a starring role in advertisements. It is also important because it structures people’s understandings of what money was, is, and thus what money – and mobile money – can become. And if we think money really did go through this evolutionary process, from barter to shells, coins, paper, plastic and electrons, we risk making several related assumptions...

Read more from social sciences dean Bill Maurer’s essay on money, as featured by Aeon.


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