What’s to become of Alan Turing’s banknote in an increasingly cashless society?

The circulation of a new £50 note featuring Alan Turing today will resonate for many reasons. As a leading figure in Britain’s war effort playing a crucial role in the Bletchley Park codebreaking centre; as a mathematical and scientific genius known as the father of modern computing; and as a gay man in the 1950s brutally punished by the state for his sexuality, there is every reason to celebrate Turing’s inclusion as a new face on British currency. Appreciation of Alan Turing amongst the wider public has come arguably late compared to other influential people in British history – it took until 2013 for him to be granted a posthumous pardon, and recognition of much of his wider work has only come to the fore in recent years – but there is no doubting his influence on modern society both in Britain and elsewhere. Yet, with Turing having laid down much of the groundwork for the digital world we live in today, there is also a gentle irony to his inclusion on a physical banknote as the UK moves increasingly quickly towards a cashless society.  

The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a significant acceleration to changes in spending habits amongst the UK public, as demonstrated by official data from banking trade body UK Finance. The number of payments using cash fell by 35% in 2020, with 13.7 million people last year leading a “cashless life” compared to 7.4 million in 2019. Five in six payments now involve no notes or coins, compared to half of all payments in 2010, representing a total decline in cash payments of 56% over the decade. Only 1.2 million consumers regularly used cash in their day-to-day lives in 2020, a steep drop from 2.1 million in 2019. 

There are a number of factors exacerbating this accelerated decline in cash use. Lockdown has led to a surge in online shopping, and outlets where people would normally use cash have been closed for long periods. Many businesses decided to accept card payments only during the pandemic, with some of these doing so on a permanent basis, and it is understandable that businesses and consumers have avoided using banknotes and coins due to concerns about coronavirus transmission.  

The decline in cash use could perhaps slow down to normal levels (a ~15% decline yearly in the years before 2020) as the pandemic’s impact abates, and UK Finance have not ruled out the possibility of a “bounce back” in cash payments. However, the proliferation of contactless payments, which comprised over a quarter of payments in 2020 (compared to 7% in 2016), as well as mobile payment systems, signal that cashless will increasingly become the norm. The convenience cashless systems provide to both customers and businesses cannot be overlooked, with a variety of advantages such as clear paper trails and spending records, lower logistical costs and increased security. An expected further increase of the contactless limit from £45 to £100 later this year will only increase the ease with which customers shop.  

Despite its advantages, the increasingly rapid shift towards cashless finance can also come with pitfalls should it be mismanaged. The independent Access to Cash Review states that there are over 5 million people in the UK “heavily reliant” on notes and coins and calls for guaranteed cash access for all, particularly in remote and rural areas, as well as a requirement for essential service providers to allow consumers to pay by cash. It is clear that the issue of digital exclusion must be addressed should we move fairly towards a cashless society, in order to minimise the impacts on those who cannot access digital payment systems who are often amongst the most vulnerable groups. Such problems have already come to public attention in the UK, with a bakery manager in Nottinghamshire sacked last year after paying with her own card for customers who only had access to cash.  

Balancing the move towards a digital cashless system whilst retaining access to cash is a difficult act, particularly given incomes in cash infrastructure such as ATMs and cash-sorting centres are declining rapidly whilst costs of maintaining the infrastructure remains fixed. The Government and Financial Conduct Authority pledged last year to guarantee access to cash and intervene to ensure this where necessary, but this could be a task of mounting difficulty in a rapidly evolving and increasingly digitised society.  

Alan Turing’s face will still be seen on banknotes by many, and cash is not yet a thing of the past. But changes in spending habits show that cash is no longer king. The words included on the note, from a quote given by Turing to the Times in 1949, seem aptly prophetic: “This is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be.” Yet, whatever the fate of the note may be, Turing’s name will live on in every single bit, pixel and line of code that make up our digital society.   


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