Credit cards and the nature of money

I tend to vet certain types of invitation very carefully. Invitations to chair seminars of all sorts come along like the proverbial London bus – none for ages, then three or four at once. Then there's the dilemma of choice. Normally, I am embarrassed to say, the fee is the dominant factor. If there's a log jam in my diary, I'll accept the invitation that has the largest cheque behind it.

But the exception proves the rule, and I recently abandoned mercenary instincts and accepted a two-day event which had no cash behind it (although the organisers did buy 100 copies of my first novel, Meltdown, and distributed them to the delegates). This, despite having a competing offer with a small chunk of remuneration attached.

I was hugely gratified to discover that, occasionally, doing things for the love of them is its own reward. The Digital Money Forum took place in London. The forum is a well-known and increasingly popular excuse to sit round and talk – about the nature of money.

If it all sounds a bit off-the-wall, and philosophically highbrow, I'm sorry. The reason I took the gig on was the opportunity to meet one of the world's finest financial minds (in my opinion, one of the world's finest minds, full stop). I chaired the first session of the forum, which featured professor Thomas Levenson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology . Levenson is the author of a number of books, including the highly regarded Newton And The Counterfeiter. He spoke brilliantly about the nature of currency and the last phase of Isaac Newton's fascinating life as comptroller general of the Royal Mint, detective and thief-catcher (he had to track the counterfeiters down to stop the currency being debased).

Levenson spoke as brilliantly as I expected. Sitting next to this erudite, heavyweight academic was a fresh-faced young man of a mere 27 summers, James Allan (the blogger behind the Losing Face blog). Between them, they offered two fascinating and contrasting insights into the nature of money. Having heard from Levenson how one of the great intellectuals of all time was charged with the vital job of making cash reliable in the seventeenth century, we were then regaled with the story of how Allan tries to live without the benefit of all that effort. He has managed to buy for two years without carrying any cash – no pounds, no pennies, nothing. He spoke, often hilariously, about the tribulations of living without cash – walking home if London taxis would not take his credit card, buying a single carrot from a Tesco supermarket – at a cost of 6p (it will have cost Tesco at least 20p to process the transaction).

My job was to bring these two totally contrasting experiences and perspectives together. We ended up with a funny, thoughtful and engaging session on the nature of money and the way that credit card companies play with their offerings of value to appeal to consumers.

The organiser of the event, Dave Birch of Consult Hyperion, a technology business that advises government and financial services organisations on the tricky business of money, payment and security, was thrilled with the way it all went. Birch said that we had kept the audience "engrossed, entertained and stimulated" – and not one of us used the crutch of Powerpoint presentations.

"It was a launch pad so good that people were talking about it days later. But then I suppose I am borderline autistic," he said.

I have to give Birch credit (sic) where credit's due. He also had the brilliant idea of having a live session called "The Dragon's Factor's Got Talent" – a pastiche of the popular BBC television programme, Dragon's Den, featuring just about every terrible reality telly idea currently disgracing the British airwaves, apart from Strictly Come Dancing and Masterchef.

The Dragon session also went down a treat, and featured a succession of budding entrepreneurs in the financial space pitching their ideas to a panel judges in front of a live audience. After the Dragons had had a go, questions were taken from the audience. Two prizes were awarded. The audience liked Todd Veri of Midpoint & Transfer, an online f/x matching service. The Dragons couldn't decide between Kachingle, an online payment system, and Touch2D, a "contactless card/biometric combination for providing proof of age being trialled in Wiltshire."

Sadly for the winners, they walked off with charming trinkets, not cash funding, as per the BBC programme.

All in all, the event was one of the very best two-day conferences on matters financial I've ever attended.

The writer is a journalist, author and commentator on international business affairs

Wait and watch for Murdoch

So Rupert Murdoch has gone ahead and done it. If you want to look at the content of The Times or The Sunday Times online, you will have to pay for the privilege – at the rate of £1 per day or £2 per week – come the beginning of May.

As I've noted here before, the New York Times is sitting on the sidelines, watching and waiting to see if Murdoch can make the pay wall work.

My fear is that the titles will become excluded from the global conversation. There's a lot of fine content out there for free, and bloggers and the like will cross-refer to the free sites rather than direct readers to a pay wall. In many ways, as a content-provider myself, I hope I'm wrong. We'll see.

 

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