(Electronic) money, (electronic) money, (electronic) money

How do you promote your campaign to phase out physical currency? Get an endorsement from ABBA, of co

Because of all the excitement over the Budget, one could be forgiven for missing the biggest story today, in the Washington Post:

“I can’t see why we should be printing bank notes at all anymore,” says Björn Ulvaeus, former member of 1970’s pop group ABBA, and a vocal proponent for a world without cash...

A cashless society may seem like an odd cause for someone who made a fortune on “Money, Money, Money” and other ABBA hits, but for Ulvaeus it’s a matter of security.

After his son was robbed for the third time he started advocating a faster transition to a fully digital economy, if only to make life harder for thieves.

“If there were no cash, what would they do?” says Ulvaeus, 66.

The Financial Times (£) has a more serious take on the same issue, which contains this interesting point:

Apart from anything else, there is a cost to handling cash, in terms of storing, guarding and shifting it. A 2010 report by Visa cited a European Commission estimate that the cost to society of all payment methods is the equivalent of about 2-3 per cent of Europe’s GDP, of which cash accounts for two-thirds. A 2008 study by the McKinsey consultancy estimated that in Europe €60bn-€100bn annually is spent on processing cash payments, a figure that includes the production of notes and coins, transport and security. A similar study by the Dutch central bank puts the price tag at €300 per family. A number of Dutch supermarkets are talking about moving exclusively to cashless payments by 2014, in part to get away from cash handling costs. The motivation is the same for governments.

Given we were talking about the downside of transaction taxes this morning, it's worth bearing in mind that transaction costs have the same problem. If someone doesn't buy something because they don't have the cash on them, that is a net loss in welfare – both the potential buyer and potential seller are worse off than if the transaction had gone ahead. As anyone who has ever actually been in that situation knows.

Gimme, gimme, gimme a card after midnight. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.