[Dave Birch] Who was it who said “the past is another country”? Oh wait… I’ve got wikipedia.

The Go-Between is a romantic novel by L. P. Hartley (1895–1972), published in London in 1953. The novel begins with the famous line “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

[From The Go-Between – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]

Alright. Let’s start again…

When L.P. Hartley said that “the past is another country” I think he may have been thinking about New Zealand. Why? Well, I recently flew from Sydney to Auckland (on an excellent Qantas 737-800 service which had widescreen seat TV screens with USB ports for charging iPads and phones in Economy, just like the new BA First Class). When I went to the airport in Sydney, I paid using a contactless Barclaycard. Tap and go. I was going to pay with my NFC phone, just because I could, but the taxi fare was more than the remaining balance on the prepaid MasterCard in the phone, and I couldn’t top it up (which is easy) because I have international data roaming turned off as I always do. Even though it’s a company phone and on expenses, I am morally outraged by the mobile operator’s attempt to charge me $10 per Mb or whatever their absurd tariff is. So, anyway, I paid with contactless card. Cool.

When I got to Auckland, ever mindful of the need for economy in these straightened time (I hope Stuart is reading this) I decided to take the shared shuttle bus to the hotel. I asked at information if the shuttle bus took cards, because I really didn’t want to bother going to get NZ Dollars, and I was told that it did. So I jumped in, and about half an hour later we were at the hotel. I produced a card. The driver begged me for cash. I showed him that I didn’t have any. He went to passenger side of the bus and took out a zip-zap machine.

A zip-zap machine.

Another country indeed! I was genuinely taken aback. New Zealand has one of the most well-developed retail electronic payments infrastructures in the world. All merchants have (at a minimum) domestic debit terminals. Domestic debit is at zero interchange and so is cheaper for the merchants than cash. People pay for everything with their debit cards, down to cups of coffee. The system is a little long in the tooth – it’s magnetic stripe – but it works. Scheme debit is growing rapidly and by the end of next year all cards will be contactless. The banks (through the processor they own jointly) and the mobile operators are working together to look at mobile.

New Zealand’s bank-owned payments network Paymark is teaming up with three of the country’s major wireless network operators on a contactless mobile money joint venture.

I never did get an NZ Dollars the whole time I was in the country. I paid with cards everywhere, and they worked fine, even though it was a bit boring to have to put them into slots and punch in a PIN.

So, a zip-zap machine.

What a bit of luck that one of my super-secure microchip-based contactless-enabled cards of the future had some hello 1950-style embossing on it. After fumbling around to find some slips, he zip-zapped the card and then filled out the slip for me to sign. By this time it was about half-past midnight and the rest of the passengers in the shuttle were clearly getting a bit restless. Even so, I was bit miffed when the driver absolutely refused to let me take a picture of him using the zip zap. I tried to explain that it would form a pivotal image in an unfolding international narrative, a key state-of-the-nations payments “weather map” that might be significant contribution to evolution of payment strategies for a wide variety of organisations. He shut the door and drove off.

Another reason for maintaining embossed cards is that apparently some merchants, both domestically and internationally, still rely on imprints for transactions.

[From Portals and Rails]

I can only remember one previous instance of card imprint in the last decade (during which time I’ve paid for things in places as far flung as Brazil, Russia, India and China) and that was in Surrey to pay for a kids paintball game. Even then, I thought to myself that it was ridiculous – I had my phone with me so I could just as easily have paid online in some way – but whatever. I want the stripe and embossing removed from all of my cards as soon as possible. I am perfectly happy to carry a prepaid stripe card with me when I go somewhere without chip readers in the ATMs, like the US or Somaliland.

Goodness, a zip-zap machine.

When the magnetic stripe was introduced back in 1971 (along with the Visa BASE I authentication network), I’m sure that no-one would have predicted that we would still be using zip-zap machines in some parts of the world more than a generation later. Another lesson in the slow diffusion of technology that I was remarking about the other day.

These are personal opinions and should not be misunderstood as representing the opinions of 
Consult Hyperion or any of its clients or suppliers




  1. My cab driver used one in Seattle last week. Though he had some other way of authorizing that trans via his in-cab dispatch system. The card imprint was just for backup I guess or to qualify for lower card-present interchange, maybe? Or fraud.

    [Dave Birch] Probably fraud. Hope you didn’t sign it with your real name!

  2. Funny – just had my first zip zap transaction in 5 years the other week, but to be fair it was a tour rep in the middle of the Seychelles.

    What was more frustrating was doing a C&P transaction in Dubai duty free and then be presented with the receipt to sign – I mean honestly what is the point in that?!

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