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Paper money extends our ability to count — even if we haven’t been to school.

Paper is a technology.

The cursive systems of signs we scribble on it are a technology.

And paper money is a technology: a literate one designed centuries ago to facilitate trade.

Nearly a billion adults are illiterate today.Most do not live near literate institutions. We judge them lazy or stupid because they don’t use calendars, and don’t remember simple numeracy practices.

But cash is a literate technology.

Literate institutions like banks, pawnbrokers and joint stock companies evolved around it. And cash strengthened human control over the future – because of literate practices like numeracy and calendars.

As our modern economy evolved, practices and institutions gradually reinforced technology, and vice-versa. How long does it take for inventions – like cash — to spin off institutions, behavior and culture?

Johannes Gutenberg invented the first machine with movable type in 1439, and gradually books spread through Europe. The first newspaper was printed in Germany in 1605 and in the late 17th century coffee shop culture emerged. Ray Kurzweil suggests that Moore’s law governs all technological change since the discovery of fire. But technological diffusion, and social change follow slower, less predictable rhythms.

If we want to rescue those stranded in oral culture, we cannot simply lend them cash. Cash is the most high-powered medium of exchange on earth. The habits, practices and institutions governing its use are not those of its pre-literate equivalents.

To achieve financial inclusion we must remember our oral origins, and design accordingly.

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