25 May, 2013


A Rant Against the Evolution of Things Until They Become Less Useful

Not to sound too much like Andy Rooney or anything, but, "do you remember when ATMs were called cash machines?" That was back in the days like maybe mid-70's when ATMs were widely introduced and began their evolution into being useful things. You could go to a cash machine at any time of the day or night and, assuming you had any money in your account and that the machine was actually working, come away with money in your pocket. At first, I viewed ATMs with a jaundiced eye since they seemed poised to let me down when I was most counting on them working. Or at least that was the situation in the ground in Atlanta, Georgia.

Over time the reliability, expressed as the likelihood of a given ATM being capable of dispensing cash on demand, and thus not pissing you off royally, improved markedly. This was probably a result of the confluence of ATM technology improvements and successively more robust networks linking the machines to the central banks.

As the man who had jumped from the roof of a very tall skyscraper was heard to exclaim as he passed by each floor, "So far, so good." ATMs had become unquestionably useful. And that's a good thing.

But more recently I've noted that ATMs have evolved to perform tasks beyond mere dispensing of cash. This, paradoxically enough, is not a good thing. Yesterday I pulled into the ATM lane. By dint of poor planning, I was in a slight hurry as I frequently am. But all systems looked to be go as there was but a lone car in front of me. What I learned was that this particular motorist was using the ATM to renegotiate a jumbo home mortgage that was seriously underwater, fund a micro-loan facility under the auspices of the World Bank, or perhaps commune with Ben Bernanke on QE3. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating somewhat. In reality my antagonist seemed to be depositing multiple checks (probably birthday money from his grandma, etc.) and some cash in small, wrinkled bills. The money launderer in me recoils at the thought of ever depositing cash; why not hang onto it, throw it on your bed and roll around in it, or use large denomination bills to light cigars?

Anyway, this transaction was taking a long time and I started to conclude that all this high finance could have been more promptly transacted inside the bank with a human teller rather than outside with his car, my car, and now a third car that had pulled in behind me, idling and needlessly despoiling our air. The bile began to rise to my throat. Just at that moment, the car pulled away from the ATM. So now it was my turn and I was determined to conduct my business with all the alacrity and economy of motion of an Indy-500 pitstop. This would render me a hero to the guy behind me. I hummed my ready card into the machine, banged my PIN into the keypad, and was greeted with the message: "THIS MACHINE CANNOT DISPENSE CASH AT THIS TIME."

The failure of the machine accounted for at most twenty percent of my blood pressure rise. Stuff happens, right? But having to wait behind someone conducting a protracted transaction should be avoidable. It never would happen to begin with if ATMs had not evolved beyond their useful purpose as cash dispensers.

My modest proposal is that banks install cash-dispensing-only machines to augment the all-purpose ATMs that I will promise never to use. I realize that this may be problematic in terms of real estate occupied by the ATMs and any drive-up teller lanes but I don't care. Figure it out and get it done.

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