restricted access 3. “More Than We Know”
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Behind the central market in Avignon, there is an ATM on the corner of a Crédit Agricole bank. During 2002 I went there once a month, withdrawing nine hundred Euros for my rent, food, and travel. I was withdrawing funds from my U.S. bank. If I had gone inside the Crédit Agricole to exchange dollars, to cash traveler’s checks, or to arrange a wire transfer, I would have paid a commission of 2 to 7 percent. Instead I paid the ATM $1.50 per transaction, an effective commission of about 0.3 percent. I could even time my withdrawals to favorable fluctuations in the exchange rate. Later that year I made ATM withdrawals in Japan, Thailand, Indonesia , and Cambodia. Standing in a line in Phnom Penh, at an ATM made by America’s Diebold Corporation, I realized that I was doing something “American,” and so were the Cambodians around me. Money machines are the most visible face of what I term “easy money,” an American cashon -demand habit that flies beneath the radar of globalization critics. More than McDonald’s or Baywatch, ATMs are changing the way people everywhere conduct their daily business. ATMs have taken us halfway to a cashless society, but here we will likely pause for some time. ATMs When I returned to the United States in 2002 after a two-year absence, I learned that Americans pay for 63 percent of all purchases with cash or debit cards. The shift is potentially a watershed, as the Wall Street Journal noted: 3 “More Than We Know” The current boom in plastic is one of those rare moments in history when agreement shifts and one payment form overtakes another as the preferred way to pay. The first such change came sometime between the 10th and 6th centuries BC when Greece and India each introduced metal coins, which surpassed barter or the shell currencies of earlier times. Coins dominated trade for the next 2,000 years, until the introduction of checks by Italian merchants in the Middle Ages. In 1690 Massachusetts became the first of the colonies to introduce paper money. Cash took decades to gain broad acceptance, but eventually became the standard of payment for the next three centuries.¹ Now we seem to be agreeing that payment is something you swipe for. And Americans led the way to swiping. This revolution sprang directly from the annoyance of Don Wetzel. He is the American engineer who thought up the ATM while waiting in a Dallas bank line in 1968. Wetzel was then vice president of product planning at Docutel, a manufacturer of automated baggage-handling equipment. Working with him were Tom Barnes, a mechanical engineer, and George Chastain, an electrical engineer. All their names appear on the 1973 patent. They built a prototype ATM in 1969 at a cost of $5 million , and the first one was installed in the Rockville Center branch of New York’s Chemical Bank in 1973. “No, it wasn’t in a lobby,” says Wetzel. “It was actually in the wall of the bank, out on the street. They put a canopy over it to protect it from the rain and the weather of all sorts. Unfortunately they put the canopy too high and the rain came under it.”² Wetzel and his colleagues solved this and many other problems of early ATMs. The first machines, for example, were not really connected to the bank: they were “off line,” meaning that funds were not withdrawn from an account. So access was restricted to credit card holders, who used their cards as ATM cards. Back then credit cards had only raised numbers for imprinting slips, necessitating an awkward mechanical operation.Wetzel and friends developed cards with magnetic stripes and ID numbers—the present form of billions of credit, drivers’ licenses, ID, and other transaction cards all over the world. The ubiquitous magstripe card was basically a spin-off of the ATM. It allowed a real-time link to bank computers, and once ATMs were connected to networks, they became popular. But making these systems work correctly, over vast distances , was still reasonably difficult. They depended on stable electric supplies and excellent phone-data lines, and they had to be restocked “More Than We Know” 145 every day.ATMs were physical machines that were exposed to snow, rain, and sandstorms, to blistering heat and subzero temperatures and thieves. ATMs had to do it right or customers would lose confidence. Making...