Homage to the ATM

At some point, and probably not very far from now, there won’t be any more ATMs. No longer in the stale-smelling foyers of savings banks, no longer embedded in the facades of graffiti-covered buildings, no longer at gas stations, and not in shopping malls, train stations, or airports either. ATMs won’t be needed in the near future, simply because the cash people would withdraw from them will no longer exist. Even the smallest financial transaction will be carried out digitally, by swiping the display, via fingerprint or iris scan: individualized, seamlessly traceable, and recyclable for the next consumption stimulus.

As guardian of cash, the ATM has been a symbol of both the promises and threats of capitalism for more than half a century. On the one hand, they promise the ability to buy and afford everything immediately, if you could just withdraw enough money, and on the other, they are a threat of being completely broke. In its logic of yes and no, the ATM is by definition as incorruptible as it was inexorable.

According to the legend, the idea for this oncerevolutionary machine came to the Scotsman John Shepherd-Barron on a Friday in 1965. After missing his bank’s opening hours by just a few minutes, he stood in front of locked doors facing a weekend of having to be cashless. He must have been terribly upset, so he took a bath to relax. Then, suddenly, it came to him: the idea of a cash machine. Just a few days later he presented the idea to his bank, the major financial institution of Barclays, and together they developed the first ATMs, which were put into operation in Enfield, north London, in 1967.

The short and snappy “ATM,” an abbreviation of “Automated Teller Machine” in its Anglophone motherland, is much more beautiful and on point than “Money Machine” (Geldautomat) as it is called in Germany, or “Bank Machine (Bankomat) in Austria. The ATM unmistakably describes how a machine can simply replace human labor. Thus, this invention of the “automated bank employee machine” soon cost many tellers their jobs, and became a harbinger of the computerization and digitization to which the ATMs themselves will most likely soon fall victim.

The ATM was always conceivable only in its connection to the analogue, to cash. And its most significant quality, the anonymous payment of goods and services (legal and also illegal, of course), we are only now becoming aware of, because the cash is slowly disappearing. In some countries this change is taking place faster than elsewhere: in Sweden, for example, it is now difficult to pay with cash at all; in Germany, which is always a bit slower, it will probably take a little longer, but here too the number of ATMs has been shrinking by a two or three a day since 2015.

The cash machine and what could be found inside always held an enormous promise: the possibility of withdrawing high sums at whim, free from the accusing look of the cashier, and doing outrageous things with it. Like even when circumstances have made it necessary to disappear from one day to the next and start a new life. Only in this way could stories in art, film, and literature tell us about the disappearance of a person without a trace, about an anonymous new beginning; just think of Swiss writer Max Frisch’s work, which is filled with the idea of being able to run away unnoticed. How would this ever be possible without hard cash?

The freedoms afforded by stacks of bills are a common subject in rap music, too. Therefore, it’s not surprising at all that American rapper D.R.A.M. wrote a whole song about the magic and attraction of ATMs with “Cash Machine” in 2016. It’s actually more surprising that nobody had ever done it so explicitly before. D.R.A.M. landed a big hit, which gave him a golden record, and probably a lot more (cash) money. The refrain of the song shows us just how close, how irrational, and almost uncanny the relationship between man and machine has become in the years of our coexistence: “I love it when you talk to me / My cash machine, my cash machine / I love it when you talk to me / Since that check came in.”

It can seem as if the ATM has its own personality, as if we were dealing with an acting, decision-making counterpart. Despite the inherent logic of sober numbers, it sometimes appears to lead a life of its own, namely in the rare and precious moments when it does spit out money even though we had actually given up hope already—in the face of greatest financial distress ATMs can become miracle machines. Yet, if the miracles do not happen, because this time there really wasn’t enough money in the account to withdraw, then they have to be taken by force. Since ATMs are nothing more than safes standing around unguarded, they have been blown up, stolen, and plundered with increasing frequency by criminal gangs over the past two decades. In 2018, the German Federal Criminal Police Office tallied around 350 attacks. If the safe busters do not explode the vending machines on site by introducing gas from the inside, then the entire apparatus, weighing tons, is torn from its anchorage with construction vehicles and transported to be opened elsewhere. An insane amount of effort, considering that there is rarely even ten thousand euros inside.

We can see what a magical device the ATM has been for us in all forms of popular culture. Consider, for example, James Cameron’s dystopia Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in which the computers also take control. In a seemingly inconspicuous scene at the beginning of the movie, Edward Furlong as the young John Connor drives a motorcycle to an ATM and uses a computer to hack and steal several hundred dollar bills. “Easy money!”— he says, while proudly raising his stolen cash in the air, a smile on his face for the first and last time in history. His words have subsequently became a popular saying. It is an iconic scene, telling of a moment of precious autonomy and inexhaustible possibility, just before the existential crisis crashes in. And if one day the ATM no longer exists and people no longer know anything about the spell it once cast, they will still be telling themselves stories, but about completely different miracles.