In the mid-1980s a bank had a series of commercials set in a foreign country. A small boy ran about shouting “ATM, ATM” in such a way that at first one imagined he was shouting someone’s name as he looked for him or her. In the final shot, grateful tourists found the banking machine and got their desperately needed cash. Today, we don’t think twice about the ATM and rarely, if ever, have any difficulty finding one. About the only complaint we might have is the fee that we have to pay for using it, if it happens to belong to a bank that is not our own.
When I first arrived at college for my freshman year, I had no car. Therefore, when I selected my bank my selection was based on but one thing: could I easily walk to it? If I left the campus the back way and hiked over a hill, it was no more than ten minutes from my dorm room.
Although the first ATM went into use as early as 1967 in London and the first networked ATMs appeared in the US by the early 1970s, they did not become common until the 1980s. My first exposure to something resembling an ATM came after I graduated. One of the local grocery store chains issued a card. If you put it into a machine in the back of the store and entered a code, the machine printed out a receipt that you could take to the checkout counter. The cashier would then give you however much cash you had selected, up to forty dollars. My roommate and I delighted in being able to get money on a Saturday or Sunday night for burgers or a pizza.
When my local bank first offered actual ATMs for depositing our checks or for getting cash I was initially leery. I’d been making deposits or withdrawals using the teller for so long, it was hard to imagine doing it any other way. At first, I used the ATM only on weekends or when the bank was closed. But as time went by, I became accustomed to using the ATM. It wasn’t long before I stopped using a human teller altogether, because the ATM meant—at the time—no lines. I spent much less time at the bank, and saving time was a priority for me during my years in graduate school.
By the time I got my second computer in the mid-1980s, I became an early adopter of online banking. Using dialup, it was very slow and I had to pay a monthly fee. Like the ATM, at first I was rather fearful about using it to pay my bills, preferring instead to continue the old fashioned way: writing checks and dropping them in the mail.
But after the post office lost a car payment and a couple of other bills, I eventually switched to doing all my bill paying through my computer. The postal service offered no guarantee of delivery. If they lost a bill payment, I could fill out a complaint form. But they wouldn’t fix things with my creditors. In contrast, my bank offered a guarantee: if a payment didn’t go out like it was supposed to, not only would they correct the error, they would talk to my creditor and pay any late fees. I learned that doing my bill paying electronically was not only much quicker than writing checks, it was actually safer. My bank dropped the fees for home banking in the 1990s, so paying electronically also became much cheaper than using the post office: no more buying postage stamps. Today, even the bills arrive electronically rather than by the postal service. Most of them I now pay automatically, leaving me even more time for other things.
In the 1980s it took me hours to do my taxes. Then I discovered that there were computer programs that you could buy: in modern parlance, “there’s an app for that.” As always, I was a bit reluctant to make the switch, but once I did, I wondered why I hadn’t done it sooner. Rather than spending hours with confusing instructions and complicated forms to fill out, the computer presents me with simple questions and does most of the work for me. No more adding and subtracting, finding a number on line 2 and writing it again on line 10. No more running back and forth to the post office or library to get more forms. What took me four or five hours, sometimes spread over a few days, I now accomplish in less than a single hour. And rather than waiting a month for my refund to come by mail, I file my taxes electronically and have the government deposit my refund directly into my banking account barely a week after filing.
Just as modern ovens and stoves have made cooking quicker, just as modern plumbing has eliminated outhouses, just as washing machines and vacuum cleaners have lessened our toil and shortened the time it takes to accomplish what our ancestors spent long hours on, so ATMs and electronic banking have made certain unpleasantries of life less annoying. And what had seemed marvelous, I now simply take for granted, like flipping a switch to turn on the lights.