Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Moneychangers

Today, my local Bank of America was featuring its new automated teller machines, which will now supposedly be able to recognize currency and even read check amounts to correct deposit information. It was interesting to note that there were two live minders, one of each gender, out on the street to explain the machine's new features and the fact that the bank was now dispensing with epistolary conventions entirely. What was once the envelope dispenser now holds informational brochures.

There has been a lot of discussion about the role of "virtual capitalism" in recent years, but this seems to be an analog/digital hybrid when it comes to economic practices. Tangible currency with engraving and watermarking and checks with memos and signatures are converted into digital code, although -- if they are checks -- a miniaturized copy of your signifiers of value is incorporated into your receipt. Much of the rationale for introducing the technology has also to do with labor-saving that automates the work of bank employees and takes the step of opening envelopes out of the circuit of economic exchange represented by the transaction. Watching businessmen being forced to feed each individual check into the machine rather than deposit a single, thick envelope, I am reminded of Siva Vaidhyanathan's warning that many digital technologies are merely being used to outsource labor to the consumer.

Of course, I've only been an street-corner observer, since I haven't yet tried the new technology myself. My confidence in distributed computing is certainly not inspired by front page stories like this one in our local newspaper about the computer glitch that stranded 17,000 passengers at LAX who were unable to go through customs or even deplane while lackadaisical Sprint employees attempted to solve the system's networking problems. If human agents are left out of the verification process in this case, will bank customers be at increased risk of fraud by check forgers and identity thieves.

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