On June 27, 1967, the Enfield branch of Barclays did more than just introduce the world to its first Automated Teller Machine. It gave people access to any time money. India got its first ATM only in 1987, and they didn’t become ubiquitous till well after economic liberalisation. Once they did, though, people were no longer subject to the interminable wait for the teller to finally call out the number on a blackened brass token or the constraints of a bank’s working hours, with the ever-flexible lunch break. Or the last-minute rush before a bank holiday. Whether for late night emergencies or all-night cravings, your money was finally yours for the taking.
“Money,” as British fantasy writer Terry Pratchett observed, “needs to flow”. It stores the value of all the productive labour in a society and all the little bits people inherit, steal or save. The ATM, by democratising access to cash, made it a commodity that isn’t worth hoarding. It made it easier for consumers to spend to help the economy grow. The importance of ATMs, at least to urban Indians, became apparent recently, when they ceased to dispense cash with their usual alacrity during the demonetisation drive. But demonetisation also augured a cash-less economy. Online banking, e-wallets and even virtual currency are available 24/7 to anyone with a smartphone, and the ATM may well go the way of the dinosaur. Even Barclays seems to have — at least symbolically — bought into that premise.
The bank proposes to museum-ise the first “bank in a box” in Enfield — it has turned the machine golden. Gold, of course, is not an abstraction like money. It is a static commodity rather than a store of value. For those that remember the tedium of banking before money was available via an “automated teller”, they would rather it just dispensed cash on time.