The Subversive Vending Machine: The Liberatory History of Automated Commerce

By Balko, Radley | Reason, June 2010 | Go to article overview

The Subversive Vending Machine: The Liberatory History of Automated Commerce


Balko, Radley, Reason


IN 1810 THE English publisher, bookseller, and radical Richard Carlisle was sentenced to three years in prison for blasphemy and seditious libel. Carlisle's imprisonment was partly due to his publication of pamphlets exposing what's now known as the Peterloo Massacre, in which a cavalry brigade attacked tens of thousands of protesters who had gathered to call for reforms to Parliament, and partly because he published the banned works of enlightenment figures such as Thomas Paine.

In his quirky book Vending Machines: Coined Consumerism (Mark Batty), Christopher D. Salyers notes that upon his release from prison, Carlisle thought he could skirt laws banning controversial books by constructing a machine that "dropped a customer's desired book after money was inserted and a dial positioned to a corresponding number." Carlisle was rearrested anyway, but the liberating potential he saw in the anonymity of automated vending has certainly been validated.

For nearly a century before the Internet put the anonymous consumption offices literally at the world's fingertips, vending machines dispensed taboo wares, experiences, and entertainment free from the gaze of prying eyes. Salyers argues that the first vending machines in wide use were the snuff and tobacco boxes in I7th century English taverns, appropriate forerunners to the ubiquitous, plastic-handled cigarette dispensers that populated bars, bowling allies, and restaurants in the second half of the 20th century. Be it the condom machine in the gas station bathroom, the coin-operated peep show, the pinball craze that prompted a moral panic in the 1940S, truant hoods spending afternoons in smoke-blanketed video game arcades in the 1980s, or the rebellious rock 'n' roll dispensing jukebox, there has always been a subversive element to co-in-operated commerce. Even the Norman Rockwell-celebrated Coca-Cola machine has gone rogue, as public health activists now fault soda and candy--and, in particular, the widespread availability of both through vending machines--for the fattening of American children.

Salyers himself seems torn on the value of vending machines. He's awed by the contraption's continual evolution and ability to adapt, but where a libertarian might celebrate the ease, convenience, privacy, and cost savings associated with transactions free of human interaction, Salyers strikes a more skeptical tone, lamenting that "Erasing the element of human persuasion allows the subliminal a tighter chokehold on our inner desire to consume." As a warning, he cites a passage in Philip K. Dick's novel The Game Players of Titan in which newspaper vending machines come to life, hounding would-be consumers by screaming out headlines until someone buys a paper to shut the thing up. He then claims, oddly, that Japanese Coke machines automatically raising their prices in hot weather are a testament to Dick's alarming prophecy.

Still, whatever anti-consumerist sentiments Salyers may harbor, his book is a celebration of automated vending.

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