Capitalism

The Subversive Vending Machine

The liberatory history of automated commerce

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In 1819 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 of vices 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 17th 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 coin-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. There are only three sections of extended copy: the author's introduction, an interview with the vending machine marketing executive Michael Keferl, and an interview with Clark Whittington, an artist who has repurposed old cigarette machines to sell his work. The remaining 120 or so pages provide a delightful photographic tribute to the diversity, innovation and evolution of mechanical vendors. There is a machine in Italy that "whips up flour, water, tomato sauce and fresh ingredients to produce a piping-hot-pizza in about three minutes." After the global economic downturn, a machine popped up at Germany's Frankfurt Airport dispensing one-gram wafers of gold. In a drug-prone section of Sydney, Australia, a machine dispenses clean hypodermic needles. At a beverage machine in Tokyo, consumers pay for libations not in money but by watching a 30-second advertisement.

The "Retro" section features 1950s stamp machines, rust-infested lipstick dispensers, and graffitied photo booths. "Soda" includes a snapshot of a stalwart Coca-Cola machine that "stands alone in the middle of a frozen, foggy" ramp on the tarmac at Edinburgh Airport in Scotland. There is also a cocoa machine that sits 12,000 feet above sea level near the summit of Japan's Mount Fuji.

In Japan, automated vending abounds in every conceivable variety. The country gets an entire section of the book, where you will see images of a Hello Kitty–themed popcorn dispenser, machines that dispense live turtles and "pet roaches," life-size contraptions that consumers can actually walk through, and—predictably—an endless variety of machines that distribute porn (though Salyers says Japan's infamous "used panty" machines are basically an urban legend). Americans weary of the Nanny State will also marvel at Japan's easily accessible cigarette, beer, and even liquor machines.

So where do vending machines go from here? You might expect the anonymity, value, and one-click ease afforded by Internet shopping to threaten the comparative advantages that vending machines have traditionally enjoyed. In some areas—movies, music, news—the Internet offers more immediacy than a walk or drive to the nearest newspaper machine or Redbox. With more tangible, everyday products, on the other hand, vending machines are obviously more convenient. The World Wide Web is never going to deliver a Dr. Pepper through your laptop.

But it's probably more useful to think of the Internet as an extension of the vending machine ethos, not a replacement. Vice, taboo, and subversion abound on the Web, often beyond not only the gaze of prying eyes but the grasp of prohibitionists. Had a tech-savvy Richard Carlisle anonymously published his account of Peterloo or distributed PDFs of The Rights of Man from a blog hosted offshore, the Crown might never have found him. 

Radley Balko (rbalko@reason.com) is a senior editor at reason.

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  1. “the Internet put the anonymous consumption of vices literally at the world’s fingertips”

    There is nothing anonymous about what you do on the Internet. It can all be tracked.

  2. Uh-oh. Radley posted a positive article. On a Friday.

    You know what that means.

    1. A SWAT team kills another puppy?

      1. “Every time the 911 phone rings, another puppy becomes an angel.” ?

        1. No, no one calls 911 to report a “drug crime”.

          And I’m fairly sure everyone here knows why.

          1. Yeah, but because they spend more times on drug “crimes” than on real crimes, there could be parity between 911 calls and puppicides.

  3. Salyers says Japan’s infamous “used panty” machines are basically an urban legend.

    He basically doesn’t know where to shop?or how an internet image search basically works. Thousands basically make pilgrimages to the things to put pictures of themselves basically thumbs-upping in front of them. There aren’t a million panty machines in Japan, and they’re basically a scam, but basically they exist.

    1. What makes them “basically a scam”? They’re not really used?

      1. They aren’t really girl’s dirty panties. They probably just have a bunch of guys wiping their balls off while lounging in a sauna.

        1. The Japanese are nuts. In trying to decide what to see at the Seattle International Film Festival, I came across this. Blow-up doll comes to life? Keep doin’ yo thang, Japan.

          1. I like the thought that Japan is a hothouse experiment for sexual perversity.

            Of course, there maybe a concrete reason for that. I’ve heard from a few sources that Japanese women basically refuse to have sex after they’ve had the number of kids they want. No hard evidence, no studies… but I’ve heard it so many times, I wonder if it isn’t real and fairly widespread.

            1. Japanese men aren’t noted for their consideration or willingness to do housework (even if both work full time). The man typically views his wife almost like a servant. This has changed a bit in recent years, but not as much as we might think.

        2. Huh. You’d think it wouldn’t be too difficult to give new underwear to women in exchange for the soiled ones.

          1. You get slapped a lot, right?

            1. Ha. No, never. I was thinking of something arranged via Craigslist or whatever, not approaching random women on the street.

    2. You know what is real? The ability to buy whiskey out of a vending machine in Japan.

      Beer is cool, but leaving hard liquor in a vending machine is awesome (even if it is usually Suntory whiskey).

      1. Why would you leave it in the machine?

      2. I miss the convenience of the vending machine in the hallway of my Army barracks in Germany.

        It dispensed cans of beer for .75 cents, smokes for $2.50 per pack, and cokes for .50 cents.

        It could only have been better if it sold prepackaged sticks of hash for $1.

  4. The joke’s on you Balko! When my minions get control of the vending machine industry, choice will be moot and the funds will belong to Teh People. Michelle is getting a handle on it though. She really is doing God’s work!

  5. Radley, don’t forget the use of varying pay-phones by drug dealers to evade wiretaps and tracking.

    1. Where in the hell do you find a payphone any more? You’re better off with a pre-paid cell.

      1. Where in the hell do you find a payphone any more?

        In Cleveland

        Not so good with the links, so hope I don’t SF this – at least you can cut and paste…

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysmLA5TqbIY

  6. 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.

    I’m still looking forward to wider deployment of Coke’s Freestyle soda fountains–although, as I’ve noted elsewhere, I doubt that they’ll feature any flavors with cane sugar (instead of HFCS).

    1. I’mna thinking a Prozac fountain. Either that or a Prozaclick.

  7. Thats one thing I miss about Germany, Beer vending machines are cool dude.

    Lou
    http://www.complete-anonymity.at.tc

    1. I’m beginning to wonder if Anbot is really, the most interesting man in the world. Does your mother have a tatoo taht reads Anbot?

    2. Nope, Sausage sammiches, hot on demand in the day room machine, now that was impressive. Beer machines, feh, those were all over the place. Right next to the Radboro machines.

  8. “(though Salyers says Japan’s infamous “used panty” machines are basically an urban legend).”

    It depends on how you use the definition useing “used” is.

  9. I’m still waiting for vending machines that sell ammunition and first aid kits beside the candy bars.

  10. The World Wide Web is never going to deliver a Dr. Pepper through your laptop.

    Mr. Balko is hedging his bets: Just in case the State ultimately crushes us all, he wants to ensure that he will be quoted in the future.

  11. There are some vending machines that allows you to pay with your mobile phone. You send an SMS to a number specific for the machine and the machine gives you your chosen product directly.

    1. Of course if you got access to someone’s phone you could start sms’ing free sodas to every machine in town (unless there was some sort of proximity sensor).

      Even better than the old delivery 20 pizzas to a jerk trick.

  12. The problem with old vending machines, as they say in the industry, was flavour-buddies (a term that is nowhere near as pejorative as it should be). That is, the contamination and commingling of adjacent flavours. Though each commodity was housed in separate containers, they all made their way to the customer’s cup via the same Dispensing Duct. The inefficiency of Brewer Flush sequences only added to the taint of a disheartening Vend Cycle.

  13. The problem with old vending machines, as they say in the industry, was flavour-buddies (a term that is nowhere near as pejorative as it should be). That is, the contamination and commingling of adjacent flavours. Though each commodity was housed in separate containers, they all made their way to the customer’s cup via the same Dispensing Duct. The inefficiency of Brewer Flush sequences only added to the taint of a disheartening Vend Cycle.

  14. The problem with old vending machines, as they say in the industry, was flavour-buddies (a term that is nowhere near as pejorative as it should be). That is, the contamination and commingling of adjacent flavours. Though each commodity was housed in separate containers, they all made their way to the customer’s cup via the same Dispensing Duct. The inefficiency of Brewer Flush sequences only added to the taint of a disheartening Vend Cycle.

  15. Our grandchildren will someday be amazed that there was once a time when a person could buy cigarettes out of a vending machine.

    1. Our grandchildren will someday be amazed that there was once a time when a person could be a troll on-line and not commit suicide from the abject shame.

      Fuck. Off.

    2. Our grandchildren will someday be amazed that there were machines.

  16. I love those Live Bait vending machines. You get a little plastic prize egg with a teaspoon of dirt and a live worm. Someone’s up in the middle of the night filling those things…

    1. I love the capsules they put prizes in in vending machines. They remind me of the capsule that took Elroy Jetson to school when launched from his dad’s aircar.

  17. Oh, PS:

    BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALKOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

    Thanks for not kicking us in the balls today!

    1. As if sucralose is any better for you than high fructose corn syrup.

  18. Best thing i ever got out of a Japanese vending machine? Fanta Melon. Only decent Fanta flavor I’ve ever had.

    1. They must have a vending machine that gives head, what with all those artificial mouth sex aids they make.
      If anyone gonna line up for machine head, it’s the Japanese.

      If they make pillows for women to feel like they are being cuddled, it’s only a matter of time before they come up with a vending machine that gives out hugs.

      1. I am the hug machine. Swipe your card right there.

  19. “Vended food contains all the nutrients necessary for survival. Tastes damn good too, by golly!” -J. Frank Parnell, scientist.

    1. Show me a vending machine that dispenses lutefisk and I’ll start selling the end of the world as we know it short.

  20. It would be wonderful to have a look inside that Italian built fresh pizza machine. Something tells me the precision mechanics involved would have impressed even Leonardo da Vinci.

  21. Oh, how I miss living next door to a beer and liquor vending machine in Japan. Made it so easy to run out for a cold Ebisu or Asahi between games of the high school baseball tournament on TV…

  22. Good share, Attractive enough for me, thanks for your kind share

  23. good article,thank you so much

  24. Philip K Dick wrote a number of stories & novels which involved robots and vending machines attempting to harass people into purchasing their goods and services. The short story “Sales Pitch” comes immediately to mind. I don’t think PKD was anti-capitalist, but definitely anti-hassle.

  25. They have vending machines here in Japan that dispense ice cold beer till 11 pm, on summer days that reach 95 degrees. One of the beer machines I used to buy from was 50 yards away from a ‘police box’ – an unimaginable institution in America – where a single cop sits writing reports and handling neighborhood problems. This foreigner even saluted Old Bill a few times with an open can of Kirin bought for the stroll back home after work.

  26. Spambots freely infesting a libertarian website: priceless. I do believe this is one of the only places that is philosophically prevented from interfering in the free market for exercise equipment and kitchen aids.

    Enjoy the fruits of your tree boys and (the rare) girl!

    1. Oh look, another troll who doesn’t understand private property. Banning comments from a blog is not infringing on anyone’s liberty, dipshit.

  27. Philip K Dick wrote a number of stories & novels which involved robots and vending machines attempting to harass people into purchasing replica IWC their goods and services. The short story “Sales Pitch” comes immediately to mind. I don’t think PKD was anti-capitalist, but definitely anti-hassle.

  28. Perhaps, but it seems obvious they have a very useful purpose: to give people the opportunity to anonymously purchase what their neighbors might consider vices. Vending machines give people more freedom to pursue happiness, and that far outweighs the added advertisement that is added to our fields of vision.

    Besides I don’t see how Salyer can argue a vending machine exterts any more influence than endcaps do. The entire store is based on research and science on how to get you to purchase things. Indeed a vending machine may offer even less opportunity to influence which product you choose, since you can’t pick them up and examine them.

  29. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

  30. Great article
    OK, I bought the book from Amazon
    Comments on Japanese seem right on, but I’m prejudiced but you know they really are a fascinating subject all their own.

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  39. 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

  40. Great article
    OK, I bought the book from Amazon
    Comments on Japanese seem right on, but I’m prejudiced but you know they really are a fascinating subject all their own. almasdar
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