During our early acquaintance with the Internet, we ran across a web page maintained by a young woman in Japan. It was a sort of diary, of the sort that today would be called a "blog," amiable but, perhaps, not of compelling interest to anyone who did not know the writer personally. However, its title lodged in our mind: "An Analog Person in a Digital World..."
Those who grew up in the 1950s remember the general enthusiasm for innovative engineering that characterized that period. Such things as the jet engine and the automatic transmission, television and long-playing records, pop-up toasters and pressure cookers seemed to promise a future of steady improvement.
The revival of technophilia that began in the late '80s, after a quarter-century of apparent disenchantment, had some resemblance to that postwar euphoria. However, the differences are substantial, and may be important to the vending industry as revolutionary new technology begins to take the field.
The difference is that the innovations of the '50s were improvements to, or advances on, familiar things. Television was like radio, but with the added appeal of pictures; or like a movie theater, but in your living room. LP records were simply records that did not shatter or hiss, and that did not need to be turned over or changed every three minutes. The "Hydromatic" transmission came complete with a (somewhat downsized) gearshift lever, but you didn't need to operate a clutch. All of them gave you a familiar experience, but with enhanced convenience or a heightened illusion of reality. You knew how they worked (or thought you did), because they so closely resembled things you had been using for years. And there were support structures in place to repair them, when they did not work properly.
What is different now is that many of the appliances that are transforming the world today are unlike anything that has gone before, and no one knows how they work, nor quite what to do about it when they don't work correctly. The problem of the "applications backlog" (the things you knew you could do with your computer, if you went out to find the software and took the time to learn it) was identified a decade and a half ago, but no solution was found. Good documentation is becoming rare, as there seems to be no penalty exacted by the market for skimping on the manual, or omitting it altogether. New devices with extraordinary capabilities continue to be introduced, at prices so low that it makes little sense to repair their predecessors - which, in any case, cannot be upgraded.
The reasons for this, and its social implications, are beyond the scope of this discussion. There are two aspects of the situation that are of immediate interest.
The first is that the vending industry stands to benefit from its long commitment to "clean, filled and working." For more than a decade, we've had strong hints that today's consumer is much more amenable to the vending machine's "value proposition" than factory workers were, back in the '60s.
This trend is likely to strengthen. People whose cellular telephones did not work during the Great Blackout last summer, as most victims' phones did not, and people whose computers lock up unexpectedly (or those who have just learned that their five-year-old operating system will no longer be supported) are people who are prepared to love a machine that performs reliably, and that is backed up by prompt and skillful service. Vendors have a very strong talking-point here, if they recognize today's widespread hunger for reliability and support.
The second is that a reaction seems to be setting in against the idea that anything you can do, yourself, at a keyboard is going to save you time. People are beginning to realize just how much time they're wasting on activities (like e-mail) that are supposed to make life faster and simpler.
Vendors have known since the 1950s that "there's nothing automatic about automatic selling." They are well aware that their customers are, as the young Japanese diarist put it, "analog people," and that vending is a people business. We think the time is fast approaching when vending patrons will ask, "Why doesn't my e-mail 'client' work as well as the coffee machine?" And the world will become a better place, as a result.