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For all the talk about how vending machines might encourage obesity or incubate salmonella, there’s one aspect to their design I find troubling: bowing to them. No matter how Tron-like the keypad or non-high-fructose-corn-syrupy the food (or how much Lynn Swann is involved), 9 times out of 10 when you make your selection, you wait for it to drop, and then you hit your knees.
There’s a reasonable explanation for this (gravity is free), and then there’s mine.
According to Kerry Segraves‘ book Vending Machines: An American Social History, vending technology began as a way to peddle books, handkerchiefs, and confections, but its killer app proved to be cigarettes. William H. Rowe, whom Segraves describes as a “minor police court official in Los Angeles,” accidentally let a bootlegger escape when he stopped for a pack of smokes at a crowded counter. Instead of thinking, Geez, maybe I shouldn’t stop for cigs when transporting prisoners, Rowe dreamed up a machine that would dispense cigarettes without an attendant.
So, sure, convenience is key. But so is avoiding human contact. And though the dream of healthy vending machines is laudable, the surely virtuous products they sell aren’t what I suspect people go to vending machines for: stuff they’d rather buy anonymously.
What’s important, then, isn’t what vending machines sell but how their products are consumed. Snacking is an inherently antisocial activity, identified by folks including Michael Pollan as a feature of societies that are loosing the bonds of tradition (or, like America’s, too young to have much, tradition-wise). People in offices don’t usually snack together; they scarf their Fritos in their cubes. If you buy that every meal eaten alone chips away at a healthy relationship with food, and that each such meal makes you spiritually poorer at the same time it makes Big Food richer, well then it makes sense that you have to kneel when you pick up a pack of Captain’s Wafers.
That’s it’s less expensive to sell cheap calories this way, well, that’s just a a win-win, but not for you, the one on your knees.