Asked why he robbed banks, the famous stickup artist (and jailbird) Willie Sutton replied, "Because that's where the money is." But postmodern thieves no longer break into vaults or terrorize tellers; bent Baudrillardists, they have learned to bamboozle with floating signifiers instead-because money, too, is now digital information endlessly circulating in cyberspace.
In April 1993, at Buckland Hills Mall near Hartford, Connecticut, some audacious PoMo-kleptos wheeled in a Fujitsu model 7020 automated teller machine-purportedly from a New Jersey bank-and set it in operation. 39 When shoppers inserted their cards in this con-robot, it electronically recorded the account and personal identification number, then simply printed out slips saying that no transactions were possible. Later, using counterfeit bank cards encoded with the pilfered numbers, the high-tech bandits began to make cash withdrawals from ATMs in midtown Manhattan. What was the scene of this scam? Where did the deed of milking the moneypukers actually take place? Not, surely in Connecticut, New Jersey, or New York, but somewhere deep in the cyberspace of the ATM system.
This perplexing puzzle is one result of the wholesale shift of Main Street banking to cyberspace that has taken place over the last couple of decades. The first ATM machines was introduced by Citicorp in 1971; by 1980 there were fewer than twenty thousand ATM machines operating in the United States, but by 1990 there were more than eighty thousand. Today deposits and withdrawals only rarely take place at a traditional teller's window; by 1987 over 80 percent of bank customers used ATMs for more than half their transactions. 40
When these devices were still new, and not yet well understood, they were sometimes treated as direct robotic replacements for human staff; you found them inside the bank, beside the counters where you filled out your deposit slips. But this missed the point; since ATMs depend on electronic rather than physical linkage to bank records, they do not really have to be inside under the eye of the manager. So they quickly migrated out onto the street, where they could operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Soon the realization dawned that they did not even have to stay attached to bank building facades; they could more effectively be located where crowds naturally congregated and where people actually needed cash-in supermarkets, shopping malls, airports, university student centers, and office building lobbies. Or, as in South Central Los Angeles or on the South Side of Chicago, they might more appropriately be placed in police station lobbies-where it was safe to collect cash. National and international ATM networks developed, so that you could get cash from machines that were far away from your hometown. The traditional Main Street bank building disintegrated, and the pieces that remained reintegrated themselves into new settings.
At the same time, electronic funds transfer networks have supplanted traditional heist bait-the stagecoach, the armored truck, and even (to some extent) the pocket full of cash. My paycheck is automatically, electronically transferred to my bank account each month, then some of it gets transferred out to make my mortgage payment. And CHIPS (the Clearing House Interbank Payments System, owned by a bunch of big New York banks)-just a couple of mainframe computers and a hundred or so dedicated phone lines in a nondescript Manhattan office building-processes trillions of dollars in payments, from banks all over the world, every day. 41 In 1980 daily electronic money transfers on CHIPS and the Fedwire network run by the Federal Reserve were about twelve times the balances held in accounts by the Federal Reserve; by 1990 the volume had grown to more than fifty times those balances. Money is no longer bullion in a strongbox, but bits in an online database.
By this point in the evolution of the digital era, we have almost forgotten the original banchi-the trestle tables at medieval fairs, where bankers and their clients met face-to-face to exchange promises. 42 Accommodating a bank's operations has ceased to be primarily a matter of providing appropriate rooms and circulation (as it was when Sir John Soane designed the Bank of England on three acres of ground in the heart of the City of London), but of configuring the right computer systems. Gaze in wonder at Soane's plan, noting the precisely differentiated functions of his great transaction halls -the Bank Stock Office, Accounts Office, Discount Office, even Five Pound Note Office; we will never see the like again. In sum, we are experiencing the step-by-step emergence of the soft bank-a round-the-clock facility, accessible from indefinitely many locations, and providing electronically mediated withdrawals, deposits, bill payments, check cashing, point-of-sale transactions, travelers' checks, loan applications, statements, and whatever other financial services the banking industry can dream up and sell. 43
Even the now-ubiquitous ATMs (in their role as cash dispensers, at least) will become obsolete if coins and bills are eventually eliminated. This is a fairly straightforward technical possibility; a combination of network transfers, checks, credit cards, debit cards, ubiquitous point-of-sale terminals, and replacement of coin-operated gizmos like parking meters with electronic card-reading devices clearly could yield a cash-free society. 44 Personal terminals, for making and receiving payments anywhere, could be integrated with laptop or palmtop computers or could be specialized wallet-sized devices.
Not surprisingly, gambling casinos have led the way toward the cashless world. At Foxwood Casino, on the Mashantucket Pequot reservation in Connecticut, arriving customers obtain a "Wampum Card"a smart debit card that electronically stores account balances and transaction records. The gaming tables are hooked into a computer network, and, brags the network's director, "We register a transaction every time the handle of a slot machine is pulled." 45
Bank buildings, then, are no longer where the money is. They are shrinking to the point where they can no longer serve to celebrate financial institutions and transactions as Soane's great design so compellingly did. Indeed, cash money and associated transaction points may soon disappear entirely. Today's Willie Suttons are learning to crack computer security, not safes.