For whatever reason, I neglected to send out my bill when I should have, and it comes due tomorrow. In order to avoid late fees, I decided to take a check to the local Sprint PCS store and pay it today. My assumption was that I’d drop the check in a box or maybe pay the bill with a live cashier. Instead I was confronted with a payment machine, something similar to an ATM but dedicated to the purpose of allowing Sprint PCS customers to settle their bills.
This thing is amazing. After accessing my account, it asked me if I wanted to pay by cash or check. I pressed ‘check’ on the touch screen and waited for a prompt to deposit the check, again like an ATM. Instead, it displayed instructions on orienting the check in the feeder so that the account number and routing information could be read. It did suck in the check, but apparently what it did was scan the face of it. Inside the machine, it turned the check over and printed a cancellation mark over my signature to indicate that it had been cashed. A few seconds later, the check was spat back out and returned to me along with a receipt of the payment.
This Sprint PCS payment machine magically turns paper into money.
What happened? Well, from what I can tell, it translated my check into a digital file and transmitted it to a central accounting location — the machine converted a paper-based transaction into a digital transaction. The check, now imaged and stored, exists in Sprint’s files as an electronic record, and the canceled check was returned to me instantly for my own records.
It makes perfect sense to do this, because the check itself and the handling of it are absolutely unnecessary to Sprint; only the right to receive money as the payee is important, and that right can be captured using only digital technology. If the whole concept of checks themselves weren’t so antiquated, the machine would represent a real work of ingenuity.
But checks are an anachronism, and as a result, these machines are something of an elegant kludge. They represent a kind of nexus between an era of paper-based transactions and digital transactions. I doubt we’ll be seeing very many more of their sort, and if we do, they’ll probably favor swiping your ATM card or your credit card over inserting checks or even cash. The ideal is to have customers transmit money entirely with bits, eschewing checks, envelopes, stamps and special purpose machines like this one entirely. Of course, the timetable for that is, as ever, real soon now.