Be Careful What You Wish For?

The Lazer Speaks
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I grew up at a time and in a neighborhood where little old ladies in black dresses waited on line at the local bank to get their interest stamped in their passbook savings accounts. The local bank, being smart about marketing to young people, worked with local schools to open savings accounts for kids. This taught some great lessons: the value of saving, how interest compounds, how a bank works, and most importantly—why those old neighbors made sure they got their interest stamped.

For a kid growing up in the sixties, it was hard to imagine that so many of those people waiting on line had lived through the Great Depression and a World War. They grew up not trusting the institutions around them and needed to see in black and white what was rightfully theirs. On Fridays, the line sometimes snaked around the block! As a precocious kid, it seemed to take forever, and if you missed a week, the bank simply calculated the interest and stamped two weeks worth the following week, so why wait?

As I grew older and got jobs, it became necessary to go to the bank and make deposits with checks and withdraw cash. Of course, if you needed to withdraw money, you needed to get back on that line, preferably not on a Friday, and fill out a withdrawal slip and present it to the teller. Those tellers seemed all-powerful too, sitting behind cages looking down at you.

It was a great relief when the ATM came along and now with a simple slash of a card through a reader and a password, I could deposit money and withdraw cash at any time of the day and not just between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. And more importantly, I didn’t need to stand in line and talk to anyone—I could simply deal with the machine. I grew up watching The Jetsons, and while I knew flying cars didn’t exist yet, the fact that they were on TV meant someone was at least thinking about them. So, getting money from a machine in a bank seemed perfectly OK to me.

Many years later, when I began working at the New York Stock Exchange, I was frightened to go down to the floor of the Exchange because it looked and felt like chaos. I became frustrated that I couldn’t simply go to that same ATM machine and buy and sell securities just like I was able to deposit and withdraw cash. I understood that a message from the ATM would have to go to a brokerage firm (Glass-Stegall was still in effect), and that a brokerage firm would have to send the order to an Exchange where it would end back up on a floor and finally executed. I also understood that that process could never happen fast enough for me to get an answer while standing in front of the ATM. And while I loved the institution I worked for, I really wanted the immediacy of an answer from the screen in front of me.

Decades later, when I was tasked with managing the NYSE’s transition to automated trading, it never occurred to me that when finished I could get that immediate answer that I had indeed bought or sold a security. I remembered the people waiting in line to get their interest stamped when the Market dropped almost 1,000 points one day in 2010 and then immediately rebounded right back up, and I thought, is this what I really wished for so many years ago?

Technology has changed the way we see the world in so many ways. We are not children of the Great Depression and have not lived through a World War, but we have lived through market crashes in 1987 and in 2008, and we have lived through 9/11 and the ensuing wars, but we still trust technology and believe that if we miss a week on line, that the system will simply calculate the correct interest and post it.

I have often thought about all the jobs that technology displaced, the tellers, the traders, the trading floors, the old savings banks. And as a generation, we are less and less capable of interacting with other humans, but I am still looking forward to flying cars. I mean that was the promise of The Jetsons, right? Or will this simply be another case of being sorry for what I wished for. I hope not this time, I really want to drive a flying car!

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