Sunday, 18 November 2007

In legend land, nothing can go wrogn*

Many of us get the feeling that our lives are getting out of control, even as all the revolutionary new hi-tech surrounding us promises to improve our lives. Are those tiny devices and software upgrades just a little too intimidating for comfort? Do you have to get the kids to show you how to use your phone?

You have nothing to worry about: you're simply suffering a bout of technophobia, a syndrome that afflicts anyone who believes people and not machines should be in charge.

Since technophobia is born of the uncertainty and confusion that new technology inspires, it is natural that it would be a prime breeding ground for urban legends: those modern cautionary tales that you know really did happen to someone, since you heard it from a friend of a friend of the victim's cousin.

Take the legend of:

The hangdog tale

One afternoon, a young boy's mother tells him to take his dog out for a walk and some fresh air before it gets dark.

The boy is wrapped up in the afternoon TV kiddy shows, and doesn't feel like getting cool outside air all over him. So he takes the dog outside on a leash, and ties the leash to the handle of the garage door, intending to leave Rover there for fifteen minutes or so.

He goes back to his TV entertainment and, sure enough, forgets all about the dog. An hour later, his father comes driving home from work. As he turns the corner, he pushes the remote control button for the garage door. The door opens, and pulls the leashed dog into the air. It will never go for a walk again.


Before you call the SPCA, no one has ever been able to track down the perpetrators of that foul deed, except to say, "Well, it COULD have happened!"

And so could this one, told of another of those terrifying but crucial inventions of our times, the Auto Teller Machine (ATM). This is the tale of ...

The hungry auto-teller

This tale was first told in the early 1990s, when banks were struggling to get to grips with ATM security, and trying all kinds of new tricks and tactics to thwart the robbers, muggers and lawyers.

A Johannesburg office worker was going off on her lunch break when she discovered to her dismay that she had only R20 in her purse. It would be barely enough for lunch, but it would also only just cover her bus fare home to Krugersdorp.

Then she brightened: she had her ATM card in her bag, and probably had a few rand left in her account.

So, on the way to the nearby banking mall, she bought a boerewors roll at a street vendor, congratulating herself at being prepared for all eventualities.

At the ATM, a glass shield went up when she slipped in her card, she put her roll down on the inner ledge, keyed in her PIN, and waited to pursue the transaction. Nothing happened.

And then a message flashed across the screen:

THIS CARD IS NO LONGER VALID. IT HAS BEEN RETAINED BY THE BANK. PLEASE CONTACT YOUR BRANCH.

Stunned, she could only stare at the machine. And, as she watched, the glass shield came crashing down, trapping her lunch as well...


It surprises many people to discover that the first ATM went into operation as early as 1967. Installed at the Enfield branch of Barclays Bank in north London, the first person to use it was the actor Reg Varney (shown here). In those days, you were issued with a card that could only be used once, and was then swallowed by the machine. No wonder we still harbour fears about our ATM card never coming back, and who knows what else going with it!

(* What spelling mistake??)


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