How Software Ate the Point of Sale

I’m standing at the counter of a Vietnamese restaurant in Berkeley, ordering a pork bun. There was a time when I knew exactly what would happen next. I’d hand over my card, the cashier would swipe it, a little receipt would curl out of a machine, I’d sign it, and I’d crumple the bottom copy into a pocket. Easy.

Now all kinds of things can happen. I might stick my card directly into a point-of-sale (POS) system. Maybe I swipe; maybe the cashier does. Perhaps a screen is swiveled at me. I could enter my PIN on a little purpose-built machine; I could sign with my finger on a screen; I could not have to sign or enter a PIN at all. I could tap my phone on a terminal to pay. Usually, there’s a chip reader for my no-longer-new chip card. When I put the card in one of the machines, sometimes it takes four seconds; other times, I have time to pull out my phone and stare at it, which means I forget about the card until the reader begins to beep at me, at which point I pull it out, mildly flustered, as if I’d caused too much ice to pour out of a soda fountain.

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