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Hacking Vending Machines for Social Good

There’s hardly a feat of industrial design more emblematic of consumerism than the vending machine. But while vending machines may perpetuate a number of social ills – from conspiculous consumption to obesity to the cold commodification of goods – but it’s hard to deny their extreme efficiency of transaction. So what if we took this technical efficiency and applied it to higher conceptual ideals, hacking the medium of the vending machine to dispense a message of social good?

In Germany, publishing house publisher Hamburger Automatenverlag is taking old cigarette vending machines and reoutfitting them to sell books by local authors – fiction, graphic novels, travel catalogues and poetry anthologies. What makes the effort particularly lovely is that literature is one of the few cultural artifacts that could actually use being commodified, if that means getting more books in the hands of more people and more authors on more coffeetables.

The concept, of course, is not new. In 1997, Art*o*mat took retired cigarette vending machines and rewired them to vend original art. Today, there are 82 active Art*o*mats around the US, with artwork by some 400 artists from 10 countries.

On the green front, California startup GreenAid offers “seedbomb” vending machines, rewiring old candy machines to sell garden seeds. Seedbombs, made from a mixture of clay, compost and seeds, are an increasingly popular currency of guerrilla gardening, the growing grassroots movement of urban-dwellers tending to gardens in cities. So the idea of making planting parsley as accessible and convenient as getting a candy bar offers a welcome antidote to everything junk food stands for.

Greenaid is equally an interactive public awareness campaign, a lucrative fundraising tool, and a beacon for small scale grass roots action that engages directly yet casually with local residents to both reveal and remedy issues of spatial inequity in their community.” ~ Common Studio / GreenAid

And just a few weeks ago, PepsiCo launched The Dream Machine – a “reverse” vending machine that invites you to recycle beverage containers and pays you back. The effort rolled out with 150 machines in North Carolina, but plans to place over 3,000 in Southern California this summer, with the ambitious goal of recycling at least 400 million cans and bottles annually.

For a look at some more unusual takes on the vending machine around the world, do check out Christopher D. Salyers’ Vending Machines: Coined Consumerism, spanning everything from a holy water dispenser in Greece to a SmartCar vending machine in Japan.

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings, a curated inventory of miscellaneous interestingness. She writes for Wired UK, GOOD Magazine and Huffington Post, and spends a shameful amount of time on Twitter.


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