* Update Nov 26: I see The Guardian have talked about my talk.
** Update Nov 30. An article has appeared on Yahoo News. I gave the journalist some quotes, however some details in the piece are incorrect. I have never travelled anywhere specifically to get a picture of a till, let alone thousands of miles ! As you can see from the map, they are all in places I’ve been living or working. Although it describes me as ‘fanatical’, I have fewer than 45 pictures in total (most people see several every day, it’s the easiest thing in the world to photograph). Tills haven’t taken over my life… yet!
This is the talk I was asked to do at James Ward’s ‘Boring’ conference this year.
Last year I did a talk arguing that About A Boy is a film about a modern flaneur, and shared some of the filming locations I’d tracked down.
But this year I spoke about my collection of photographs of IBM tills and what IBM means to me. I had to fit this into 10 minutes, clearly not enough time to cover all the fascinating features of the different point of sale terminals, or the story of Silicon Glen – but I had a go. Here’s a link to the map.
Hope you enjoy.
My name’s Leila Johnston. I’m a technology journalist, amongst other things, and I take photos of IBM tills when I see them in shops and cafes.
I’ve photographed more than 40 of them around the country. They are commonly found in a number of high street chains, including Starbucks, Zara, Boots and Asda.
I know I’ll never be able to get them all, but I’ve found I can’t stop. It’s as though the logo sings out to me. IBM tills are a beacon of research and intelligence hidden in the plain sight of consumerism. They represent genuine technical accomplishment, in the supermarket’s ongoing apocalyptic showdown of Keep Calm and Carry On, bundles of colourfully sprayed twigs for £25, and advent calendars for sale in July.
This was the first white one I photographed, in a branch of Boots in Sheffield. I’ll never forget that day. The elusive white IBM epos 300. My Moby Dick. Note the matching hand scanner.
Of course, taking photos of IBM and nothing else can get a bit… samey. But I’m just making excuses. Yes, I did once take a photograph of a Toshiba till. It was just a one time thing though! It was just to see how it felt! It didn’t mean anything, really. It won’t happen again.
I plotted them all on a map, and made it public. And because the public can’t really be relied upon for these kinds of projects, I came up with some rules.
Rule 1. The letters IBM must be clearly visible in the picture.
Rule 2. Do not interfere with the scene. Photograph it exactly as you find it. It is not up to US to choose how an IBM till looks; adjust the angle of its stalk or remove anything in the way. We are lucky to share our world with IBM point of sale devices. The till finds you, not the other way around.
Rule 3. If additional IBM hardware is in shot, email me immediately. It’s quite rare to find a “full set” in the wild.
This was one I saw at Waterstones. The IBM logo is just visible on the keyboard. Actually this was a great day – they had an IBM mouse as well.
So yes. I take photos of IBM tills, and plot them on a map, and make up rules about it and invite people to contribute their own.
It sounds… unusual, I realise, but I believe it’s no stranger than bird watching or trainspotting, and the great thing with point of sale is that the number of extremely similar models on the market increase the thrill of discovery as I realise I’ve found an elusive thin-client series 300, or the almost-unheard-of series 700.
Also, it is often only possible to take the photo when you’re directly under the cashier’s nose, so there is an element of skill and danger involved, too. We only usually get close enough to a till to photograph it when we want to buy something, so in the process of disguising one’s true motives, this can become quite an expensive hobby.
BUT WHY REALLY? WHY!
I’m not sure why. I thought writing this talk might help.
Maybe I do it because IBM is interesting. I mean, there is really no doubt that IBM is interesting.
(1) They have the most patents generated by any company in 19 consecutive years. (2) They’re consistently voted most respected, admired and innovative company. (3) They are the inventor of ATMs, hard disks, magnetic stripes, various programming languages, the PC… some of my favourite things.
Or maybe it’s just that IBM make really nice tills?
This is the IBMsurePOS500 from 2010. Isn’t it beautiful?
Just for comparison, this is the competition. A Sam4s ER-5215M and a Sharp ER-A320. Looking at that, I feel sort of embarrassed for them.
But tills are everywhere, you see several, every day. It actually enriches your life slightly to take an interest in them – even the crap ones.
Tragically, IBM are selling to Toshiba at some point in the next year, which means I have to get the money together to buy one of these tills much sooner than I thought. (The changeover has already started happening in some branches of the French coffee shop, Paul.)
Or, well, maybe the real reason I’m interested in IBM runs deeper than that.
I have a theory this might be about something else. When I was a child I lived in Scotland, near a small coastal town called Greenock.
This is me.
This is Greenock.
This is the promenade where I learned to ride my bike.
And this is what I had a poster of on my bedroom wall.
We lived in an area known industrially as the Silicon Glen, not far from a train station – that still exists – named after IBM. IBM was a big deal for the area. It had opened in 1978 and employed over 4,000 people. All of my schoolfriends’ parents worked at IBM. Our neighbours brought home bags of components for us to play with.
The company was like a light emitting diode of hope for Scotland in a very difficult time for the country. Scotland’s heavy industries, like shipbuilding, had been in decline for decades, but electronics companies began to take their place from the 1940s onwards, until, by the 80s, the huge technology companies established in “Silicon Glen” began to offering a genuine return to industry.
Scotland was an extremely significant centre for electronics production in the ‘60s & ‘70s. At its peak, Silicon Glen produced around 30% of Europe’s PCs, 80% of its Workstations, 65% of its ATMs and a significant percentage of its integrated circuits. And as a school kid in the 80s, we were taught maths and science REALLY WELL.
But Greenock wasn’t quite like the other IBM plants. It was often mentioned in the same breath as other major centres, but it was a little different. It punched above its weight. This is IBM Haifa in Israel, the Zurich research centre, the New York centre at Armonk… and Greenock.
The products being created there included the wonderful 5100 from 1978. One of the world’s first portable computers. Look how portable it was!
This is the IBM 1130 – I know it was made in Greenock because I spoke to the National Museum of Computing about it! A wonderful structural engineering machine from the mid-60s.
So I was thinking about all this as I looked through some old photos of my childhood recently. They were quite amazingly boring. I mean, you couldn’t find more boring photos if you tried. There aren’t even any human beings in them.
My parents took me to so many arms fairs when I was little that, as one friend pointed out, my pre-school years look like an invasion of Croatia.
The idea that these people might have thought it appropriate to decorate their six-year-old daughter’s bedroom with the logos of multinational technology corporations suddenly doesn’t seem so strange!
But the more I looked at those photos, the more I realised. While it might seem weird for parents to document their kids’ lives by taking pictures of the totally impersonal, unchanging, BORING, objects – the hardware, the infrastructures of life, it was in a way inspiring.
Looking back on the dozens of photos of Land Rovers and the red arrows that exist to every one picture of my tiny, innocent face, I can find a sense of continuity in an otherwise tumultuous time.
Just as security is boring, boring things bring safety.
And just like my parents, I now find myself obsessively documenting boring things at the expense of humans. Humans are unpredictable. They change; they demand endless attention, they build up our hopes and, eventually, they ALL let us down.
But Land Rovers and helicopters and Point of Sale terminals stay the same. Photographed the right way, or photographed enough times, feats of commercial engineering, instruments of war – anything – can become the building blocks of a safe, consistent world of our own creation. Tills aren’t boring – people are.
Add your IBM tills to my map, and instagram or tweet them with the hashtag #ibmtills.