Future Scam: Cost-Saving for "Them"

For what seemed the millionth time, I opened a bill and was confronted with the invitation to “go paperless.” Instead of tracking down the idiots and fraudsters who generated the idea and assassinating them, which would prove an endless chore, given how many institutions have bought into this sham, I decided to write this blog. Going “paperless” is NOT cost-saving, space-spacing, or time-saving for most of us; it is cost-saving, space-saving, and time-saving for all of the institutions who promulgate the idea.

Of course, they don’t want to print out monthly statements for hundreds or thousands of customers. Nor do they want to pay to mail them out. Instead, they want to maintain an electronic database that they already have, and they want you and me and all the other customers to spend our time and electricity to access the data and print out what we need. In practice, this is known as “cost-shifting.” “Going paperless” shifts costs and time from them to me and you.

Because writing is my business, I need receipts and documents, both to compile my taxes and to retain as “evidence” should I ever be audited. So when my bank cheerfully informs me that no longer can I get back canceled checks, but only miniature photocopies, which take a microscope to read, this is anything but time-saving or efficient for me, and because they’re printed on both sides of the paper, I end up having to make copies just to be able to sort things into the right folders. Of course, I could purchase some electronic bookkeeping system. But I once had one of those systems and, guess what, it took more time and effort to use and maintain it than to simply keep a set of file folders… and I still need the documentary evidence anyway.

Just the other day my wife received a frantic email from the editor of a scholastic publication to whom she had submitted a report. The editor’s computer had crashed, wiping out everything, and for some reason, so had the back-up. This is far from the first time these sorts of events have occurred, but the frequency is far greater in the electronic age than it ever was in the typewriter age. And that puts a greater burden on the author… in this case, my wife.

In the past three years, I’ve had three credit cards canceled and re-issued by financial institutions, not because I lost a card or had one stolen, but because someone had hacked into or compromised the institution’s systems or databases. Of course, this probability, backed by experience, means we carry more credit cards than we need, which increases our costs and potential exposure.

And as for the vaunted savings and efficiency provided by the electronic age… they’re vastly overstated, and the costs are vastly understated. The internet is highly useful for people and professions who need one discrete piece of information at a time and sometimes for those who belong to corporations and institutions who can afford and pay for access to all the various data-bases extent. But, for the rest of us, trying to find detailed, in depth information on the net without paying a fortune is an exercise in frustration and exasperation. Also, if you have to compare, charts, statistics, and the like, you end up having to print them out because you can’t [not on any system I know] call all of them up and put them side by side on the screen.

For most names, I can find out general information more quickly and with less exasperation by picking up my handy Wordsworth Dictionary of Biography [$2.50 at Half-Price Books] than Googling it. The same is true in a number of other areas… which is why I have a short shelf of quick reference books close to the computer.

But it’s not just in information. Take gasoline stations. When I was very young, and even when I started driving, they were known as service stations. You drove in, and an attendant pumped the gas, washed the windows, even checked the oil. Now… we do it all, and it certainly doesn’t seem to have reduced the costs.

Today the majority of “restaurants” are fast-food based, and the customers wait in line, carry their food to their table, gather their own straws, napkins, and necessary utensils, and presumably dispose of their waste, thereby transferring costs from the provider to the customer. The same principle applies to “big-box” stores as well.

Another example is telephone information. It used to be free. Now, most local service providers charge the customer to find telephone numbers that aren’t listed or are in distant cities. Think about it. We pay for the service, and then we pay again to find the number we’re going to call, for which we’ll be charged a third time.

These changes haven’t come overnight. They’ve crept into society, bit by bit, but they all have one thing in common, they shift time and costs from those providing goods and services to those paying for and receiving them… and Americans wonder why they have less time than ever before?

That’s because, and in the name of so-called convenience, we’ve allowed ourselves to become the unpaid employees of others… and while each little bit of service we do isn’t much, the sum total is anything but insignificant.