It's all going online

Some time ago, I accidentally burned a small hole in my kettle. It was a very old kettle and had boiled dry numerous times, so I dare say the bottom had become pretty thin. Sooner or later it was bound to give out. I thought very little of it at the time, just made a mental note to drop into one of the local shops and buy a new one.

But I couldn't find a stove top kettle (as apparently you have to call it nowadays). Not in the local hardware shop and not in any of the big high street stores. There were numerous electric kettles and jugs, but I already have one of those if I wanted to use it. In fact I don't find them practical for the kitchen because I have only a few electrical outlets there and those are already in use. Electric kettles are for when you want to boil some hot water outside the kitchen.

When I complained about this experience in a forum I visit regularly, I was told to go online and I would find plenty of cheap stove top kettles on Amazon or Ebay.

This is the wave of the future. High street shops now offer less and less because all the economic activity has moved online. One of the respondents to my post mentioned that bookshops he had visited would no longer get books for him if they were not in stock. They told him to go online instead.

It's a vicious circle. Online companies like Amazon don't pay ground rents or local taxes. Some of them don't even pay the corporation tax they owe. Being multinational, they are able to use all kinds of accounting tricks to ensure that they don't make any profits in the countries where they have the most turnover. Physical shops and stores can't compete with this kind of chicanery, so they are closing down. And every shop that closes down makes the high street less attractive to shoppers, so footfall goes down, and even more shops find they can't make ends meet.

For a lot of younger people, this isn't really a problem. They prefer to shop online because it is quick and easy (if you are used to doing it). They pay with an app or with their credit card or with Paypal, and the goods are either delivered to their homes or retrieved from a designated pick-up point like the local railway station. Soon, they say, everything will be delivered by drone.

But it's not so easy if you are old. I know how to use a computer. I can maintain and update my own systems and even write the odd small program. That is already more than a lot of people my age can manage. But I have no wish at all to carry out economic transactions online. First, it is a rather risky business, though most young people are sublimely indifferent to those risks. Once your personal and card details are stored on someone else's server, they are only as safe as that company's security policies make them. Almost every day you hear about servers being hacked and lists of personal payment details being offered on sale on the Dark Web. I remember that, when it happened to TalkTalk, the company spokesperson couldn't even say whether the stolen data had been encrypted or not. And that was supposed to be a tech-savvy company!

Furthermore, sites seem to be set up to make things difficult. A couple of years ago, I bought a black-and-white laser printer from the Tesco website, which at that time provided quite a lot besides groceries. I felt forced to do that because the printers you find in high street stores are limited in type, almost all inkjets and mostly from Hewlett-Packard. I had promised myself not to use HP printers again because they come with sly firmware that plays dirty with non-HP cartridges. Also the cartridges dry out quickly and are therefore no use for people like me that only print occasionally. Laser printers use dry toner powder, not ink, so there is nothing that can dry out.

Using the site was a nightmare. Will you believe it? Every time I clicked on "Add to trolley", it added two printers! Then I would cancel the order, go back and try again. I wasn't being particularly heavy-handed with the mouse either; Tesco just seemed determined to sell me two printers so that it could get double the money out of me. I can't remember now how many tries it took me before the malevolent script finally realised that it wasn't going to be able to sell me two printers and would have to settle for just one.

It's even worse on government sites like the local council. If you try to complain about anything on those sites, the scripts just lead you round and round for ever. You put in your correct name and address and they say "Invalid". And if you walk into the council offices (which are actually not far from where I live), no one will deal with your problem. They just say "Go online."

The UK government now has a policy called "Digital by Default". A quick google of the phrase provided this priceless explanation of what it means, apparently drawn from a government white paper: "Transforming traditional, unilateral citizen-government interaction into a multi-lateral, multi-channel exchange that can result in high-quality, collaborative outcomes across the government-citizen value chain."

Of course "Digital by Default" is nothing of the kind! A default is properly defined as being what you get if you don't ask for some other named option. But increasingly, you are not being offered any other option. It's "digital by decree"! And for people of my generation, that all too often means digital exclusion.

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