Tax discs, books, interviews, money – where paper beats digital

Neophilia is a condition where the sufferer believes that newer things beat older ones. It’s quite common among technologists who make their livings introducing new things. This can bias them against older technologies – such as that miracle of resilience, portability and usability, paper.

For Computer Weekly, I looked at some specific areas where paper can outperform digital. George Osborne’s cancellation of paper tax discs appears to be costing the country tens of millions of pounds a year. Take-up of e-books has stalled, with the proportion of Americans reading paper books actually rising. Oxfam deliberately uses paper for some sensitive interviews and in places where people are worried about government surveillance.

Money is perhaps the most interesting shift from paper (and polymer plastic and coins) to digital. Sweden is leading this trend with half of all merchants expecting to stop taking cash by 2025. The country’s central bank is worried that Swedes will no longer have the “state-guaranteed means of payment” that a banknote represents.

Digital systems tend to centralise control, boost oligopolies (a few financial processing companies in this case) and create vulnerabilities that did not previously exist – a hostile country could never blank out every banknote, but an equivalent digital attack is easy to imagine. Sometimes you can make a solid, unsentimental case that paper is the best technology for the job.

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