net.wars: Think of the time you'll save

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 04 June 2004

British Gas this week enclosed a flyer with my latest bill informing me of a campaign: "No more paper bills". Inside it, I read, "With online billing we will send an email to you to let you know your bill is ready to view online at house.co.uk, saving you time, hassle and even money, with a £5 saving for each fuel you register."

Wendy M Grossman

The way things work now, a bill arrives in the post. I open it, extract the bill and payment envelope, and discard the rest. Takes about two seconds. Staple the pages together. Another two seconds. The bill then floats around my desk until I remember to pay it. Yes: I write a cheque, stick it in the envelope, stick on a stamp I prepared earlier, and drop it in the mailbox next time I go out to buy milk. Grand total: slightly under a minute, all in blessed silence with no waiting.

Let's compare this to the online experience. An email arrives in a mailbox I reserve for the purpose of bills and other commercial transactions. So first I have to look at that mailbox. Then I have to click on the link or, more likely, copy it and paste it into a new browser window (because when I just click on links the really important research material I was just looking at vanishes, sometimes never to reappear). I have to log on with a user ID and password that Mozilla will kindly remember for me. The site will have to load and I will have to navigate to the right page. Then I will have to print it out (because a portion is tax-deductible). The stapling and floating will be the same. But there will be no payment envelope, so I will have to print one. I have just timed this entire process using my American Express account as a guinea pig. I make it three minutes and 22 seconds. Barclaycard, which has a much more fiddly logon procedure with many more slow-to-load pages in it, takes more than two minutes just to display a summary of the bill. To view the latest statement takes at least another minute (another two pages to load successively).

Think of the time I've saved!

Of course, I have broadband. I could save even more time if I were on dial-up.

(I don't know what they do to those pages inside Barclaycard to make them so slow - I swear they pay gremlins to sit in there and feed the electrons Marvel Snerdles to fatten them up.)

Ah, but Direct Debit, I hear British readers cry.

Yes, for people who are mad enough to let their banks pay their bills for them - the fastest way to lose track of what money you haven't got, especially if you're a freelance and therefore have an income best described as "lumpy" - and who have no reason to want to keep copies of their bills, I can sort of see that there might be some time savings. In fact, a lot of those people will probably never look at their bills, just like a lot of people never reconcile their bank statements now. So I guess those people will save time - all of seven seconds four times a year to pick the paper bill up off the doormat and drop it in the wastebasket.

But the other good thing about paper bills used to be that if the bill floating around your desk got buried or you spaced out, they would send you a nice, fat, red reminder. I only discovered that this kinder, gentler world was vanishing the other day when my mobile phone returned the error "SIM card registration failed". I looked up this error message on Google. Says it means the phone's been blacklisted. They do that when they think it's been stolen. My surmise instead, which proved to be correct, was that I had spaced out a bit too long the floating process. Emailing the company elicited the response that seven to ten days after the due date phones are cut off. No reminders, no more. (Unless you count the phone call from that Vodafone guy I cut off because I thought he was trying to sell me something.)

Somewhere in the back of the balcony, the Direct Debit cry rises again. And that is Our Future. There will be no paper bills. There will be no paper cheques (or checks). Even "cash" will be electronic digits on a smart card. Come tax time, your suppliers and customers will automagically send your records to Accounting Central, where the amount of tax you owe will be calculated. You'll get an email message telling you your tax return is ready for viewing. You will view it, but you won't understand it, but you'll press the button to sign it because it must be right, yes?, and you'll be automatic credited or debited as the case may be. You'll never know how much money you actually have, but then, let's face it, what do those numbers really mean, anyway? We can all live like aristocrats, never dirtying our hands with money.

And think of the time we'll save.

I hope you bank that time at a fabulous rate of interest, because if anything ever goes wrong, you'll spend all of it and then some disentangling the god-awful mess.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).