Can books, tickets and money avoid going entirely electronic?

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In his Autumn Statement this week, George Osborne announced that car tax discs are to be phased out in October next year, illustrating that the move to online and electronic systems continues apace. Steven Perryman surveys the prospects of three other paper-based systems that are still hanging in there. For now.

1. Books

For every e-reader lover there’s a traditionalist who loves the physicality of holding and reading a book. Perhaps, like me, you use an e-reader purely for practical purposes (such as going on holiday to avoid tip-toeing near Ryanair’s miniscule baggage allowance). The Irish airline has many enemies, but e-reader manufacturers certainly isn’t one of them.

Perhaps the biggest disparity – and hard copy book’s biggest hope – is when they are used as a study aid. A few years ago we asked AAT students on our Facebook page whether they thought electronic books could replace hard copies. The response was unequivocal – hard copy books are best. The ease and convenience of annotating and highlighting as you study was the most common response in their favour.

It’s all generational, of course. Youngsters of today will grow up with electronic reading as the norm, and no doubt more sophisticated ways of annotating and using electronic formats for studying will be developed in the near future.

Prognosis: okay for now

2. Train tickets

Hard copy train tickets still exist, but traditionalists who favour paper over plastic are feeling the pinch – most notably in their pockets.

Paper tickets cost more and can often only be bought from a ticket office or online. And even this is about to change. Transport for London has announced all of its ticket offices are to close on the Underground network by 2015 (to almost certainly be replaced by Amazon collection points, in case you’re wondering). And the Government is already clamping down on ticket offices at national railway stations.

Even the Oyster Card’s days look numbered, with it set to be replaced by a contactless system where passengers pay with their credit/debit cards from next year. The plan has its flaws though: surely a truly joined up contactless system would work on all lines and stations across the country? The Touch & Travel system in Germany – which uses Near Field Communication (NFC) to allow passengers to pay for travel with their mobile phones – offers another tantilising glimpse of the future of paying for travel.

Prognosis: dead man walking  

3. Money

Ah, money. Flashing a credit card is not as satisfying as the feel of a wedge of notes in your pocket, is it? No, but with contactless technology gaining momentum and uptake, is hard currency really on the way out?

Many argue that there is a lot to dislike about a trading tool that grows in volume as it reduces in value, and removes millions of pounds from circulation at the back of of sofas or forgotten penny jars. They have a point, too: how many of us have reams of coppers in a pot at home gathering dust?

But Adam Lawrence, chief executive of the Royal Mint still sees a future for coins and notes. ‘I can’t see cash disappearing in my lifetime,’ he told the Cardiff Breakfast Club earlier this year, pointing out that £30bn will be removed from cash machines in the UK in 2013. ‘Cash is trustworthy and when you pay in cash it’s seldom refused and you know its value.’ A sound argument, but it’s what you would expect the head of the body permitted to manufacture coins in the UK to say, isn’t it?

And there are a whole raft of digital currencies coming onto the market, with Bitcoin the most high profile. News in October that Kristoffer Koch had an unexpected windfall of $850,000 from a $22 investment in the currency four years ago caused a stir. Not that the 29-year-old Norwegian is too worried: he’s been able to buy an upmarket flat in Oslo by selling one fifth of his windfall. Meanwhile over in Vancouver, a Bitcoin ATM has been unveiled in a coffee shop. Digital currencies, it would appear, are here to stay.

Money is a highly emotive subject, of course. That much was shown by the banking industry’s failed attempt at binning cheques two years ago. Although cheques were given a stay of execution on that occasion, is it really possible to see a time in 10 or 20 years when we pay with anything other than a smart phone, card or tablet?

Prognosis: okay for now, but looking over its shoulder

Steven Perryman is AAT Comment's former Content Editor.

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