Opinion: Going Paperless – What’s in it for me?

The Internet has made it easier for most of us to pay our bills by allowing us to do so online, at our convenience, at a time of our choosing. For many, the process of writing a check – and worse, having to put it in the mail – is a ritual that is more and more seldom invoked, thanks to Internet Banking and online payment systems.

This is a good thing

One think that I have noticed of late is that a large number of companies with whom I do business via the Internet are exhorting me to “go paperless”, to avoid the need to print out and mail statements.

This sounds like a good thing… but it isn’t – at least from where I am sitting. You’re probably thinking that I’m nuts, but stay with me.

Your average CEO is looking at all of that paper and manpower being “wasted” on sending out bills and statements, and is naturally looking for a way to cut costs. From their point of view, putting that paperwork online is the way to go. No paper, no postage, no envelope stuffing… what’s not to like?

The benefit to the customer is a little more elusive. There is certainly an element of convenience, but since paperless bills and statements are created dynamically, there is no guarantee that the underlying data used to generate this documentation will not be retrospectively changed, nor is there any guarantee that those records will be available at a future time when the customer needs them… or that they will be available free of charge. Of course, it is a simple matter to print out the bills and statements… but that simply transfers the cost from the corporation to the customer. That is called an “externality”. I don’t like externalities.

Let me give another example. A major part of recent banking reform has been “Check 21”, one of the major planks of which involves the destruction of paper checks in favor of “substitute” checks – digital copies. My bank stopped sending me paper checks without telling me. When I called them on it, they predictably claimed that I must have made that choice. I know I did not, and asked them when I did this. They could not tell me. I insisted that I had not made that choice, and explained why:

  1. Paper checks are far more useful in cases of fraud or forgery. Handwriting experts cannot do very much with what are effectively photocopies. This raises the burden of proof for the victim.
  2. Check images are only available to customers online for about six months, after which you have to pay to see your own checks… another externality, this time one which is utterly ridiculous.

They then claimed that it was “an error”, though I suspect that it might have been by design. Why? Because while their online system makes it easy to go paperless, there is no mechanism to go the other way – to switch from paperless back to “real” checks – I had to phone them and insist. Obviously it never occurred to them that some Luddite like myself might want to go retrograde on them.

I am not saying that I will need those records on, five or twenty years from now. What I am saying is that I should be the one who decides when they are no longer necessary, and not some Datacenter Manager.

This reminds me of the Automated Teller Machines that have now become ubiquitous. Before their advent, the average bank had five to eight tellers. Nowadays, it’s more like three or four. It is obvious that after installing the ATMs, the banks were able to let go of about half their staff. Not content with finding such outrageous cost savings, they tried to charge us extra for the “convenience” of using an ATM instead of a real person.

Going paperless clearly benefits those sending the paper, not those receiving it. This is why I ask the question “What’s in it for me?” of those who attempt to save their money at my expense. Most of the time, my e-mail never receives a reply. One notable exception was Verizon Wireless, who offered a one-time $20 credit to “go paperless”. It’s nice to see that somebody gets it, but they are in a minority.

So… the next time that a business exhorts you to “go paperless!”, you know which question to ask:

What’s in it for me?

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