This week, like an estimated 19 million Americans, I performed an obnoxious modern ritual: I paid my taxes, just before the extended filing deadline of October 17.
It is an annual national task that regularly gives rise to discussion among economists and politicians about which tax policy makes the most sense. It also highlights a question we rarely formulate, but one that matters: how much do we trust digital services? How far do we crave contact with flesh and blood – or paper and ink?
Striking in this regard is the recent experience of H&R Block, a giant US tax advisor. Over the past seven decades, the company has built its business by helping Americans file and pay their taxes, usually by operating a large network of retail stores where specialist advisors meet clients in person.
“The tax business has traditionally been a paper business,” Jeff Jones, chief executive of H&R Block, told me recently. The company has introduced digital alternatives, but interestingly, the majority of clients still choose to come to the office and “sit face-to-face with a tax professional,” he said. Indeed, the preference for face-to-face interaction has been so pronounced that during the early months of Covid-19, when H&R closed some offices, clients continued to emerge who wanted to talk to human advisors. Queues formed at the offices that remained open.
This came as a shock to Jones, who assumed the pandemic would push most people online. He oversaw the expansion of a range of digital tools, including a video chat feature and a device that allows customers to upload documents using mobile phone scanners.
While some of these innovations, such as online filing, have taken off, video conferencing usage has been surprisingly low, Jones said. And while he now trains tax professionals online in a way that allows H&R to reduce the size of its brick-and-mortar offices, the fact that so many clients still want to meet in person has led him to conclude that the company still needs small offices in multiple locations. “It’s not always what we expect,” he said. “We have to be flexible.”
Why? Jones, for his part, thinks one problem is that taxpayers “have all this paper and it’s easier to get the paper to a professional by giving it to them in person”. The second is that the “stakes are so high that” [people] want to look someone in the eye and know that they are right.” In other words, the problem is trust.
Reasonable. Considering how computers can crash or get hacked, this isn’t entirely unreasonable. But I suspect emotion is also a key factor. Nearly two decades ago, Genevieve Bell, then an anthropologist at chipmaker Intel, argued with the company’s engineers, who believed that paper would soon disappear. Bell disagreed.
To the engineers, paper seemed like an “irrational” waste of space and money. But Bell insisted that paper was “what anthropologists call a persistent and stubborn artifact,” an object that evokes stronger emotions than utilitarian factors. Paper feels familiar. It is sensory and evokes touch and smell. Paper also conveys a sense of durability and control. A sheet can be scanned quickly. The task of reading a page, paper or book can be completed, unlike the bottomless, shape-shifting black hole of the Internet.
The past two decades have shown that she was partly right. The demand for printed newspapers has fallen sharply this century. But print editions are still published, with some readers preferring the “wrinkle”. Audiobooks have boomed, but paper books continue to sell and, in particular, have not been replaced by e-books, as once predicted.
Letter writing has withered in the face of email. But in late 2021, greeting card companies reported growing Christmas card sales. In the case of paper business Paper Source, sales were 14 percent higher than in 2019 as millennials embraced them.
Something similar occurs in many professional services. Telemedicine boomed during the pandemic. But personal medical visits have not disappeared. Online conferences exploded when people couldn’t meet in person. But I’ve never seen real-life conferences so packed as the ones I’ve attended recently.
Our world, to quote Jones, is thus an “omnichannel” world, or a place where the digital and real world elements mingle in improbable and unpredictable ways. I know. After completing my “online” tax ritual on Monday, I now have the papers on my desk as I felt compelled to print them for safety.
This creates huge headaches for anyone, like Jones, trying to serve consumers. But it’s also wonderfully exciting if you want to celebrate what makes humans different from robots, namely culture.
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