How Not To Spend It

Christopher Fowler

This is the death-knell of the department store.

(Above; the guest who did not tip) This is the year that turned into my own personal annus horribilis.
But here's something interesting: Our self-isolating future may bring an end to less fulfilling jobs.
The service industry is the most obvious game changer. Over the last week I've downloaded different apps in cafés, barcoding menus, booking tables and ordering food online in restaurants, and it works brilliantly. Most places seem to use different systems at the moment and setting up can be a pain, but you only have to do it once. The hardest part so far is splitting the bill. We're moving fast toward a cashless society. I haven't used a coin or note since February. Very few vendors around us take cash anymore. The amount I can swipe has been broadened, yet making it easier to spend has somehow resulted in me spending less. It has prompted thinking about the ways we enjoy our leisure. My biggest expenditure is still on books, but now I'm buying more of them online. Does this mean no more happy discoveries lurking on bookshop shelves? I hope not. Supermarkets are gearing up to ditch scanning completely, but presumably some shops will try to retain a sense of shopping for fun. Although judging by the deserted shopping mall near me, it's not working. A trip to Oxford Street today highlights the problem. The street is not deserted, but the big stores are. Selfridge's the once wonderful department store that turned itself into an outrageously expensive bling emporium for vulgarian tourists, is now deserted. Their menswear floor felt like the set of 'The Omega Man'. (They're not hurting enough to have a sale.) John Lewis was so empty it looked haunted. This is surely the death-knell of the department store. People shop by brands these days, so who needs an upmarket Woolworths anymore? There's the one more anomaly in the breakdown of my spending - there are far fewer impulse purchases. When everything must be pre-booked there's no room for spontaneity. And will data theft arise with so many new electronic transactions? Or could it be we'll look back at waiters and shopkeepers and think them quaint symbols of the past, like horse-drawn carriages?


Paul C (not verified) Tue, 11/08/2020 - 15:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I found many of my favourite authors and books purely by chance rooting around in tatty old bookshops - picking up odd volumes and reading the first few pages. I still do this in the few remaining bookshops that survive.

Anthony Burgess though of himself as a medieval figure adrift in an electronic age. I know exactly how he feels. I hate the online world and would prefer to deal with real people in real shops.

Derek J.Lewis (not verified) Tue, 11/08/2020 - 17:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Think you've nailed this.
Loved that 'omega man' reference, I trust it was the superb Charlton Heston version with the 'prisoner' tv series mash-up soundtrack ( give it a listen).
I don't think it helps that some of the larger shops (e.g Next) have a staff member on the door, dressed in full PPE 'encouraging' you to sanitise as if you were about to take a space flight. The customer is now barely tolerated, no wonder we stay at home

Brooke (not verified) Tue, 11/08/2020 - 18:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

You know there are easy free apps for splitting the bill?
"Less fulfiling jobs" are held by people who need to eat, take care of their families, etc. Not everyone is on the self actualization curve.

Helen Martin (not verified) Tue, 11/08/2020 - 21:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

What will happen to people without a smart phone? A friend of mine, who has no cell phone at all, was wondering how he was going to see his doctor since you wait in the foyer of his office building until they phone you to come up for your appointment.

Christopher Fowler Wed, 12/08/2020 - 06:49

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Only 3% are without a mobile phone in the UK.
I was trying to think of a nice way to put 'Less fulfilling jobs' - I would argue (there's a surprise) that wait-persons are pretty self-actualising. Who doesn't hope for something better?

Dawn Andrews (not verified) Wed, 12/08/2020 - 07:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Being an artist I've done all sorts of jobs in my time, but always had my creative life to keep me interested and enthused. I've always envied people who find all their fulfillment in simply living, day to day, it's very taoist and admirable.

Jo W (not verified) Wed, 12/08/2020 - 10:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Chris, although only 3% have no mobile 'phone, there must be more,like me, whose 'phone just does calls and texts. No smarty apps. We are the outcasts! :-(

Liz Thompson (not verified) Wed, 12/08/2020 - 10:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Jo, you're right. I only converted to smartphone 2 years ago, and I know a number of people including my ex, who only have the oldstyle mobiles. A lot of older (I'm not stereotyping, I'm 72 myself) people can't cope with them. I rely on my daughter to sort me out, and yesterday a friend was asking me to help her onto WhatsApp.
The only cash I've used since lockdown was to pay our peripatetic windowcleaner. I don't think he does card payments!
Chris, I am delighted to say my signed copy of Oranges and Lemons arrived today from Goldsboro, magnificently packed in about 30 yards (I haven't gone fully metric yet) of bubble wrap, a stout cardboard box, and a give away offer card! Your signature is quite magnificent too.

Brooke (not verified) Wed, 12/08/2020 - 13:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

With an economic recession, high unemployment rates, continuing pandemic and BJ/NF still holding forth, now is not the time for nice ways to say things. If you mean low-wage jobs, say so.

15% of US population own mobile phones that are NOT smart phones; for the over 65 demographic, the "no smart phone" percentage jumps to 40%. Friends and clients who won't use mobile phones fall into 2 groups. The first do own very expensive smart phones that lay about, living quietly in desk drawers, never traveling with their owners; there's nothing mobile about these devices except the brand name. The second group stubbornly and fearfully refuse to own mobiles, smart or not. We've figured out ways to help them navigate through health appointments, shopping, etc. Indeed, their resistance tends to bring out more courtesy as people respect their choice.

Cashless systems exemplify Gresham's Law, i.e. lower value drives out higher value. There are too many hidden transaction costs. We'll pay for it in the end.

Derek J.Lewis (not verified) Wed, 12/08/2020 - 14:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Hmm" only 3% are without a mobile phone" but not all of them I would argue have internet access, some of them are just phones.
The great majority of services are becoming digital by default. It's the digitally dispossessed, mostly elderly and poor that are falling through the gaps of society these days. I deal with the helplessness of these people every day. Imagining Arthur Bryant trying to order a meal digitally in a gastro pub may be entertaining but someone of his age being unable to access services and healthcare they are entitled to can be heartbreaking

Peter T (not verified) Wed, 12/08/2020 - 14:58

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Cashless spending might help the public to understand that 'money' is more of myth than fairies at the bottom of the garden and Father Christmas. What substance it has arises from our belief in it and the government's acceptance of it for the payment of taxes. And, of course, the myth is very useful for financiers to make themselves rich.

When I was a young student, I was forced to venture briefly outside the happy world of engineering, physics and maths to learn a little about society. I was very surprised to discover that, for the majority, the greatest motivation for work is socialising, meeting colleagues and customers. That's followed by the generation of self-esteem. Money is a motivator mainly for the poorest and lowest paid and occasionally for those who work to finance an expensive hobby. For the very rich, money serves mainly as a way of keeping score. For the very lucky people, and for this I am very fortunate, our work is a hobby and being paid for it is generally a bonus.

Joel (not verified) Wed, 12/08/2020 - 15:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Beware percentages, the politicians' friends and sensible peoples' enemies. Percentages are not real numbers. "3%" of the UK population without mobile phones, setting aside demographics is 1.95 million people. Now that's a better display of nonconformity, and a bigger but more honest issue to deal with.

I only have a basic 'feature phone' - no need for a smartphone as my life doesn't run that way. Now that they're made without replaceable batteries, that's two ways you're forced into spending at least hundreds of pounds or other currencies on a new one or an upgrade - the other is when the operating system is no longer supported. We're being mugged into built-in obsolescence.

The 'digital divide' is acute and could have terrible outcomes - I'm 69 and see it already through older generation friends and family. Some cannot afford modern technologies, others can't use them - they're being ignored in favour of the "97%". The world's governments want us cashless to cut down on the cash economy to rake in taxes from ordinary folk while the affluent have already stashed their assets in more louche territories. I am not a refusenik, just a 'toolsnik' - when I can see a sustainable (not a one-off) use for a tool, I'll have it.

Helen Martin (not verified) Wed, 12/08/2020 - 17:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thank you, Joel. A million people means a lot more than 3% does. My cell phone just makes phone calls and is not text enabled. Most of the time that's fine but I couldn't join my BookCrossing group last night because Google decided to mess me up and I couldn't prove my email was mine without a texting phone. I just shrug and send apology notes to the group. If something doesn't stay in my mind until I get home to my computer then I obviously don't really need/want the result of the on-line research. We aren't necessarily unable to use a smart phone; it's just that it requires more effort/money than we're prepared to expend. I got the phone in the first place when I was still working and my Mother was in care.

John Griffin (not verified) Wed, 12/08/2020 - 19:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'd take it further, Joel. A cashless society is infinitely more controllable.

Brooke (not verified) Wed, 12/08/2020 - 20:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Indeed, John. When I was doing consulting, we would play around with "cashless" scenarios. Also incredibly easy for terrorists, money launderers, etc., further eroding public trust.

Liz Thompson (not verified) Thu, 13/08/2020 - 08:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

And Brooke, the recent publicity about banks not adhering to the ' voluntary' code of practice on refunding customers scammed out of money online also adds to the control argument and the resulting lack of publuc trust. Not so much win/win as lose/lose

Bronwen (not verified) Sat, 15/08/2020 - 10:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I don't know if it's my advancing age or my US mid-western roots, but I simply value my privacy too much to submit to the always-available life of smart phones. Though I'm happy to have a small computer in my pocket, I use the phone/text features only in emergencies.

Bronwen Rowlands (not verified) Sat, 15/08/2020 - 10:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I don't know if it's my advancing age or my US mid-western roots, but I simply value my privacy too much to submit to the always-available life of smart phones. Though I'm happy to have a small computer in my pocket, I use the phone/text features only sparingly.

Christopher Fowler Mon, 17/08/2020 - 11:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

In the UK we surrendered our privacy some years ago without a murmur, yet people protest the idea of identity cards, which mystifies me. An ID card protects your identity, while data stealing (every time you cheerfully hand out your email address) is rife.

Nancy Boespflug (not verified) Sat, 22/08/2020 - 14:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Do people realize that their smart phones have an on/off switch? Do they know they can silence them, allow them just to vibrate, or simply ignore those incoming calls that are unwanted? There is noting inherent in a portable phone that invades one's privacy if you don't allow it to. It is a tool, folks - use it as one.

Why are we suddenly proud of being Luddites? Do all these refusenik-commenters use indoor plumbing, central heating and automobiles? Computers? Newly invented antibiotics? Why are we suddenly drawing the line at the most convenient, helpful, useful tool available on earth? It's utter nonsense.

snowy (not verified) Sun, 23/08/2020 - 12:06

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I might be a Luddite, though I fancy myself more of a Swinger*.

"Do people realize that their smart phones have an on/off switch?"

They have a button that puts them into a low-power mode and turns off the screen, elements of the operating system are still running. If it was not the phone would never respond to the button that appears to turn it back on.

It is completely trivial to make an apparently off phone wake-up without turning on the screen, grab the handset's location write it to a file and go back to sleep. The file is uploaded later when the owner turns the phone 'on'. [Or operate the microphone, camera or any part of the hardware that can be accessed].

"There is noting inherent in a portable phone that invades one's privacy if you don't allow it to."

Phones leak huge amounts of low-grade information, each piece in isolation is completely trivial, but when combined together the level of detail one can build is quite astonishing. Some examples:

Location, if the phone hasn't moved for over two hours, that is most likely either home or work, cross check with map to see if the location is in a residential or commercial area, repeat observation for pattern of arrival and departure times, repeating patterns can reveal working pattern 9-5, rotating shifts, part-time. [By extension this links you to an employer, the datasets culled from colleagues phones, [same phone numbers, same place 5 days a week], etc. For home this will link to partner's dataset, the presence of children in the house, [same phone numbers, same location over night], and their datasets, from which the school they attend can be matched etc.]

Phonecall outbound, originating number, destination number, cross check with data copied from the phones 'Contacts' file, if the destination number is tagged with 'Mum' or 'Dad' this establishes a link between two data sets. No data in contacts, reverse number search through public index, number might be for a bank, doctors surgery, garage, escort agency or clap clinic. [Similar for inbound].

This list goes on and on and on and on, I have not even touched what is flowing out/accessible at the operating system level which is a lot. Or what is revealed by interactions with internet services which is huge.

Phones stopped being just 'phones' over 25 years ago.

[Pass the tinfoil, I feel the inspiration for a new chapeau coming on.]

[* See Captain Swing and the Swing Riots 1830-31.]