Last week, like some 19 million Americans, we participated in an unpleasantly modern ritual: paying our taxes before the extended filing deadline.
It's a national annual task that highlights questions we rarely state explicitly but that is critical: How much do we trust digital services? To what extent do we crave access to paper and ink?
In this regard, the recent experience of U.S. tax filing giant H&R Block is striking. For the past 70 years, the company has helped Americans file and pay their taxes, with professional advisors interviewing clients in its stores. "The tax business has always been a paper business," says Jeff Jones, the company's chief executive. The company has launched a digital alternative, but interestingly, most clients still choose to come into the office and "sit down and face a tax professional.
This preference for face-to-face interactions was so pronounced that in the early months of the epidemic, despite the firm's closure of some offices, clients continued to come in for face-to-face meetings with real advisors.
They stood in long lines at those offices that remained open, which shocked Jones, who had expected the epidemic to push most people online. He is responsible for expanding the use of a range of digital tools, including video chat capabilities and devices that enable customers to upload documents using cell phone scanners. Despite the rapid adoption of innovations such as online filing, he says, video conferencing has been very underutilized. Today, he is training tax professionals online so that the firm can downsize to a physical office, but numerous customers still want to meet in person.
Why is this? In Jones' view, one reason is that taxpayers have all the paperwork and it's easier to give it to a professional in person. And given the importance of paying taxes, people want to see the entire process in person.
Demand for print newspapers has plummeted this century, but they are still in circulation, and some readers prefer the "crease" of the paper. Audiobooks are selling well, but paper books are still selling, apparently not being replaced by e-books as once predicted. Letter writing is declining in the face of e-mail.
But at the end of 2021, greeting card companies report a rise in festival card sales. 2019 saw a 14% rise in greeting card sales at US stationery retailer Paper Source, as millennials embrace them. A similar phenomenon is occurring in many professional services, where telemedicine boomed during the epidemic, but face-to-face visits did not disappear. So, to borrow Jones' phrase, our world is a "multichannel" one, mixing digital and real elements in unpredictable ways.
If you want to celebrate what sets humans apart from robots, this is an honor.