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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Face to face: why places will continue to exist

It is not just that I dislike filling in forms. Worse than that, I am very bad at it. Which makes it nearly impossible for me to buy things on the internet. Last night I tried to buy some tickets for a comedy show. All I had to do was fill in about twenty boxes with what was required, and every time I tried, something went wrong, and when I went back to where I might or might not have made the mistake, that page disappeared. So I tried again and this time it said that I could not order twice as many tickets all in a row as I actually wanted. So, I gave up. This morning I tried again, and now the thing said that I cannot buy tickets even in the number that I do want. Last night I think what the original problem was was that I failed to tell them that London is in the UK, although that could be quite wrong. Maybe London is not in the UK. Maybe London is in England. Or Great Britain. Who knows with websites? So, now, I and my friends will not be going.

This is the secret reason for why shops still exist. Secret, because explaining this fact means admitting that you, like millions of other sensible people, are repeatedly confused beyond endurance by allegedly user-friendly but actually use-effing-impossible, interactive (i.e. you have to do it all) websites. You can go to a shop, see it, and if you can’t do all the things they say you must do with your credit card or your address or whatever the hell details they want, they have to explain what you must do before they can sell you anything. All a computer does is repeat whatever gibberish it was that you did not understand in its tortuous entirety the first time around.

This is why banks still exist, instead of all inhabiting cyberspace. The banks all want, physically speaking, to shut themselves. But the people in them know that if they do not explain things face-to-face to actual people from time to time, they will lose out to more obliging competitors. This is why people love their Post Offices. One of the most useful services that Post Offices supply is the service of filling in forms for you. There is a wonderful tax office at the bottom of Euston Tower where you can take your tax forms, and where they tell you face-to-face if you have got everything right. Everything. And when the guy behind the desk whose facial minutiae you can actually scrutinise says that all is now okay, it is. (Apart from the fact that they have stolen thousands of pounds from you and will now do nothing with about half of it and harm with about the other half. Those are different arguments.)

This is, more generally, the reason why places – villages, towns, cities – still matter. This is why London exists.

This is also why live theatrical performances exist and will continue to exist. I recall reading somewhere that the Marx Brothers beta-tested all their movies by first taking them on the road to show to live audiences, to find out which bits really were funny. The very gadgets – computers linked together by wires, the internet etc. – are time and again the things that only face-to-face contact can sort out for you. For as long as progress is being made in the storing, processing and transmitting of information, which basically means for as long as there is any progress at all, then for that long will physical places still be necessary for each new arrangement to be explained, face-to-face, until the procedure (a) actually does work properly, and (b) until it becomes as familiar to a sufficiency of people as using a telephone or reading a blog now is for me, or as writing for a blog is becoming.

That sufficiency of people can then explain it to the remainder (me), again, face-to-face, as and when they convince me that I really need whatever it is. Often they do. But often they fail, through, for instance, not getting the difference between doing something with no fuss once every few minutes (easy) or hours (quite easy), and doing something with no fuss every few weeks (very hard) or few months or years (impossible).

Speaking of telephones, those much hated call centres are really only hated because they are so often used to aggress and interrupt, to the point where they now threaten the efficiency of the phone system as a whole by making some vitally important real calls sound as if they are also fake interruptions. But I find that, when call centres are used to put me in touch with a living, breathing, knowledgeable and helpful human being – even if I cannot smell his breath or tell what country he is speaking from – they can be invaluable. Like the telephone itself, call centres are often an excellent compromise between total face-to-face-ness and total mechanical moronitude. Assuming, that is, that I do not have to convince a user-hostile computer system to let me talk to a human in the first place.

But, ask yourself this: why are call centres call centres?

When computers work – which they mostly do when I blog, for instance – then yes, I can do miraculous things at a miraculous distance. But I would never have had a hope of getting into computers in general, or blogging in particular, if I had not had friends and shop assistants who had showed it to me, with them sitting right next to me, explaining it, homing in on the bits that matter and reassuring me about things that looked as if they mattered hugely but actually do not.

Please do not misunderstand this posting as an attack on the whole idea of progress. I love progress and would be lost without it. I am just trying to describe an important part of what it actually is and how it is actually achieved.

PS: Just to be sure that I still could not make work the theatrical ticket system that I have here denounced, I tried yet again, just before posting this, and of course this time it did work and my friends and I will now be going after all. Typical. (London is in “UK”, by the way. I guessed that right.)

13 comments to Face to face: why places will continue to exist

  • Hank Scorpio

    Even worse than the form filling treadmill are the sites that choke on any other browser than IE. In this day and age how difficult is it to create standards compliant applets? It’s as though they were saying, “You people using Opera, Mozilla, or Safari? Yeah, we don’t want your money.”.

    I’d also like to point out to everyone that before doing something like entering a credit card number into an order page that you look for the padlock icon in the lower right side of your screen to indicate that you’re at least not giving away the keys to the kingdom over an unencrypted connection. Unbelievable that there are still businesses that do this, but there are.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    I once asked myself why education can’t just be placed online. You want to learn? Sign up on an online course and read the material on your own. Take the online quizzes set up, the works. Pay for what you want.

    Then I started teaching for real. Certain things simply cannot be taught over a screen. Questions students might have can only be resolved on the spot, while their minds are still open and ‘running’. And like you said, the assurance of a facial expression that all is well. Especially important to confused students who are learning something new.


  • I like your post, Brian, and I am glad that you will be going, after all. I prefer doing things online, when it comes to banks, post etc. I’d much rather spend some time filling a form in the comfort of my sofa, than drive there, park (if there is parking to be found), stand in line, and finally face a clerk who may or may not be knowledgeable and helpful. I even buy my groceries online, as I hate standing in line for a checkout and dragging the shopping bags home even more. But that’s just me:-)

  • PJ

    More annoying even that filling in forms, online or otherwise, which incidentally often ask for irrelevant details like date of birth, is the enormous number of passwords and logins we Internet shoppers all have to remember, just so we can have the privilege of handing websites our money. Another curse of the modern age, like New Labour, celebrity gossip magazines and car alarms.

  • Lizzie

    I’ve always rather fancied Omid Djalili.

  • sean

    ” In this day and age how difficult is it to create standards compliant applets?”

    It must be pretty hard. Samizdata’s web pages are not standards compliant…

  • Pi.

    Well, yes and no when it comes to banks.

    See my post at:

    Private Intellectual

    which covers exactly this in Germany.


  • John East

    One has to accept that most interactive online sites are written by nerds to be used by nerds. A degree of difficulty, the need for esoteric computing skills, and a desire to overcomplicate the simple thrive in this environment.
    My particular gripe is online banking. I access my bank account about once every two or three months to make a cash transfer or to see how much I’m overdrawn. I would imagine that these two operations constitute around 99.9% of most peoples requirement for online banking, and yet every time I log in the site has been “improved” to offer a few hundred more things I can do. How many of us want to do things like buy/sell shares in China, or trade on the Forex market etc.? Meanwhile the site becomes more and more difficult to navigate, and the constant changes means that previous navigation routes, painfully discovered by trial and error in the past, no longer work.

  • When watching the Marx Brothers movies today, theeir greatest weakness is that they are playing to a live audience rather than a remote one, resulting in timing which doesn’t feel right.

  • London may very well be in the UK. But it’s also in Arkansas.


  • John East

    Children with a sense of humour. You’ve just gotta laugh…………

    ……….but then wonder, is it a left wing conspiracy to supress free speech.

  • Tim

    Just to say that a lot of organisations have “usability labs” where they try out applications on real customers. Not all, mind you.

    Some sites are bloody awful (including the train sites that won’t give me a price without signing in) but many are just fine.

    I like face-to-face for some things, but for a lot of stuff, it saves me a trip into town with the inherent ludicrous council parking charges (pay for the priveledge of spending in the local economy) and I can shop any time I want.