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Beware of e-failure!


Beware of e-failure!

All that glitters is not gold and sometimes a paper-based system is better than a digital one, says Peter Kelly


For Christmas 2012 my mother bought me an Amazon Kindle and I absolutely loved it. I took it everywhere with me. I loved that it was light and easy to carry. I loved that you could hold it easily in one hand, which was really useful when there is only standing space on your commuter train. I kind of liked that nobody could tell what you were reading.

And then, after five or six years of constant use, I lost it. I went back to reading paper books and - I cannot explain this - I just found the experience of reading a paper book was more enjoyable than reading an e-book. It turns out that I am not alone.

At the start of the 2010s, the use of e-books was predicted to surpass paper books by the end of the decade, but it never happened. Studies have shown reading comprehension is better with physical books than e-books, and many people say they find the reading experience with physical books is more fulfilling.

Physical books still easily outsell e-books. When it comes to physical books versus e-books, it is about 80/20 in favour of physical books. It was predicted to be the other way around by now.

I am sure you will have heard about this year’s pre-reg exam and the technical difficulties that beset it. For those who have not, my understanding is that the pre-reg exam used to be a pencil and paper job but is now done on computers. In some of the test centres there was an issue with the IT set-up and some students did not get to sit the exam at the planned time.

This is not the first time, and is unlikely to be the last, that a move from paper to digital has left people with egg on their faces. In 2002, the government in the Republic of Ireland used computerised voting machines in three constituencies on a trial basis. In hopeful anticipation, they bought voting machines for all 42 constituencies.

By 2004 the whole project was scrapped. A leaked confidential report questioned the security of the machines. The government department responsible for the purchase of the machines disagreed with the report but the public backlash was such that the programme was scrapped. The whole misguided enterprise cost the Irish taxpayer 54 million euros.

As embarrassing as wasting 54 million euros is for a small country, Wikileaks was a much bigger nightmare for the US government than the voting machine fiasco was for the Irish government. In 2010, a young army private pirated 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables and released them publicly through an organisation called Wikileaks.

In the cables, the German foreign minister was described as a burden on US-German relations and an exuberant wild card. The French president was described as an emperor with no clothes. The Italian president was described as feckless. Turkey’s foreign minister was described as an exceptionally dangerous Islamist with delusions of empire.

America was lucky at the time of Wikileaks that a serious and savvy operator was at the helm in the US State Department. Hillary Clinton travelled the world grovelling and apologising. The damage to American foreign relations was minimal but it could have been much worse. Imagine how it would have played out if this had happened on Trump’s watch, or if something similar happened in Britain when Boris Johnson was foreign minister.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Wikileaks fiasco was that, at the time, the Turkish diplomatic cables were paper-based and American officials had jokingly teased the Turks asking them when they were going to move to the 21st century. After the cable leak, the Turks quipped that maybe they were better sticking to methods of communication that were not vulnerable to organisations like Wikileaks.

In the early 2000s, the comedian Chris Rock said the religion of America was money. I believe Americans now worship technology, and that goes for most of the western world as well. Silicon Valley is Vatican City, and Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are the prophets of the modern age. Like all religions, opinions are presented as universal truths. Technology is always good. Keep upgrading without questioning or you will fall behind.

Don’t get me wrong, technology is amazing and digital is sometimes the better option, but not always. I would never give up internet banking but give me a physical book over an e-book any day. Never forget that the visionaries and prophets of Silicon Valley are trying to sell you a version of the world that makes them rich and powerful.

When Wikileaks happened, there was little to no discussion about whether America should have stayed with a paper-based system. It was simply dogma.


Peter Kelly is a community pharmacist based in London and an occasional stand-up comedian.



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