Digital media route doesn't suit everyone

Novelist speaks out on negative aspects of QR codes, Severn Trent cans cheques

Alderman: we need to think about when we cut off routes that used to exist. Image:

Bestselling author Naomi Alderman has called on businesses and society to be more aware of how the use of digital media technology such as QR codes can have a negative and exclusionary impact on ordinary people.

Speaking on BBC Radio4’s Today programme earlier this week, Alderman said the experience of walking into a hairdresser or restaurant and being pointed at a QR code rather than handed a paper menu, was increasingly common.

Many businesses switched from paper menus and price lists to online versions during the pandemic.

“You need a smartphone to access it and often they don’t work, and when they do work you’re sort of squinting trying to enlarge it,” she said.

“And actually, a lot of people can’t access it,” Alderman added, citing those without the means to own a smartphone, as well as young children and elderly people.

“I am a fan of technology in many ways, but we need to think about socially how we roll that out, and when we cut off routes that used to exist.”

Alderman is a novelist, TV producer and game writer. Her bestselling sci-fi novel The Power won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017.

Her new book, The Future, is about three tech billionaires who receive a secret alert that the world is about to end.

“I think many of us would like to be able to introduce our children to times of the day and a world in which you can just put your phone away. I think the idea that you’re constantly being led back to the phone probably isn’t good for any of us,” she added.

QR codes can be a powerful and useful tool that help demonstrate the efficacy of printed materials, via calls to action and links to additional online information or promotions. However, they also have the potential to be hijacked by cyber criminals, and in the wrong hands can be used to lead people to scamming sites. Last year supermarket Lidl had to recall a range of Paw Patrol snacks after it emerged that the QR code on the packaging led customers to a website displaying inappropriate content. 

Separately, water company Severn Trent has just written to shareholders informing them that it will no longer pay dividends by paper cheque in the future – shareholders will not have the option to receive a cheque, even if that is their preference.

In a letter to shareholders alongside its interim dividend that explains the rationale for its decision, Severn Trent stated: “Receiving dividends paid by direct payment rather than cheque is quicker, more secure and an environmentally-friendly method of payment .

“Severn Trent plc is committed to reducing its impact on the environment, including through reduction of paper and postage. As such, we will by paying our dividends electronically moving forward.”

The company urged shareholders to update their details as soon as possible, and said that from January 2025 any monies payable in connection with shares would only be paid by direct payment.