Has The Internet Killed Our High Streets?

In 1993 I visited County Hall in Durham with my family to take part in a science exhibition. I have always been interested in computing and remember being fascinated by an enthusiastic postgraduate student who demonstrated that he could connect his computer to a machine in Moscow and download data. How right he was. In the future, I was told, thousands if not millions of computers would be connected on a worldwide network and would exchange data freely across the world. We were informed that everyday tasks like banking, shopping and communication could and would be transacted through your home computer. It all seemed a bit far-fetched as only wealthy families even owned a computer at the time.

Fast forward to just after the millennium and these predictions proved to be a conservative estimate of how computing technology developed. The world had been permanently changed with infinite opportunities being made possible by the Internet. Royal Mail panicked over the use of email and Napster revolutionised music forever. Microsoft had seized the moment and tapped into the insatiable demand for home computers and families were quickly buying computers to get hooked up to the internet. Everyone wanted a piece of the action and it was only a short time until the multi-computer family became the norm rather than the exception. The revolution continued.

Moving to the present and the pace of change on the Internet shows no sign of abating. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are now such a fundamental part of online culture that we can scarcely imagine a world without them. All television adverts now come with details of the Facebook page, complete with blue 'F' logo and website details. Not to do so would look silly. Internet users want more interactive ways of communicating and interacting online and we are at the precipice of the next major development online with the development of 24/7 mobile computing. Either through a tablet computer, mobile phone or even the new product Google Glass the internet can be with us wherever we go.

The world of ecommerce drove development online and it is this globalisation of business that is a contributing factor to what I believe is a permanent change in the composition of our high streets. Customers can now shop from home for everything they need, accessing the full market to find the best deal. Those who do venture into the high street can download a free app for their iPhone which scans the bar code of a product and immediately offers price comparisons to the deals available for the same product online. As the use of such technology widens businesses must face the reality that there competitors are potentially every seller of their product in the world, rather than just their town or region. Margins that were already tight, particularly in these tough economic times customers want the best value for money.

One of the many benefits of the Internet is that it empowers the customer to find the best deal. The mass supply has seen prices move towards a wholesale prices than retail prices we find in shops. The cartel of the high street has been broken as we have access to almost infinite choices. A business in a small rural town now has to ensure they are competitive compared to their entire industry niche. Some would say that this ensures ethical pricing, others would say it places small to medium sized businesses (SME's) in a very difficult position to survive in today's business environment. When I was a child I remember my mother was keen on knitting clothes. In our small rural village of Lanchester in County Durham, there was a wool shop which was well-used and valued by the local residents. This business closed many years ago through retirement of the owner, however, I doubt that such a business would be viable on our high street today.

Bricks and mortar businesses must still pay wages, insurance, utilities and the biggest drain of all for an offline business, commercial unit rent and business rates whilst the online enterprise exists with no overheads which allow their pricing to reflect their reduced costs. Shop frontage does remain desirable and gives you footfall to turn into customers on the high street but it comes at a price. There is a strong argument that investing in a branded website, integrated ecommerce facilities and a search engine optimisation program is more useful in today's business world, but spare a thought for the empty shop units that are becoming a relic to a bygone era where people browsed the high street rather than Amazon or Google to shop.

In your own town you will notice there are increasing numbers of empty shop units which show the battered remains of a once proud business. Empty shop units constantly appear and at present they can sit empty for years. I always take note of the empty unit, complete with broken shop sign and the "Come to the Circus" poster that seems almost obligatory and I am reminded of a once ambitious business that the owner invested many hours, months and emotion into growing. Unfortunately many businesses fail and I do not envy the ambitious and proud business owner having to tell a loyal worker who earns a small wage in the hope of a better tomorrow that unfortunately the realities of the balance sheet means the business has failed. Small to medium sized enterprises could be the biggest casualty of the Internet. Now look at your large buying history on Amazon or eBay, do you feel guilty yet?

Business owners do not expect any sympathy and I would get short shrift if I attempted to lament their plight with colleagues of mine who are self-employed. Lord Sugar would be the first to say that business owners must adapt to the world around them rather than lament that in different conditions they would succeed. However, I would argue that having a healthy number of SME's remaining viable businesses on our high street is vital to resisting the financial redistribution to the wealthiest in society. If SME's leave the high street we get more empty units and only the largest companies offer the goods we can buy. We never see that money again. For business owners there is the incentive of social mobility for the upwardly mobile wealth creators. Unfortunately a by-product of the Internet and the tough economic times we are enduring is that small businesses like shoe shops, sandwich shops, family butchers, wool shops, electrical shops find it almost impossible to exist in today's market, even if they utilise online sales to help their revenue.

Taking advantage of the void are large companies who have began to set up business on our high streets, offering loss leaders to compete for customers. This retail behaviour prices out smaller businesses that cannot compete. In tough economic times, customers are forced to buy food and important life items as cheaply as they can. Years ago smaller retailers like Spar, Presto, and Co-op were the high street food outlets but now large companies like Tesco are a common sight with their Extra stores which can be no larger than your corner shop or newsagents. This increases the amount of revenue generated by the huge retailers like Tesco, hitting the black hole of their bank accounts and only paid in dividends to already very successful and wealthy directors.

The ongoing evolution of our high street presents different and equally worrying problems for society, namely the increase in the number of bookmakers and cash converter businesses that have popped up everywhere in recent years. Unfortunately whether we like it or not these industries are massive growth industries, but they offer society an easy route to very bad decisions. Within a two minute walk from my place of work, there are two cash converter businesses, four bookmakers and a product rental outlet that offers goods on a rental basis targeted at capturing benefit claimants who cannot buy the goods outright. Reinforcing a previous point I made, even the bookies in the town used to be owned locally, but they were bought by a national brand who knows that it is money in the bank.

Whatever our feelings towards these companies if they were not there then we would have empty shop units. I'd rather have the shops filled by someone, just not by businesses that either give people a bad deal or sell opportunities that are not really opportunities. It is tough enough for the consumer as it is. Larger retailers are doing very well from the changing face of our high street and our government must address the farce that is corporation tax and ensure that these companies pay the correct amount of tax. Labour can make great strides to economic credibility by demonstrating and following through on a tough line to combat tax evasion. Voters will remain disillusioned as they are continue to pay lots of money for petrol, food and even bedrooms whilst the wealthiest companies manage to evade paying anything with the political system apparently complicit in this evasion, whilst talking a tough game. The current system is not fit for purpose and needs urgent attention and the HMRC, albeit overseen by government, must share the blame for this debacle.

This article should not be read as a technophobe rant on the Internet. I would happily join whatever petition or campaign you liked if there was an attempt to save the high street by taking my Internet away. But I will pledge to try and spend at least a little of my money in local businesses rather than falling for the seductive comfort of online shopping and home delivery. I hope you will do the same. Business people don't need your sympathy, you should only buy from good companies that offer a good service and competitive prices. However, keep in mind that great companies exist that might not necessary have the modern flash websites and one-click purchasing options, they might have a till and, god forbid, shelves and items. The development of mobile technologies may break the shackles of the consumer to the home computer allowing even the most hardened Internet addict to leave their home and explore the many businesses that are worthy of your consumer support and at least a cursory glance into their shop.

They will be pleased to see you.

Malcolm Clarke

The Cost of Victory

Has Israel accomplished its goals and objectives? The last real victory was the 1967 War and unless Israel's military echelons instill that victory "cost something" there will be continued bombing from Gaza. Israel must destroy every element of Hamas and this includes those who support them. When Israel listens to public opinions, policies of the US and Europe and makes decisions based on those opinions then Israel will surely fail. The axiom "What will the international community say" strikes a chord. Israel must ruthlessly destroy the enemy stronghold expel the population and then annex it. A plan of removing the Palestinians from Gaza should be implemented quickly.

In a recent survey conducted by an Israeli firm on August 1, 3,450 people were surveyed and the results were astonishing. A whopping 97.2 percent wants the government of Israel to completely destroy Hamas. This staggering number shows that there is no room for neutralizing Hamas by just destroying tunnels. The survey crossed all sections of Israeli population from the left to the center and the right. This clarion call of destroying Hamas proves again that Israel is united in ending a terrorist organization in their mist. Since this is the desire of Israeli citizens every effort should be made to implement the wishes of her citizens. Anything less than the complete removal of Hamas will embolden more attacks against its citizens.

What would it take for Israel to dismantle Hamas completely? It takes a willingness to lose soldiers and sacrifice their lives for the good of the nation. Here lies the problem. Israel's reluctance to lose soldiers in order to halt the bombing is the "real issue". The second issue is what to do with a hostile population? What is Israel left with? The complete destruction of its military apparatus and its terrorist network is the key to victory and expulsion of the entire population. If Israel expels the population they would not have to worry about administering the 1.8 million hostile pro Hamas inhabitants.

If this sounds drastic it is not. There is precedent it expelling populations. In 1970 Jordan expelled 200,000 Palestinians. In 1994-95 Libya expelled thousands of Palestinians and demolished their homes. In Kuwait 400,000 Palestinians were expelled during the Iraq war. The demilitarization of Gaza is not the answer because it still allows the population to remain in Gaza. The government of Israel must act quickly the citizens of Israel have spoken they don't want rockets and missiles looming over their communities. With the influx of Jews coming from France, Great Britain and other parts of the world, these new arrivals can settle in Gaza and make it a flourishing economic oasis.

Spinning Yarns About Genetically Modified Crops

A compelling narrative often makes a good engine to pull public policy. Unfortunately, this means we are sometimes unwilling to let facts get in the way of the story we want to tell.

Consider, for example, the science and pseudo-science behind the ginned-up opposition to genetically modified crops ("organisms" in the parlance of critics who want to skip past the detail that crops are useful for feeding people), or GMOs.

Out in the real world, genetically engineered crops are helping to boost yields, reduce pesticide spraying and its associated runoff, improve product quality and conserve water and soil. Farmers, agronomists and biologists know this. But their voices are often drowned out by critics whose main objections appear to be economic and political (some people just don't like it when other people make money), but who wrap their agenda in claims of health problems, genetic contamination and "superweeds" whose actual existence is about as well documented as Sasquatch.

But don't take my word for it. Lest you dismiss me as some sort of profit-loving, coldly logical Republican CPA (charges to which I would mostly plead guilty), let's look at a recent story in the eco-sensitive columns of The New York Times. A story, as it happens, that is about the investigative activities of a councilman in the Democratic island paradise of Hawaii. (1)

The Times focused on Greggor Ilagan, a member of the County Council on Hawaii Island (known as the Big Island). When the Council considered a measure to ban most GMOs from the island last year, Ilagan set out to try and verify or debunk the various claims the measure's supporters used to argue for such a ban. To his initial surprise, the councilman found that most reputable scientists agree that genetically engineered crops are no riskier than others. The American Medical Association has stated that "there is currently no evidence that there are material differences or safety concerns in available bioengineered foods." (2) A group of prominent scientists wrote an editorial for Science Magazine last fall standing up for the benefits of GMOs.

Yet the accepted wisdom on GMOs among many of its opponents is that such crops are big agriculture's attempt to maximize profits at the expense of public safety. When Ilagan and others trying to get at the truth of GMO research have pushed such claims, they have found that the evidence is disputed, when it exists at all. Though certain future GMOs, just like future non-engineered crop breeds, might be dangerous, the evidence so far that genetic engineering is itself a dangerous process is vanishingly slim.

Jon Suzuki, a molecular biologist at the national agriculture research center in Hawaii, told Ilagan that genetically engineered food had so far proved safe. "With scientists, we never say anything is 100 percent certain one way or another," he said, according to The Times. "We weight conclusions on accumulated knowledge or evidence - but often this is not satisfactory for some." (1)

Nuance and uncertainty are hard sells. It is easier to demonize the process than to discuss the actual results of decades of GMO use. Moreover, objections to GMOs are a true "First World problem." Wealthy people can afford to pay double for organically grown food and whatever is left over after yields are reduced by a variety of diseases or pests. Yet for many in the developing world, crops modified to grow in less than ideal circumstances or to resist blight can mean the difference between nourishment and hunger.

There are 7 billion people on the planet, all of whom need to be fed. We have finite supplies of fertile land and usable water, and these resources must be employed efficiently if we want to succeed at feeding our planet's population. Such efficiency is what GMOs are all about. It is what selective breeding has been about it for centuries, too. Genetic engineering is not totally new, but rather a new advance in an existing process.

The consequences of rejecting this progress are easy to imagine, and in some cases may have already arrived. Citrus crops, especially oranges, are threatened by a greening blight spreading among producers via insects. If unchecked, such fruit may revert to the luxury it was in medieval Europe. Agricultural threats spread at the speed of jet planes, and this one is no exception. Citrus greening disease now threatens the $9 billion Florida citrus industry, and has shown up in Brazil, an even bigger producing region. California is at risk as well.

Even if a team of scientists announced tomorrow that they had engineered a blight-resistant orange, the demand would far outpace the potential supply. Still, introducing a resistant strain could preserve a larger, heartier population than would be possible without it - much as Hawaiian papaya farmers said an engineered version of the fruit saved their crops. It would be a travesty to ban or reject outright new citrus breeds that could resist this threat.

Invasive species are a fact of modern life. They travel with us wherever we go. Crops and other native species have had no chance to develop resistances against them at a natural pace. GMOs are a way to fight back against an existing problem, and to use our resources efficiently. Banning GMOs will not leave us in a natural state. It will simply leave us in a contaminated state, complete with crop failures and dangerously unbalanced ecosystems. I only wish we had genetically engineered chestnuts and American elms in time to resist the blights that virtually wiped out these beautiful trees during the past century.

On the surface, it seems odd that so many people who accuse climate-change skeptics of being anti-science have jumped on the anti-GMO bandwagon, while many of those who fall into the climate-skeptical camp (and I consider myself a skeptic of conjectural computer modeling and breathless climate hype) tend to be more accepting of genetically altered crops. Psychologists might say we are all just exhibiting confirmation bias, in which we accept only the facts and arguments that support our pre-existing conclusions. Let's grant that the psychologists could be right.

But it could also be the case that the climate skeptics want hard evidence for their views. It's difficult to point to specific weather and say it was caused by man-made climate influence. But we can point to scientifically modified crops that grown for decades all over the world without ill effects, yet remain the targets of bans like the one that passed in Hawaii, despite councilman Ilagan's efforts.
We all love a good story. It seems we hate to let facts ruin one for us.

1) The New York Times, "A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops"
2) Los Angeles Times, "GMO foods don't need special label, American Medical Assn. says"