Joan Bakewell: The silent victims of the technology revolution

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The Independent Online

I do well by the railways of this country. I travel off peak, have a senior railcard and have the kind of life that allows me to book in advance. I have sometimes had such cheap ticket deals that I fully expected to be arrested by the ticket inspector for trying to cheat the system. No serious complaints there, then. But minor criticism, yes.

The range of ticketing deals on offer is now so wide that even I, happy traveller that I am, always suspect I might not be getting the best. There's often a disparity between what is quoted online and what is charged at the station ticket booth. On occasion I meet up with other travellers and find that they have paid less and feel smug, while I, having paid more, feel furious.

Ruth Kelly promised to get it sorted, and next month the new system begins, a straightforward choice of three: advance, off-peak and any time. There will still be all the variants that go with special discounts, of course, but at last you can begin to comprehend the logic.

It isn't always so. As technology gets more complicated, there are more chances of being bamboozled by plausible salesmen. The whole world of mobile phone contracts is a case in point, and I am its victim.

I lost my mobile phone, for which I seemed to be paying well over the sweet-talking deal I had signed up for. So I wasn't sad to see it go, to ditch the whole enterprise and start again.

In I went to one of those shops displaying racks of phones, and in no time at all I was having my path smoothed by a kindly young man who explained that "this is exactly what you need". "But I thought of pay-as-you-go," I offered weakly, as I rarely use the phone and don't want people calling me all day long. Surely that would be cheaper. "Oh, no this is much cheaper!"

I insisted that he spell out the cost as it would appear on my monthly bill. I was satisfied. All it needed, he added blithely, was for me to have the number transferred from my old service provider. I'd been with them some while, so there couldn't, could there, be much to pay? How wrong I was: I am now stuck with a bill just short of £300, before I can transfer my number. It seems I signed up for an 18 not 12-month deal and didn't read the small print.

Reading small print gets harder as you get older: not just the eyes, but the wits can't always grasp it. Technology victimises the old. And technology is going to get more complicated with the range of options multiplying and an infinite number of services being offered by everyone from supermarkets to libraries, from internet websites through a maze of BlackBerries and yet to be invented gadgetry.

There is a story going round in the West Country of an old man who was persuaded by developers to sell his property under equity release. He got a derisory lump sum down plus an attractive monthly payment for as long as he lived. He was familiar with his usual transactions going through a long-standing account but under this equity release deal that wouldn't do: it had to be online banking. The old man was confused and perhaps not clear about what was involved.

It was rumoured he was suffering from cancer. He certainly didn't take the advice he needed. In the event he died within a matter of months, his estate decimated and the developers rubbing their hands. How often must that happen across the country!

In times past it was simply not done to reveal your financial situation and worries to the outside world. Think of Jane Austen's families, dreading poverty but keeping up appearances. The tradition survives in the reluctance of older people to divulge what they feel are intimate matters of income and expenditure. Struggling to cope on their own, they fall easy prey to unscrupulous rogues. But technology only makes matters worse: and they do need to be helped.

Help the Aged have the right idea. They are calling for a "financial abuse taskforce" as a way of providing professional help to stop old people being cheated. They reckon financial abuse – and they've checked out numerous reports – is second only to physical abuse in the dangers facing the old.

The other option as you get older is to ignore the latest fad and opt for the moment in the technological evolution where you felt most comfortable. Plenty of writers still write longhand. I know a number of my generation who no longer drive, who don't have a mobile, who never learnt to handle emails and who appear to live lives of serene contentment. I'm sometimes inclined to envy them.

joan.bakewell@virgin.net

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