By Rosemary Goring
Downloading boarding passes recently for a flight, I found myself in a quandary. When booking our tickets we had paid for a couple of suitcases to go into the hold. Now, however, there was no way to check in without paying for additional bags. Aborting the exercise and starting from scratch, in case I had overlooked an obvious step, made no difference. In the end, the options were to abandon the holiday, or pay extra. Which, of course, is what I did. As a result, instead of reserving enough space for a short jaunt, we had the capacity, if we so wished, to pack for a round-the-world trip.
When, I wondered, did it become impossible to navigate an airline website without being obliged to take out your wallet at every turn? When, indeed, did going away become fraught with hidden pitfalls before even setting out? These days, the sense of irritation such a supposedly easy process creates has become as familiar a part of the holiday experience as OD'ing on sunscreen.
Nor is it just when dealing with airlines that such problems are rife. Almost every aspect of our lives is now controlled and driven by online technology rather than people. Where once there were experts to guide and advise us, today there is a cheerless screen, and an escalating sense of frustration or panic. Probably it's a generational thing, but I can't help wondering if the digital age is an improvement on how things used to be done. I don't for a second deny the importance and value of the technology which is now an integral part of our existence. I do question, however, how faceless and quixotic it has become. Whether it's banking - there are more lottery winners than folk within easy reach of a branch - or buying a train ticket, we are obliged to navigate a digitalised realm in which some of us feel, at best, uneasy. Transferring large sums of money online is like believing in the afterlife: off you send it, more in hope than certainty that it will reach its destination and not simply vanish, leaving no trace beyond a Munch-like scream.
I remember the day the bank manager in Dunbar called me in to approve my first mortgage, taking time to chat and ask after my parents. What at the time felt like a scary commitment was eased by knowing there was a familiar figure to turn to should anything go awry. Now, online brokers will arrange a mortgage with a web-based company nobody's ever heard of. There's not much comfort in that.
What remains puzzling is the speed at which so-called progress has moved. By my estimation, at least a quarter of society is not entirely comfortable using a QR code for their Glasgow to London train ticket, or their boarding pass to Las Vegas. What if your phone is filched from your pocket, just before departure? What if the battery dies? A paper ticket is much more dependable, leaving you to worry about bigger things, such as whether you locked the back door.
There are hazards even for simple journeys. The train from where I live goes through long stretches of wifi-free territory, the digital equivalent of the Milky Way. ScotRail staff must dread these dead zones, where everything goes on hold. In parts of Europe, where high-speed trains spend half their time in tunnels, it is a hundred times worse.
The problem with so much basic administration going digital is not merely the need to learn new ways of doing things, and having the devices this requires. It goes far deeper than that. The sense of isolation and inadequacy it generates in those of us trying to manoeuvre our way through what feels like a minefield is corrosive. There's an unsettling feeling that people are being airbrushed from sight, leaving each of us to fend for ourselves.
Once - and it's not all that long ago - every aspect of running our lives was connected to a physical location, whether that was a council office, travel agent or box office. Now, much of what we do feels ethereal, invisible, beyond our ken. Worse still, beyond our control.
Of course the online world has improved or speeded up how certain things work - online shopping is a boon, as is booking appointments without waiting to get through by phone, or even being able to talk to a GP without going to the medical centre. But do such benefits outweigh the disadvantages? Are the aggravations and inefficiencies worth it? We no longer expect customer service, or a helping hand, or a bit of banter at the reception desk to ease anxiety or confusion.
Far from making our lives simpler - which is surely the intention? - it makes them more complicated and inefficient. Nor is there anywhere you can contact to ask for advice or complain. Visibility and accountability are virtues that disappeared along with the analogue age.