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Trapped in self-service hell

Trapped in self-service hell

Adrian Wooldridge grapples with bar-code scanners

Adrian Wooldridge grapples with bar-code scanners

Adrian Wooldridge | June/July 2018

In “The Divine Comedy” Dante finds a perfect guide for his visit to the Underworld: the ghost of the poet Virgil. The very model of an upright Roman, Virgil patiently solves Dante’s travel problems. He removes the various obstacles in his path, including persuading the ferryman to take him over the River Styx, and shows him the way out: climb up Lucifer’s leg and then go straight ahead back to purgatory.

These days it’s often impossible to get a human in any form, ghostly or otherwise, to guide you through the hell that is modern travel. You book your trip using a price-comparison app on your smartphone. You print your boarding pass at home. At the airport you scan your boarding pass and passport at a machine; if you’re unlucky you even have to weigh and tag your own luggage. Once you’ve crossed the River Styx into departures further self-service machines abound: checkout counters at newsagents; vending machines selling everything from headphones to ice-cream.

The problem comes when something goes wrong. You make a minor typo on your booking app and find yourself headed for Auckland rather than Oakland. You run out of ink at home and are confronted with a £100 surcharge for not printing your own boarding pass. The passport-scanning machine refuses to read your ID. The weighing machine confuses pounds with tonnes.

Then you are confronted with the biggest problem of modern travel: finding a human being to solve the problem created by the machines meant to replace them. This is impossible when it comes to an app: the first rule of internet-based companies is never to provide a telephone number. It is still just about achievable to speak to someone in an airport, but only by joining a long queue of other fuming passengers, all waiting to talk to a single harried “customer-service agent” who must rectify the machines’ proliferating errors.

Even the hotel industry has got in on the act. Omena Hotels, a Scandinavian hotel chain, sends its customers pin codes with which to open their doors. Soon, a wave of the Apple Watch on your wrist will be all it takes. Even when they work, there’s something infinitely depressing about arriving in a new place to be greeted only by a bar-code scanner. When they don’t work, you’re left with nowhere to sleep.

Self-service supposedly represents the march of progress. A more prosperous society requires improving productivity: the best way is to substitute machine labour for the human sort. Are grumblers like me the modern-day equivalents of Luddites raging about the spinning jenny?

The flaw with this argument is that productivity growth is nothing more than a memory: indeed, the arrival of all these self-service machines coincides almost perfectly with what Larry Summers, a Harvard economist, has called “secular stagnation”. Explaining why Western economies seem to be stuck in low gear is the great task before modern economists. But here is my two-penny-worth, based on my many wasted hours grappling with scanners.

The self-service revolution is reversing the division of labour. You find yourself doing all sorts of jobs that you’re untrained for – acting as a travel agent booking a trip, an airport porter weighing and labelling bags or a shop-attendant checking out a basket of goods. Meanwhile a handful of companies suck up abnormal profits by turning their customers into unpaid labourers. The real sweatshop workers in the post-industrial economy are you and me.

In previous eras workers who were rendered surplus to requirements by technological advances were redeployed to more productive activities. Today they are being deployed to less productive ones such as public relations and consulting.

One of the many things that makes Virgil such a perfect guide for Dante is that he doesn’t just content himself with showing him the obvious sinners: gluttons, sex addicts and thieves. He also spends time showing him people who’ve abused the human capacity for reason for loathsome ends – oracles and sophists who’ve promised to deliver freedom but have created new forms of slavery instead. The only thing that reconciles me to my life of wrestling with self-service machines is the certain knowledge that there is a corner of hell reserved for the people who designed them.