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The digital age hasn’t gone far enough

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A tax refund from Uncle Sam. Obliged, sir. See you at Cycene. 

But the cheque doesn’t sweeten all that much the annual ordeal of filling out the return. Nor is the process a lot shorter or less jargon-rich with His Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. How hasn’t it been reduced, in all rich countries, to a five-minute online portal or even an automated pay-as-you-earn thing in banking apps? Other than not having to mail it, is a tax return intrinsically different than it was in 1980? How to explain the ongoing need for accountants in cases as simple as mine?

The backwardness of the public sector, perhaps. But then the last time I checked into a hotel, I lost eight minutes in the queue, and a few more at the desk. How has this friction not been digitised out of existence? To enter a basement bar last month, I had to hand over a tenner, which meant a ten-minute round trip to an ATM. How hasn’t some Napoleonic rationaliser of things, if not abolished cash, then required more commercial premises to dispense it?

Aeroplane WiFi. Signing a PDF document. The password phase of an online retail order. Having to purchase the same film more than once across platforms and territories. Emirates Stadium network reception. The scope for kvetching has no upper bound.

Something has got lost in the moral panic about artificial intelligence. The startling thing about the digital age is not its remorseless onward march, but its unevenness: how little it has touched, not just how much. As smooth as life has become, it should be smoother. I am not invoking Peter Thiel’s stagnation thesis here. He is right that our species is innovating more with “bits” than with “atoms”. But there are good Newtonian reasons for that. A passenger flight is harder to speed up than a video download.

No, the real story is the patchiness of progress even in the field of bits. Deep into the biometric era, the average person, to enter their home, the most expensive purchase of their life, shoves a piece of jagged brass into a hole and twists it.

Or perhaps the story is me, over here on the demand side, not the supply side. It took until middle age to learn something important. The fewer stresses there are in one’s life, the more sensitive one becomes to those that do exist. This we might call the Bachelor’s Dilemma. A nuisance that another man would brush off — because, next to having to drive his child around, it is trivial — I can’t. The domesticated bourgeois, whatever else he lacks, develops a set of calluses to the routine inconveniences of life. To him, someone dawdling at airport security is someone dawdling at airport security. To me, it is the central event in the world at that moment. Because he overdid the violence a tad, Bret Easton Ellis doesn’t get due praise for capturing this cast of mind — this need for speed — through the character of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.

At the same time, narcissism can’t explain it all. Amid the AI furore, there must be others out there whose principal grievance with the digital age is that it hasn’t gone further. Two generations into the internet, micropayments are still a flop. Automated help chat is no better than it was in 2018. I’ll read another article about killer androids when someone accounts for the persistence of these little frictions.

On their TVs, UK-based football fans often read something as predictable and dismal as an instruction to file a tax return. “It looks like you do not have internet connection right now.” Except you almost always do. It is a minor Sky bug that costs, what, a few minutes each time? It adds up, you know. And being made to wait at all seems profane now. Sometimes, in the cold hours of night, when our darkest thoughts occur, I start to doubt if the universe was conceived with me at its centre.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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